The wave of nostalgia began with The Passage of Power, the latest installment of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography; picked up speed with Bill Clinton’s show-stealing speech at the Democratic convention; and crescendoed with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar juggernaut Lincoln. Call it leadership nostalgia: in this age of gridlock, America has become wistful for the head-knocking, deal-making pragmatism that enabled these former presidents to drive us forward in the face of partisan rancor and their own personal flaws.
Our yearning for a strong hand at the helm has its roots in Barack Obama’s lead-from-behind—or from-behind-closed-doors—style. Republicans, however, have been equal partners in running up the leadership deficit: GOP standard-bearer and political invertebrate Mitt Romney ended up as a whining sore loser, while colorless Republican congressional honchos have had to kowtow to the tea party, a faction that prides itself on lacking centralized command.
Obama, who screened Lincoln in the White House, may actually have learned something from the film; his succinct, spirited second inaugural address had echoes of Lincoln’s, which was made to a similarly (if far more violently) divided nation. Of course, Obama’s opponents can reasonably hope that the president’s opening-day speech is the high-water mark of his new term. But regardless, that still leaves the Republicans—our “daddy party”—in serious need of someone to call Daddy.
You might assume that Texas, the nation’s most populous and prosperous Republican-ruled domain, would be the ideal place to find the GOP’s absent father. But you would search in vain: after embarrassing himself on the national stage, Governor-for-life Rick Perry has ineptly struggled with humiliating rumors that he’ll be challenged in next year’s primary by one of his closest political friends, Attorney General Greg Abbott. Our senior senator, John Cornyn, tasked by his party to win back the Senate this past November, ended up losing seats. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, longtime holder of arguably the most powerful public office in Texas, got steamrolled in his Senate bid by neophyte Ted Cruz. Yet Cruz, evidently regarded by the national media as Texas’s most promising Republican, comes across as the overeager understudy to Florida senator Marco Rubio, another son of Cuban immigrants with tea party cred.
Our current lacuna of homegrown leadership shouldn’t be surprising. The Texas team that set out to lead the free world twelve years ago—George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Alberto Gonzales, et al.—hardly returned to ticker-tape parades, and the guys running things in Texas today didn’t even make the Bush administration’s traveling squad. Of course, the Texas GOP can still comfortably win at home with third-string talent, a luxury afforded by gerrymandered districts, low Hispanic turnout, and the reluctance of the national Democratic party to pay to play in Texas. However, those short-term advantages won’t last forever in America’s second-largest majority-minority state. Because of our sheer size, diversity, and global economic interests, nobody should be running Texas who doesn’t have the political chops and breadth of intellect to lead the entire nation—and quite clearly we need a Lincolnesque role model to show us how it’s done. That doesn’t mean it should be Lincoln, whose memory remains anathema throughout the old Confederacy, or even LBJ, the Texas president who used his political magic to expand a welfare state that now faces its own sobering demographic realities.
There is, though, a former president—president of Texas, that is—whose example could steer twenty-first-century Texas in the right direction. Sam Houston’s early life was as picaresque as that of Disney’s King of the Wild Frontier, Davy Crockett: both ran away from home as rebellious Tennessee teenagers (in Houston’s case, to live among the Cherokee), served rowdily in Congress as political protégés of Andrew Jackson, drank heavily, and had multiple wives.
It’s when Crockett goes down swinging—as in The Alamo—that Houston (the hypothetical HBO miniseries) would start to resemble Lincoln. As commander in chief of the Texas rebels, Houston withstood furious charges of cowardice and steadily retreated to San Jacinto, eventually bushwhacking Santa Anna on turf of his choosing. With similar contrarian caution, as president of the Republic of Texas he resisted the militaristic hubris of his countrymen, putting the Texas Navy up for auction, trimming the balance sheets, and at last guiding the flat-broke republic into the safe harbor of statehood. Houston spent the remainder of his political career valiantly attempting to preserve the Union. As our first U.S. senator, he consistently voted against the expansion of slavery (though he did own slaves). And in 1861, two years after he was elected governor, he was extralegally sacked for refusing to take the Confederate loyalty oath. Prophetically, he warned his fellow Texans that the South was about to sacrifice its treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives in the disastrous Lost Cause.
Like Lincoln, Houston was both a visionary and a clear-eyed pragmatist who saw himself as a mediator in the conflict between North and South. He conceived of a Texas mighty enough to stand above the bitter sectional divisions; as Texans prepared to join the Confederacy, Houston lamented that we were surrendering our “independence” to a consortium of much smaller states entirely beholden to “king cotton” and the Southern plantocracy. A century and a half later, Texas’s urbanized economy and diverse population dwarf the rest of the old Confederacy. Yet our state’s leaders increasingly sound as though they’re reading off a script provided by Fox News and talk radio—a script tailored to a dwindling, overwhelmingly white audience concentrated in the rural Midwest and the die-hard heart of Dixie.
As it turns out, most of the prosperous Eastern Seaboard of the old Confederacy—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida—has already turned purple, and Obama’s reelection fight may someday be regarded as the final battle of the Civil War. The irony is that Texas, which elected Houston as a staunch Unionist in 1859 and might have avoided the war and the generations of grinding poverty that followed, now seems determined to be among the last states to escape that conflict’s bitter political legacy. In our virulently antigovernment and all too often narrow-minded ideology, we endlessly memorialize the injuries, both real and perceived, of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And we fail to remember nearly as well the leadership secrets of Sam Houston, the man who could have spared us all that pain.