Them’s Fightin’ Words!
From East Coast eggheads to English snobs and French peaceniks, the whole world's against Texas. They blame us for the president. They call us gun-toting, abstinence-promoting, capital-punishing cowboys. They think we're a bunch of hicks.
UNTIL AMERICA INVADED IRAQ, it was possible to go through life for long periods without falling victim to the Texas stereotype. Trips to New York could pass uneventfully, without anyone asking me why I didn’t have an accent. A New England foray could elapse without anyone insisting that I “couldn’t possibly be from Texas,” because I was familiar with a particular novel, furniture style, or menu entrée. I could get through a week in Europe without anyone asking whether I knew J.R. But as the war launched by a Texas-raised president engendered more and more criticism around the globe, I had to admit that this halcyon period had come to an end. This realization was brought home recently when I heard a particularly jaunty message on my answering machine. It was from a man I did not know, who had the broad, cultured vowels I associate with Long Island Lockjaw. Identifying himself as a Vietnam veteran working for John Kerry, he said he’d read an article I’d written in the New York Times about President Bush’s military record and was looking for more information. If I could help him with his research, he continued, he promised to help me “with any of the materials at the three great libraries of New York City.”
“You know,” he said, “sometimes you might need a particular book that you would want to be photocopied and FedExed to you down in Texas.” Then, as if he realized he might have offended, he added, “Although I know in Austin the library facilities are superlative.”
For just a few seconds, I thought I’d been sucked into some time-travel vortex and returned to that torturous year of my youth, 1968: the condescending phone call from the war protester in the East, a mention of the unpopular president from Texas, a mention of the unpopular war escalated by the unpopular president from Texas, and of course, the implicit accusation that I was guilty by association for living in the pitiable wasteland responsible for it all. But my caller wasn’t referencing LBJ, Vietnam, and postJFK assassination Texas; my calendar read 2004, the president was George W. Bush, the war was in Iraq, and Texas was the second most populous state in the union, with multiplexes, airports, DSL connections, and yes, libraries. “What are you talking about?” I wanted to scream at the answering machine. “Don’t you know we’re big-time now?” I realized I had instantly lapsed into the defensive reflex that is part of every Texan’s makeup. I realized something else too: that thanks to Bush and the Iraq meltdown, Texas bashing has returned as a global pastime. It’s not just America that the critics blame: It’s the state that first elected Bush to office and the values it supposedly embodies.
If you doubt me, consider a few of the clippings I’ve come across since Bush became president. According to the Moscow Times, for instance, “As the world knows, Texas is one of the most polluted places on earth. And which Texas town is the most polluted. Why that would be Midland—the hometown of George W. Bush.” Germany’s Die Zeit had this to say: “In other states, the excitement for the death penalty has cooled off significantly, after a series of wrongful convictions were turned up. In Texas, however, the fear of executing innocents is still smaller than the outrage over attorneys who hinder quick executions with legal tricks.” Even our history takes it on the chin. A review of the recent Disney movie on the Web site of one Mr. Cranky goes like this: “The Alamo is considered the central battle and primary rallying cry in the fight to make Texas an independent republic and, subsequently, a state of the U.S. Like I care. All Texas has ever given the rest of the country is a whole bunch of attitude and one-term presidents with a penchant for foreign wars. It’s a state where toxins are good business, Ken Lay is a civic hero, and it’s legal to stone your own children to death as long as you claim that God told you to do it. F— the Alamo, and f— Texas.”
Maybe if our president were wonky Houston mayor Bill White or prim Kay Bailey Hutchison, we wouldn’t be having this problem. But the leader of the free world is George W. Bush, known for phrases like “Bring ’em on,” “Mission accomplished,” and “America will never seek a permission slip.” Everyone knows that he never bothered to visit Europe until he was elected, that he hates to read anything much longer than a one-page synopsis, and that he prefers chopping wood in Crawford to just about any event requiring a proscenium. From the vantage point of the Eastern seaboard and beyond, he looks like the quintessential Texas cowboy, who rides to the rescue with both guns drawn—when no one asked him to. Four years after Al Gore tarred and feathered Texas to advance his presidential candidacy, we’re being drawn into another debate, this time about the fate not just of the country but of the planet—and we’re not the guys in the white hats. Last year Ted Kennedy went so far as to describe the Iraq war as a fraud “made up in Texas” to keep the Republicans in power.
Our identity, and our mythology, are on trial. For example: “Bush acts like the husband who got drunk, kicked the dog, fell off his bicycle and had an altercation with a biscuit [!] and the morning after agrees to everything his wife says, smiling broadly, trying to pretend everything is rosy. This may be okay for Western Texas. It is unacceptable for a President of the United States of America.” Though something in this Pravda missive may have been lost in translation, the implication is clear: “Western Texas,” “cowboy,” and “George Bush” are now interchangeable terms. Google the terms “George Bush” and “cowboy” and you get around 49,000 hits, many of which have a lot in common with a Web site that insists “Bush=cowboy on the loose.” You don’t have to cross an ocean to find agreement on that point either. USA Today founder Al Neuharth announced in May—under the headline “Should Cowboy Bush Ride Into the Sunset?”—that Bush’s “cowboy culture” has caused him to “ride fast and alone or with just a few buddies. Shoot first. Ask questions later.”
The scandalous torture of Iraqi prisoners? Well, that’s how we do things in Texas: “A prisoner screams as an attack dog mauls his leg,” begins a story in The New Republic, describing scenes from a news video. “In another, a prisoner with a broken ankle gets zapped in the buttocks with a stun gun because he’s not crawling along the floor quickly enough. These aren’t from the infamous video of Abu Ghraib prison. They were taken in 1996, at the Brazoria County Detention Center outside of Houston.”
These days, the only Texans popular with the global press and opinion makers seem to be those with down-home accents who criticize the state from within, like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and of course, Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chick who told the world that she was embarrassed to be a Texan after Bush took on Iraq. University of Texas film professor Don Howard made a small, witty film called Nuclear Family that featured the debatable wisdom of potbellied football coaches and desperately ambitious cheerleaders, only to have a Washington Post critic characterize it as “the most revealing portrait yet of the political culture currently in. . . Washington.”
It was enough to make me long for the days when Texas was chic, when the oil was flowing, New Yorkers preferred Luccheses to Manolos, “cowboys” referred to the football team, and people flocked from around the world to visit Southfork. Overnight, it seemed to me, the same qualities so universally loved in J. R. Ewing were now universally loathed in George W. Bush. I put in a call to someone who might be able to explain why.
Larry Hagman was on a cell phone near his home in Southern California when I reached him, just back from a trip to London and on his way to Los Angeles. The congeniality went right out of his voice when I brought up George Bush. “They hate him over there,” he said, referring to the Europeans. “The guy has made all the world hate America. He’s the ‘Hitler of the twenty-first century,’ and there’s no kidding around about it.”
“Can I quote you?” I asked Hagman, stunned by his intensity.
“Well,” he said, “that’s what they’re saying over there.”
J.R., however, is still cool. A new round of Dallas reruns premiered in France just as the U.S. took on Iraq, and Hagman recently spotted a T-shirt with the words “J.R. for President” on the front. On the back it read “Whoops, he already is.”
People are crazy about the guy, as long as he isn’t real.
THE CONDESCENSION, the facile criticism, the jokes, the self-serving, willful snobbery—they reopen old wounds that date back to another Texas, when we were rubes and everyone knew it and made fun of us for our ignorance and our cultural shortcomings. Somehow, it isn’t surprising that our response to this latest round of Texas bashing is the traditional one: defensiveness in all its myriad forms.
Proponents of the war and the president like to blame the critics. “Europe is to the left of America,” Bush supporter Jack Rains, a leading Houston Republican and an international businessman, told me. “They’re not going to agree with a conservative president. They’d prefer a socialist like John Kerry.” It is Rains’s view of history that Europeans “always rely on America to do the heavy lifting. You just have to go over there and look at the graveyards to see that.” (Maybe he was visiting only American graveyards.) He doesn’t worry about the criticism of Texas because his barometer of Texas’s well-being is the one that prominent Texans have always used to keep score. “Follow the money,” he said. “No one is rushing to invest in France.”
Those on the opposite end of the political spectrum tend to follow the precedent set years ago by Larry L. King and Liz Smith and become expatriates. The Texas shtick—the drawl, the friendliness, the cowboy boots for black-tie occasions—still plays well outside Texas, particularly when accompanied by vocal opposition to state-sponsored executions or the war in Iraq. “That’s why I left. I knew this would happen,” a friend who moved to Colorado after Bush’s election told me, a little smugly, I thought. “What part of being a Texan are you proud of?”
That kind of question usually prompts the good-offense-is-the-best-defense counterattack. In the old days Texans would bring up Neiman Marcus to justify our importance to the rest of the country. Today we try to boost our prestige by invoking the Nobel prize winners at Southwestern Medical School, high-tech billionaires like Michael Dell, stars like Beyoncé, or our skyscrapers designed by famous architects.
Or, we don’t defend Texas at all. This ruse is conveniently free of hypocrisy and keeps Ivins on the best-seller list. I recently met a Texan who is a visiting law professor in Düsseldorf, Germany. He handles the backlash by making it immediately clear that he didn’t support Bush and donated to his opponent. “Otherwise,” he said, “it will be another boring conversation.”
Finally, there are those who embrace Texas but disown the president. Houston gallery owner Hiram Butler took this approach when he attended his first meeting on a committee at his alma mater, Williams College, in Massachusetts. He was greeted with cowboy boots at his seat and one too many Bush jokes. “They looked at me as if I were somehow connected with those people. I said, ‘They aren’t from here. They were not born here. They are carpetbaggers of the worst ilk.'”
Anyone who’s resorted to any of these tactics knows that they seldom, if ever, provide much relief. Whether you become an apologist, a booster, or a self-hating Texan, people keep making fun of us. Worse, they’re right a lot of the time: We do execute the mentally retarded and the insane; we do spew filth into the urban air; we do deny health care to poor children and prefer tax cuts to improving public schools.
But criticism has a way of sticking to Texas in a way it doesn’t to California, for example, which gave the world Charles Manson, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and the O. J. Simpson trial and is still known as a golden land. The obscene concentration of wealth in Manhattan has essentially turned that place into the world’s largest walled community, but it’s still the Big Apple, where dreams come true. Texas, with a less decorous history and mythology, has always played a different role in American life. “Texas is a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life-sized but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life,” John Bainbridge wrote in The Super-Americans, the 1961 classic of Texas bashing. “They are not pleased by the image. Being unable to deny the likeness, they attempt to diminish it by making fun of it.” We cultivated a unique identity, and we’re still paying the price.
IN THE BEGINNING, few people knew who we were and those who did weren’t so eager to nurture the relationship. The Scotch-Irish immigrants who took over the state with their soaring birthrates in the nineteenth century were best characterized by the French historian Amaury de Riencourt: “Strong, inhumanly self reliant . . . [t]hey shunned objective contemplation and were determined to throw their fanatical energy into the struggle against Nature . . . they fought their own selves with gloomy energy, repressing instincts and emotions . . . remorsely brushing aside all men who stood in their path.” These men won independence from Mexico but lost the Civil War, suffered the humiliation of Reconstruction, and generally saw nothing mythic about their lot.
By the twenties, Texas was producing nearly 40 percent of the country’s oil, bringing real riches to the state for the first time. But there was something unsavory about the instant wealth it created that led non-Texans to look down on the place. Then, too, Texas was still linked in the minds of outsiders to the backward, slaveholding, agrarian South, another reason its good fortune seemed undeserved. As the late historian Walter Prescott Webb once wrote, “We in Texas have become a sort of whipping boy for the other regions . . . Texans may have done things that foster this attitude of not too delicate criticism and invective. But there is no doubt that a good part of the hostility stems from the fact that Texas is booming.” Texans began to wrestle with two contradictory notions. One was imposed from the outside: We were inferior because we were uneducated and chose to live in a place with an unbearable climate and a scrubby, hostile landscape. The other came from within: We were superior because we had triumphed over adversity and made ourselves rich. How could we make others see us as we saw ourselves?
The answer came from a New York ad man, who, speaking in Corsicana in 1923 to a regional meeting of the Advertising Clubs of America, exhorted Texans to start selling their “gloriously romantic history.” Dallas took the message to heart, and the result was the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936. The fair was promoted as a Western extravaganza. Chorus girls, dressed like cowgirls in chaps and ten-gallon hats, traveled the country to spread the word. So too did a Texas Ranger captain, packing two .45-caliber six-shooters as he galloped into hotel lobbies on his horse named Texas. With every public appearance, Texas’s link to the Old South faded and its alliance with a new region, the wild, unfenced, oil-rich Southwest, grew. By the time the fair actually opened, Texas had something it had never had before: a mythology. Texas history became a great adventure featuring the cowboy as a hero. The cowboy was us: strong, self-sufficient, solitary, of few words and many good deeds.
The rest of the world, looking at our new wealth and power, didn’t quite see it that way. Life magazine came to investigate in 1939 and saw the oilman as a rich country bumpkin who was prone to violence, bragging, and spending too much money in really dumb ways. Thirteen years passed between that story and the publication of Edna Ferber’s Giant, but not much changed in the way others saw us. The Houston Post called the best-selling novel “surgically vicious on Texas”; it depicted us as free-spending, boorish, and bigoted—none of the things Americans, sanctified by victory in World War II, wanted to be. No one cared that Ferber said the book was a metaphor for America. The 1956 movie version of Giant, directed by George Stevens, became a film classic while it reinforced the clichés. Stevens softened Ferber’s social criticism and created instead a morality tale about the battle between old-fashioned, honorable cattle ranchers and vulgar, trashy, insatiable oilmen. The cattleman, Rock Hudson, was supposed to be the good guy, but James Dean, playing wildcatter Jett Rink in cowboy hat and boots, merged the hired hand with the oilman and stole the movie. Rink was honorable, solitary, prone to use his fists, inarticulate about his many contradictory longings—not so different from his Scotch-Irish ancestors, except that he was very rich, which made him at once more appealing and more threatening, because he was answerable to no one.
And so we became not a metaphor for America but a caricature. “It is currently fashionable among the more advanced spirits in this country to look upon Texas with an air of amused condescension,” asserted Bainbridge in the first sentence of The Super-Americans, five years later. Bainbridge proceeded to do just that for another four hundred pages or so, portraying Texans as a lively, rich tribe of Jett Rinks who lived, inexplicably, in a place that was “the least scenically rewarding state in the nation with the possible exception of North Dakota or Nebraska,” with weather that was “changeable, disagreeable, and bizarre.” The book was greeted with the usual howls of denial in Texas—We aren’t really like that! reviewers around the state protested—while reinforcing the stereotype elsewhere.
Then President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Our violent nature was validated once more—”Deep in the Hate of Texas” was the way one out-of-state editorial framed the tragedy. That the successor to the sunny, handsome, Harvard-educated president—Now there was an American!—was a jug-eared rube from the same state where JFK had been killed didn’t help. Lyndon Johnson had been a brilliant Senate leader before becoming vice president, but when he succeeded Kennedy, the rest of the country inevitably and unfavorably compared him and his wife, Lady Bird, with their glamorous, clannish predecessors. (During the race for the nomination in 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy had referred to her husband’s then-competitor as Senator Cornpone and Lady Bird as Mrs. Porkchop.) President Johnson pushed for his Great Society, but he became ever more distracted by our failing effort in Vietnam. To his detractors, he was Jett Rink in the Oval Office, mumbling about “muh fella ‘muricans,” serving barbecue to foreign dignitaries, casually displaying the gall bladder scar transecting his bloated belly, and cruelly sending American sons to their death in a faraway land. Hatred of LBJ was so intense by 1966 that an underground drama written by a 26-year-old antiwar activist became a literary sensation, reviewed by noted critic Dwight Macdonald in The New York Review of Books as “the funniest, toughest minded, and most ingenious political satire” he’d read in years. MacBird was a parody of Macbeth that centered on the Kennedy-Johnson rivalry, with LBJ in the title role and Edward and Robert Kennedy as brothers Bobby and Ted Ken O’Dunc. In one scene, the MacBirds invite their enemies to a cookout at the royal ranch. The brothers land in a helicopter, and Bobby, standing in for Macduff, spies the oil well in the garden. Teddy points out “moo-moos on the lawn.”
“I understand they roast the oxen whole,” someone else chimes in.
Johnson left office in 1969, and Texas’s reputation didn’t recover until oil prices started climbing in the mid-seventies. Then, for what may have been the first time in history, we were indisputably the good guys. The rest of the country needed us to get the oil out of the ground and into their gas tanks. And so we became the superstate, as Newsweek claimed in a 1977 cover story: “After decades of insecure braggadocio, tall tales, and youthful excesses, that state of the Union and state of mind called Texas . . . has begun to outdistance and bedazzle former detractors,” the story crowed. We were rich and sophisticated, admired for our Philip Johnson skyscrapers and our cutting-edge shopping malls. The northeast—Detroit, Cleveland, maybe even New York—was played out; the action in the U.S. was in the Sunbelt, and Houston was its capital. The only people carping were a few Texas intellectuals. Larry McMurtry, living in pre-Pulitzer exile in Washington, D.C., hated the soullessness of the oil boom and mourned the passing of the cowboy. An icon had devolved into John Travolta’s urban nomad, riding a mechanical bull at Gilley’s.
The apotheosis of Texas chic—as that brief happy period was known—came with the success of Dallas, which aired from 1978 to 1991, reaching more than 300 million people in ninety countries. Dallas was the top-rated show in the country for four years, thanks largely to Larry Hagman’s J.R., the audacious, ruthless oilman Hagman modeled on a wildcatter from his hometown of Weatherford. (Hagman also used the resentment he harbored from receiving minimal syndication royalties from I Dream of Jeannie to give J.R. his edge.) J.R. was a villain, but in the greed-is-good eighties, he was also a hero. There was only one problem. Just as Dallas became popular, the J.R. archetype disappeared from Texas to reemerge on Wall Street. Manhattan oil traders were acting like Jett Rink, but real-life corporate gunslingers like T. Boone Pickens slipped from view. Oil prices had started to fall two years after J.R. was shot in the final episode of 1980. That show may have been the highest-rated television episode in history—eerie proof that, as far as the rest of the country was concerned, the JFK assassination was forgotten—but it also proved to be a harbinger for the end of the boom. We’d overbuilt and overspent and taunted the rest of America (remember the bumper sticker that suggested we let the East Coast “freeze in the dark”?). In other words, we behaved like . . . Texans. Then came the disastrous presidential campaign of 2000—a veritable anti-Texas jihad on the part of the Democrats, who criticized the state’s environmental, health-care, and criminal-justice shortcomings—followed by the Enron collapse and the war in Iraq.
“You can make a pretty good case for never electing a president from Texas,” a friend of mine formerly in state politics suggested to me, evoking the Johnson-Bush comparisons that are now part of a new two-rubes-don’t-make-a-right strain of Texas bashing. Texans know, of course, that the two men come from very different places. LBJ grew up poor, in an isolated and backward place, and to his detriment never quite believed he was as smart as the Harvard types he inherited from JFK. Bush grew up surrounded by wealth, in a state that could compete in many ways with the East his family left behind. He went to Ivy League schools but came back home with his Texas-bred contempt for intellectuals.
Each man approached the world as a Texan, not as a hick or a cowboy—which neither was or is—but in their opposition to the world beyond our borders. One man fell prey to our fabled inferiority complex, the other to our legendary braggadocio.
THIS SPRING, THE PEOPLE of Great Britain were reintroduced to the people of Texas via a five-part documentary series produced by Channel 4, a competitor of the BBC. It was titled The Texas Season, and it was promoted in full-page newspaper ads featuring an overweight man in a string tie and cowboy boots. The ad presaged what was to come: a presentation of Texas as a land of freaks, one of whom had become president of the United States. The first hour-long installment was America’s Fattest City, featuring whale-size Houstonians posing for boudoir photos in lace catsuits, competing in all-you-can-eat contests, and driving twenty feet to their mailboxes. The voice-over sounded like a Travel Channel documentary on Amazon primitives: “Many Texans take pride in their super size. They’re famously competitive. They want to be the best, even in the area of wanton gluttony.” This was followed by Texas Teenage Virgins, which focused on a group of irrepressibly horny Lubbock teens trying valiantly to adhere to Bush’s faith-based abstinence program with help from a toothy local minister. As he put it: “I teach that sex in marriage is like fire in the fireplace” (that’s “fahr in the fahrplace,” of course). “It’ll keep you warm and make you feel good. Sex outside marriage is like fire in the middle of the floor. It’s gonna burn your house down and destroy your life—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and financially.” In Turning Muslim in Texas, a beefy good ol’ boy searched anxiously for a place to pray during a high school football game. He found his spot, turned his gimme cap around, and kneeled in the direction of Mecca. Cut to his mom: “When he told us he was a Muslim, it was the most disheartening news we had ever received from our son,” she confessed. “I’ve often wondered if I’d feel the same if he’d told me he was gay.”
Having demonstrated that Texans were ugly, sexually repressed, and bigoted, all that remained for the producers was violent. The Texas Solution explored crime and punishment during Bush’s gubernatorial years. State representative Suzanna Hupp grieved that she hadn’t had her handgun in her purse the day her parents were murdered in the massacre at Luby’s in Killeen, and a victims’ support group forgave the killers of their loved ones—just before their executions. “In Texas,” the narrator said, “forgiveness does not mean mercy.” He explained that “Texans have a view of the world that is simple but powerful. There are good guys and bad guys, a view that George Bush clearly shares.”
Even after nearly four hours of Texas bashing, I held out hope that the last episode, The State of Texas, would offer some new insight. It was narrated by Christopher Hitchens, a Brit who has been a regular commentator on the American political scene for The Nation, Vanity Fair, and other publications. His goal was “to make a film that says, ‘Here are all the things you think about Texas and here’s why they’re not true.'” To find the stereotype-free answer, Hitchens, his blue eyes wide, the corners of his mouth just slightly derisive, headed straight for a Western-wear store in Fort Worth and bought himself some cowboy duds (“In Texas, it’s better to be a drugstore cowboy than no cowboy at all”). He then interviewed a weepy Alamo docent, conversed with border guards as they hunted illegal aliens, engaged in target practice with a gun nut wearing an anti-U.N. T-shirt, reminisced with toothless, aged cattle ranchers, and gawked as T. Boone Pickens managed assets on his desktop computer. The witty disdain of Larry McMurtry and the dry humor of John Graves provided some relief. But Hitchens, like many before him, could not see beyond the myth.
Ultimately, he came to three conclusions. The first was familiar: that our “Republican state of massive power and wealth” harbored “a deep insecurity.” The second was that cowboy culture—as he defined it—had nothing to offer the rest of the world. “The wilderness may have been suburbanized,” he intoned, “but there is no conquering the wasteland within.”
Hitchens’s third discovery never made it on the air. Wrapping up the shoot, he confessed to his crew that he’d found Texas “much nicer and more enjoyable” than he’d imagined.
“Everyone said they’d been thinking the same thing,” Hitchens told me. “There’s something for your readers.”
Maybe I’d expected too much of a foreigner, hoping it was possible, in 2004, to see Texas whole. It always seems to be the complexity of the state that surprises and finally defeats its visiting chroniclers: the extremes of poverty and wealth, the inescapable backwardness competing with the passion for innovation, the obvious bigotry competing with our exploding ethnicity (the international stew of southwest Houston escaped Hitchens’s notice), our allegiance to the past and our deep desire to abandon it—in other words, Texas is the place that best tolerates the contradictory nature of America itself.
In that way, Texas, trying to forge something new, has outgrown Bush. As much as he can be a man of the West, he reverts under pressure to conventions of the old Eastern aristocracy, surrounding himself with loyal family retainers, believing he has no obligation to explain himself, certain that, because of his birthright, he knows best.
But these are complicated notions that don’t serve any outsider’s agenda. It’s a lot easier to label us all cowboys and move on.
AT THE END OF MAY, I had coffee with Phillip Jones, the president and CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. For the past six months, he has overseen the creation of a new ad campaign for the city. Jones is a tall, thin, approachable fellow with a shock of red hair who seems more Methodist minister than McKinney Avenue but who in fact is selling the latter. Jones was traveling the globe to promote a re-branded Dallas, another warrior in Texas’s eternal battle for the hearts, minds, and dollars of our critics. To Jones, Dallas’s image problem had less to do with Bush and more to do with its inability to shake the big-haired image of Dallas. “Dallas has fallen off the radar,” Jones told me. He gave me his pitch, listing all the “hip and trendy” new restaurants and shopping venues, the $275 million performing arts center soon to be constructed, the new Nasher Sculpture Center, the cool people who either live in Dallas or once did (Mark Cuban, Norah Jones). “It’s an opportunity to tell our story to a new generation of people who don’t know who J. R. Ewing is,” Jones explained. He, like Christopher Hitchens, was trying to transcend the stereotype.
Dallas’s new story came out of some very intense brainstorming sessions between community leaders and the Richards Group, the advertising agency hired for the campaign. Pretty early in the game they abandoned the idea of using cowboys to sell Dallas; they wanted to get away from clichés.
Surveys revealed another similarity to Hitchens’s experience: Visitors to Dallas always arrived with low expectations and left feeling pleased that the city offered so much more than they had imagined. Further investigation revealed that “more” meant “bigger.” As John Beitter, the Richards Group’s principal in charge of the project, explained, “not bigger in terms of the stereotype, but bigger in terms of thinking.” Dallas could be sold as a place where the cowboy’s traditional love of wide-open spaces lived on in Dallas’s current passion for wide-open thinking. At this writing, the advertising executives were trying to choose between two mottos: “Dallas. Where Big Ideas Come From” or “Live Large. Think Big.”
I was tempted to ask whether an advertising campaign based on bigness really represented an escape from the stereotype, but I stopped myself. We can’t let it go. We’re always trying to dismiss the past and move forward, but it still has a funny way of riding along beside us every time.