Every American has a relationship with Texas--the state, the idea, the Alamo, or some other part of the place--shaped by the movies, the Kennedy assassination, or being stranded in the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, overhearing conversations in that languid, steel-braced drawl, and admiring the glistening steel-braced hairdos. In my case, it was being stationed in two Texas cities: El Paso, where I studied Vietnamese, and San Angelo, awaiting orders to the war. The locals I met were amazingly kind to servicemen. They helped me fix my pathetic old car and gave me a good meal afterward.
They stood at concerts during "The Star-Spangled Banner," and they knew all the words. I felt that they understood that I was caught in the draft, bossed by thugs many miles away. Their own state government wasn't much different.
Things haven't improved much, according to Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, who tell in Shrub how George W. Bush came from nothing to whatever he is today. The powers in Austin are still idiotic, vicious, and incomprehensible. The cupidity of the legislators is a phenomenon unequaled. Somewhere in the midst of all this, a rich nonentity and son of a president, shallow way down deep, makes the squalid deals that are pure Texas: stomping on those least able to fight back, ignoring the poor, excusing the patently obvious crimes of the rich, and hocking his soul for short-term advantage.
This is vintage Ivins, a faux-friendly whip-snap prose with localisms that do nothing to lessen the inhumanity described. Ivins has watched it for years as a columnist first for The Dallas Times Herald and now for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You might think she's making it up, but her researcher/digger is Lou Dubose, editor of The Texas Observer, the venerable journal that gives Texans the carnal truth about their "lege."
First, the howling humor. Ivins may have originated some of the terms, like "flappette" for a mini disturbance, "Shiite Republicans" for the paleoconservatives, or her term for competitive holiness, a "Christian-off." Others are old favorites: Texas as "Mississippi with good roads" and the observation of Senator Carl Parker ("a particularly unpolished gem from Port Arthur") that "[i]f you took all the fools out of the legislature it wouldn't be representative anymore." And there's Bush's Spanish. "Juntos podemos," he tells his Hispanic friends, intending to say, "Together, we can." In the Houston Chronicle, the typo god intervenes and the headline "Juntos Pedemos"--"Together, we fart"--is printed instead. "A collector's item," says Ivins. But, while some of this fun is delicious, no one is harder on Texas than Texans.
None of the Bushes ever made any money in oil, nor do they seem to have any natural draw to it. But after a series of business meltdowns, investor screws, and crooked deals that dance along the edge of the law, George W. falls back on his political connections and his old man. (Why did the Bushes go to Texas in the first place? Politics would have been easier for them in Connecticut.) Both father and son are sliced and diced by the resident politicians before they gain some success, and in W.'s case, this happens only after the most ludicrous conversion to Texas-style conservative Christianity. He pals around with all the local crackpots, including the king of the oddballs, Dr. James Leininger ("our very own Richard Mellon Scaife"), who put forward the theory that young people can establish a "second virginity." It is, as Ivins opines behind her hand, "a concept." Bush himself agrees with this theory since he has to believe it about himself. He did duck the draft, using his connections to get into the cozy Texas Air National Guard ahead of others on the waiting list. (And as The Boston Globe recently reported, he then ducked out of the drills.) He did run ragged for some years, living in a libidinous Houston apartment complex named in unwitting hilarity the Chateau Dijon, and his behavior so shocked his father that they almost came to blows. (Too bad about almost; that woulda been good.)
But as governor, Bush backs deals far worse than his sucking up to God. He tries to cut welfare in Texas, then at a lordly $188 a month, to get a tax cut for the already well-fixed. (In one instance, things are so awful that the poor must be saved by a temperate last-minute ploy by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.) Bush doesn't seem to care, constantly trumping himself, spawning anecdotes of duplicity and opportunism that would ruin a pol elsewhere. Sotto voce, he tells Glen Maxey, the only openly gay member of the lege, "I value you as a person, and a human being, and I want you to know, Glen, that what I say publicly about gay people doesn't pertain to you." Hoooo-kay.
Briefly, Bush's record does get some good press from Ivins/ Dubose, in education. Ivins calls this chapter "The Bright Spot," but it's modified praise. Although Bush seems to enjoy giving speeches on education reform and funding, and he revels in meeting and talking with school kids, a good deal of the credit seems to belong to his wife Laura, a former librarian. Even with her urging, the best he could come up with was what Ivins terms "a simple-minded solution to a nonexistent problem," promising that students would pass a state test before they could be promoted, which was already the law. He also was quick to adopt some of the right's favorite programs, like charter schools and vouchers, leaving the details to any ad hoc education theocrat who happened along. In education Bush may look progressive, but Ivins clears up this seeming inconsistency, explaining that, in Texas, "if it weren't for progressive bidnessmen there wouldn't be any progressives at all... ." Thus Ross Perot's point that businessmen have to push quality in schools or there won't be anyone to hire who can make change--that it is a sort of necessary subsidy, like roads and airports--may be the reason Bush talks and walks the education line.
Of course, if he gets any credit in education, he squanders it on the environment. Already weak waterquality and air-quality laws were further diluted, and Bush signed off on them without a peep. Ivins's expatiation of the increase in the filth tolerated makes your eyes water as much as the Houston air would. From there, Bush's record descends into the real depths of Texas political hell--its justice system and its record in executions. "Assume," Ivins writes, "that George W. Bush smoked marijuana. There are now 7,400 people in Texas state prisons on marijuana charges... ." This staggering hypocrisy breeds an understandable contempt for the law, proving that if you're "a rich white kid with an important daddy," you have nothing to worry about. Contemplating Texas death penalty jurisprudence, one can almost agree with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who is quoted describing criminal-justice officials as "bloodthirsty."
But through this infuriating account (and believe me, you'll never look at Bush the same way), the question remains: Who is this man, and why are we even considering him? How could someone so favored and blessed, from whom so little was asked, and for whom so many obstacles were removed, not develop some tiny sense of noblesse oblige? Wouldn't there be some idea, some scintilla of a hint, some faint breath of a suggestive zephyr, that those less favored might deserve as much help as those already with power? It may be in his heart-- and in his rhetoric--but it doesn't show up in Bush's record. Lies and evasions and letting other people do the hard stuff have gotten him this far. Why change a winning program? In fact, his claim of "compassionate conservatism" is refuted in this book with such a deadly pounding that one suspects the reason Bush chose the slogan is simply that compassion is the last characteristic anyone would attribute to him.
Is there any hope? Well, I am a political cartoonist; my field is not known for looking deeper than the goofy surface. I appreciate politicians who look like what they are. I liked Al D'Amato because he looked like a creepy little ward heeler, and he was one. I liked Tip O'Neill, bloated and irresponsible in word and deed. And all the rest, from Robert Byrd to Slade Gorton, men and women who give off unmistakable signals of their inner corruptibleness. And Bush is no different. It's that smirk, the one John McCain wanted to put his fist through, pictured on the dust jacket of Shrub in all its "screw you" superiority. That's the warning. And it may be the best thing Al Gore has going for him. ¤