The only constant through twenty years of boom and bust? Texas’s self-help gurus, who knew us better than we knew ourselves.

Just over twenty years ago, Texans went into training. Following the dictums of a former Air Force officer, they took to the streets with the passion of zealots, intent on changing their world. The military man was Dr. Kenneth Cooper, and his revolutionary concept was aerobics, a new exercise method that would become the perfect metaphor for a state bursting out of its colonial chains. The idea was to get enough oxygen into the body—through rigorous, continuous movement—to make it perform at peak capacity. Cooper’s idea, encapsulated in his best-selling Aerobics, was simple: The harder you worked, the greater the benefits. Or, as any Texan could appreciate, the more energy you produced, the happier and healthier you would be.
It may be difficult to remember a Texas before our city streets were crowded at dawn and dusk with men and women pushing themselves ever onward. That was back in the days when there were hobbies instead of lifestyles, when a status car was a Cadillac instead of a Ford Explorer, when a savings and loan seemed like a prudent place to put your money. Nineteen seventy-three was the year of the first hefty OPEC price increase, and as the price of oil began its steady climb, running—farther, faster—seemed the appropriate response: We were Texans, moving toward a future that was bolder and brighter than any we could imagine. When we got there, we wanted to be ready.
That was when we were newly infatuated with the Texas myth, with which Cooper’s promise coordinated so nicely: You could be anything you wanted to be, if only you were willing to work for it. That is the belief—as much as the precipitous rise and perilous fall of oil prices—that has shaped us for the past twenty years. And just as we were dedicated to harnessing the energy in the ground, Texans were equally passionate about harnessing the energy in their souls. In fact, each distinct period of the past two decades—the pre-boom, boom, bust, and post-bust years—has been dominated by a self-help guru. Kenneth Cooper was just the first; he was followed by three other Texans—Zig Ziglar, John Bradshaw, and Marianne Williamson—each of whom quickly and shrewdly grasped the state’s internal energy needs.
If anyone had told Texans two decades ago that in 1993 they would have a woman governor who was a graduate of a twelve-step program they would have thought (a) that she had assumed the role upon the death of her husband and (b) that she had mastered a new routine on the dance floor. The notion was beyond comprehension. In 1973 Texans’ role model was the cowboy—independent, self-reliant, stoic, hardworking, and brave—of which Cooper was an updated version. His military background made for his no-nonsense approach to good health and, in turn, mental well-being; aerobics could be done in solitude, and it had a sound technological base. In Aerobics, Cooper wrote that he used “the most modern and sophisticated testing equipment in the field of exercise physiology, including some developed by space-age technology.” Even more importantly, it was good for business. Aerobics, Cooper asserted, would provide “the ability to do prolonged work without undue fatigue”—just what a Texas that was beginning to flex its muscles needed.
Finally, aerobics was not psychological. You didn’t have to look inside for self-improvement, you merely had to test yourself against Cooper’s myriad charts and graphs. It was his goal to help everyone get in shape, even the two-pack-a-day smokers, drinkers, and “the nervous types, the insomniacs, whose jobs were chewing holes in them.” Cooper declared, “You control your health by being strong and disciplined.” The only people who flunked Cooper’s regime were those who “lacked motivation”—a quality no self-respecting Texan would ever own up to.
What were Texans so motivated toward? Escaping the past and fulfilling their mythic conceptions of themselves, of course. They wanted money—riches, really—but they also craved sophistication, to claim their place in a world that had for too long regarded the state as a colony to be exploited and ignored. “Our Texans know more about blue chips than cow chips,” this magazine declared in a promotional ad. “Yesteryear’s Texas of only cattle and oil is now just a yellowed page of history. And anyway, the new breed of Texan has a lot more going. More education. More affluence. More options.” Take another look, we were saying. The cities of the north and northeast were dying, while Texas was young, brash, and thriving. (“Freeze a Yankee” was an energy crisis country and western hit.) In 1978 Money‘s listing of the top ten boom cities included four in Texas: Beaumont, Austin, El Paso, and Houston, to which, we told ourselves over and over again, one thousand new families a week were moving. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a Texan. You didn’t have to be a wildcatter, an oil company CEO, or a corporate attorney to realize your dreams here. One shrewd San Angelo woman landed the exotic position of outfitting the flight attendants on the Shah of Iran’s plane. When the old-line Houston law firm of Baker and Botts won a $19 million judgment, it shared its $8 million fee with all 440 employees. Keep going, keep pushing, and something will pan out.
The rural past from which we had so recently escaped was now cause for celebration. Former governor John Connally could hold a black-tie auction of Western art and Santa Gertrudis bulls; La Grange’s infamous Chicken Ranch had been shut down—and its story was immortalized in a wildly successful Broadway show. Joanne King Herring, once a sultry dark-haired television reporter, married a natural gas king, dyed her hair blond, and turned herself into an international hostess. “No one has brought as many foreigners to Texas since Santa Anna stormed the Alamo,” declared one reporter. “A prime minister in November, a shah in July, and if this is April, it must be Grace.” Whatever we did, we always did our best: Herring even ripped out walls in her River Oaks mansion and installed stuffed tigers, zebra rugs, brass lamps, and Arabian pillows to impress one visiting potentate.
The reward for this hard work was, finally, the attention we craved. No one was laughing at Texans anymore. While the rest of the country struggled with hard times, Texas smarts were celebrated on a TV show called Dallas, where the hero was a villain who ran mental rings around everybody else. Texans knew how to get things moving: “I love élan,” Andy Warhol said of a Houston’s toniest singles bar. “I love the energy.”
The best-seller that corresponded to the second series of giant-sized OPEC oil price increases of the late seventies and early eighties and the onset of what is now referred to as the boom was written by supersalesman Zig Ziglar. A tall, bespectacled child of the Depression from Dallas, Ziglar had previously written a book called Confessions of a Happy Christian. (Like anyone who was anyone in Dallas, Ziglar had been evaluated by Kenneth Cooper—he described himself as being 23.9 percent lard.) See You at the Top applied Christian principles to getting ahead. Ziglar promised that his book would “give YOU a ‘Check Up’ from the ‘Neck Up’ to eliminate `Stinkin’ Thinkin’ and AVOID `Hardening of the Attitudes.'” Ziglar was an exemplary family man who dedicated his book to his wife, Sugar Baby (a perfect name for a woman in this Texas, where females were still subservient and ornamental); you could believe him when he declared, “Man was designed for accomplishment and engineered for success and endowed with the seeds of greatness.” His reward, according to Ziglar, would be “a richer life,” which many Texans took literally. And why not? By 1979 everybody seemed to be making it very big, or at least they were about to.
The boom was the payoff for Ziglar’s cowboy Christian values—hard work, faith in God, honesty in all deeds. The Texas myth had become reality. Like Cooper, Ziglar believed that success could be achieved by setting goals and sticking to them; his path to making it involved a steady climb up a six-step stairway (“The elevator to the top is, has been, and always will be ‘out of order’ “). On the way, Ziglar’s traveler would have to look inward—to examine his self-image, relationships with others, goals, attitude, work, and desires, in Ziglar’s words—but this rather un-Texanlike requirement came wrapped in a familiar package of optimism and self-confidence. Poor self-images, according to Ziglar, didn’t come from the inside, they came from “the fact that we live in a negative society and deal constantly with negative individuals.”
Ziglar’s prescription for success was simple. He urged readers to do simple things such as “join the smile and compliment club,” “do something for someone else,” “look you—and them—in the eye.” Failure was possible, but hard work provided the best insurance: “We can best guard against losing our shirts by keeping our sleeves rolled up,” Ziglar insisted. But during the boom, of course, nobody would lose his shirt. Build a boom on a solid foundation, we believed, and it will last forever.
For our victory, homage was paid to Texas in the smallest details. Of course, Uncle Tai would want to open a branch of his venerable Manhattan restaurant in Houston; naturally, the Saudis would demand three million bottles of Jimenez hot sauce. We had the secret to success. The symbol of those times was an $8,000 eighteen-karat gold Rolex Presidential, because time really was money in those days. Who wanted a Cadillac when you could buy a BMW that went from 0 to 60 in under ten seconds? Who gave a damn about the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit—we could dash in a day from Dallas to Houston to the Valley to El Paso on Southwest Airlines!
The object was to spend as fast as you could. Saving became, well, something negative, counterproductive. (Ziglar did not stress the value of prudence.) “If you’re sitting there with a twenty dollar bill in your pocket and you don’t spend it,” a topless-club deejay remarked within earshot of a Texas Monthly reporter, “you’re no better than somebody who is broke.” Just as people invested in high-rise condos (Texas had precious few until the late seventies), office parks with highway access, and sprawling suburban home developments, they bought $160 sterling silver spike-heel spurs or filled their homes with weekly floral arrangements at an annual cost of $5,000 (one woman even stocked her bidet for special occasions). Lamar Muse created an airline that, predating Federal Aviation Administration rules, was designed solely for the comfort of nonsmokers. Upwardly mobile apartment magnate Harold Farb founded Ultra, a Texas society glossy that went free to readers who earned more than $100,000 a year. Banks were so confident that they decorated their billboards with art instead of advertisements for themselves. You couldn’t go wrong, see—you couldn’t lose.
When ponytailed French couturier Karl Lagerfeld visited Gilley’s (at that moment a major Texas shrine, thanks to the blockbuster status of Urban Cowboy), he refused a ride on the mechanical bull, but he did have a pronouncement. Dallas and Houston, he told a journalist, are the places where the future is going to happen. He was right, of course, but not in the way we all imagined.
John Bradshaw had been a spectacular failure, which made him a perfect savior of the bust. He had blown more careers than most Texans had attempted—the glittery-eyed, garrulous, enormously energetic Bradshaw was, among other things, a lapsed seminarian. Even better, he was an alcoholic who put his family through hell. Even better than that, he didn’t know he was a walking disaster until it was almost too late. As he divulged in his best-selling Bradshaw On: The Family, “I thought that my addiction to excitement, my people pleasing and approval seeking … my frantic compulsive lifestyle … my incessant good guy act and my intense need to control were just personality quirks.” In other words, boom behavior had no place in the bust. When the bottom fell out of world oil prices, our self-image went into a corresponding free-fall: We had blown it, and now we were alarmed and ashamed.
It turned out Texas hadn’t really built this boom after all; we had just become enmeshed in what Bradshaw might call a co-dependent relationship with OPEC. We had tied our identity to empty externals, such as “power, worldly fame, money, possessions, chemical highs, food, sex, excitement, entertainment, relationships, children, work—even exercise.” In an effort to compensate for our lowly past, when we were poor and ignorant and a colony of other world powers, we had fallen victim to heedless greed and self-aggrandizement. Now, dazed and broke, we saw our economy collapsing around us. To get out of this mess, we would have to look inside and ask ourselves some tough questions. Once upon a time, a man like Bradshaw would have been called a whiner—now he became a self-styled guru for the “recovery” movement. Never had Texans encountered a metaphor with so much resonance.
Bradshaw appeared to be the inverse of Cooper. He saw the world through a prism of negative buzzwords, such as “co-dependence,” “family dysfunction,” and “addiction.” But he too had his own stair-step program of self-renewal—it just happened to lead downward, or at least deep inside. Texas would have to peel off its layers of affectation—the braggadocio, the expansionism, the need for approval of outsiders. Hard work would be required, but not the kind you do at the office (a.k.a. workaholism). J. R. Ewing, whose show was now struggling in the ratings, was not a good role model for the coming era of diminished expectations. “The goal is to get in touch with the energy we are experiencing,” Bradshaw said of our dark side, “and see it as one of many energy patterns that must be integrated in order to affect conscious choice leading to integrated action.” Psychologically, Texans would have to diversify.
Denial set in. Like Bradshaw’s alcohol, drug, sex, and love addicts, Texans liked to talk about “slight downturns.” They told each other that “things would come back,” “things” being, of course, the life we had so quickly become accustomed to during the boom. Texans also endured a severe bout of magical thinking, hoping that everything from Sea World to the supercollider, from high tech to the Pope’s visit, would turn things around. Bradshaw’s second best-seller debuted in 1988; it was called, fittingly, Healing the Shame That Binds You.
Our famous flashiness seemed of little use. In a paroxysm of post-bust seriousness, Texans, by the late eighties, had accepted seat-belt laws and anti-smoking ordinances and razed the gloriously garish Shamrock Hotel for a sensible medical center expansion. We taught ourselves that there was no shame in filing for bankruptcy—after all, John Connally, Robert Sakowitz, Denton Cooley, and Melvin Powers, who trumpeted his failure in a full page ad in the Houston Chronicle, were too. Some of the Christmas decorations in Highland Park had to be subsidized by corporations, and the Y. O. Ranch turned into a tourist attraction, replacing cattle with exotic animals.
Of course, the case could be made that Texans’ energy, like their economy, had not been extinguished but had simply been redirected. Now that an era of inconspicuous consumption had begun, people once famous for their flamboyance now worked overtime at not showing off. Oscar Wyatt gave a waiter a very public dressing down after he tried to serve the oil baron his regular—and very pricey—bottle of wine. “Son, don’t you know there’s a recession?” Wyatt demanded. A new strain of Texas thriftiness quickly became a social virtue: “Better to get hay fever than to spend twenty-five dollars on a flower arrangement,” joked Liz Carpenter, of her centerpieces made of Texas grasses. We still built big houses, but we built them with resale in mind. “Everything was very traditional, very basic, very red brick,” one realtor told Texas Monthly. “Otherwise people are afraid it won’t sell.”
The 1990 governor’s race was a perfect triumph of touchy-feely Texas—where vulnerability was good and being weak was nothing to be ashamed of—over the strong, silent Texas of old. Ann Richards admitted her failings—divorce, alcoholism, workaholism—and still survived Jim Mattox’s bullying morality and Clayton Williams’s savvy evocation of Texas mythology. (He never appeared without his cowboy hat and boots, and in his most popular get-tough campaign commercial, he showed criminals bustin’ rocks.) The late eighties and early nineties were a bad time for Texas archetypes in general—the Dallas Cowboys disappointed, the Aggies were branded as rapists, the UT frats were tarred for serious political incorrectness, and Wanda Holloway went on trial for trying to hire a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter’s cheerleading rival (her guilty verdict was thrown out, and a new trial is pending). Plain-talking, quick-thinking Ross Perot, once viewed as the last cowboy in a white hat, was, psychologically at least, driven out of town after his paranoid, humiliating presidential bid.
The play now was in getting in couch with your feelings. Austin had become a national center of the men’s movement, in which men could return to their primitive—Indian, not cowboy—roots by sitting in tepees and furiously beating on drums. Oscar Wyatt wept redemptively after rescuing his employees from the clutches of Saddam Hussein. And John Bradshaw was blanketing the nation with his seminars—his minimum speaking fee is now $15,000—when he wasn’t appearing on Oprah. Off duty, he could be spied racing around Houston in a shiny Jaguar convertible, with his companion, a comely Neiman Marcus executive. Being a loser, it seemed, could work out fine. You just had to know the difference between falling hard and falling smart.
It may be too soon to designate Marianne Williamson, the author of the best-selling A Return to Love, as the Texas guru who best understands our post-bust state of mind. The pretty, fortyish former Houstonian now lives in California, but her philosophy of transforming fear into love speaks to a Texas no longer captivated by the highs and lows of economic and emotional cycles. Hard times have made Texans crave a sure thing. And we have been humbled: It is fortuitous that Texans can learn from Williamson that we no longer control our destiny, that we are part of—not less than, not more than—the larger world. Like all her disciples, we must relax, surrender to the will of God, and then realize that miracles will still come our way.
A Return to Love is not a step-by-step self-help book; it is a reader’s guide to a multivolume spiritual self-help series by another author called A Course in Miracles. Before reading these tomes, Williamson confides, she felt that all previous spiritual study “led me up a huge flight of stairs to a giant cathedral inside my mind, but once I reached the top of the stairs, the door to the church was locked.” To open the door, Williamson updates the work of her predecessors.
She uses Kenneth Cooper’s passion for perfecting the body as a metaphor for healing souls and saving the planet. “A healthy perception of our bodies is one in which we surrender them to the Holy Spirit and ask that they be used as instruments through which love is expressed into the world,” she says. Though Williamson adds a dose of Jungian philosophy and Eastern religion to Ziglar’s blending of Christian principles and material success, she remains on his team. “When we’re working solely for money, our motivation is getting rather than giving,” Williamson says. “The miraculous transformation here is a shift from a sales mentality to a service mentality.” Like Bradshaw, she has slain her own personal demons (“By my mid-twenties I was a mess”), and also like Bradshaw, Williamson is telegenic, unafraid to sell herself on TV. But while Bradshaw believes that personal liberation is achieved by conquering the darkness, Williamson believes it is found by accepting the light—a faith in our essential uniqueness that taps into the natural optimism of most Texans. (Bradshaw is coming around though; his new book is the resolutely hopeful Creating Love.)
In this new Texas, we are enthralled not with oil booms but with that even more miraculous game of chance, the lottery. Spiritualism and good works are newly chic; high society cultivates Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Grand plans appear to be divinely inspired: Henry Cisneros—that hardiest perennial of our homegrown miracle workers—abandoned public life to attend to his family but has now been rewarded for his sacrifice with a position in the Clinton administration. Like any true Texan, Williamson believes that practicing a devotional life is hard work; “It takes discipline and practice,” she says. But the payoff is, of course, the chance to harness our internal energy for the good of all. “Miracles,” Williamson says, “mean that at any moment we can begin again.” And lest anyone doubt her interpretation of the Texas myth, she puts it in words any self-respecting Texan can understand. “Seek ye first the kingdom of Heaven,” Williamson writes, “and the Maserati will get here when it’s supposed to.”