Tip O’Neill, whose Irish brogue scent of Boston, not Brownsville, said famously, “All politics is local.” It also personal, as millions of Americans know from their affection for Texas — a Nation-State which has endured all, abided all, and as its reaction to the latest would-be tyrant, Hurricane Harvey, recently showed, conquered all.
I was born, raised, and now teach and write in New York State. I can’t imagine leaving. I also can’t envision not learning all we can from the Lone Star State’s battle v. Harvey. For whatever reason, much of this space’s life has been eerily linked to Texas, including my marriage to a Houston native and in-laws’ plight there now. Forgive brief autobiography. Given Harvey’s force of Nature, think of it as a lesson in how a great State works.
Like any Boomer, I devoured TV’s The Lone Ranger, set in Texas, a 1950s and ’60s rerun staple, its namesake a white hat in every way. Teenhood brought a lifelong bond with the man who came to mean Texas on film: John Wayne in Red River’s cattle drive, The Searchers’ odyssey, and of course, The Alamo, Wayne as Davy Crockett. After Duke’s 1979 death, his prior work filmed in or redolent of Texas became a life preserver of honor in the saddle. We would be better people with Westerns as our guide.
Not long out of school, I wrote for a would-be president who seemed “the fulfillment of the mythology of Texas,” a writer said of John Connally, opposing Ronald Reagan for the 1980 GOP nod. As a boy, Connally heard train whistles in the night that spoke of “dreams [that] could be as wide as the sky and his future as green as winter oats because this, after all, was America,” as he said of Lyndon Johnson in a eulogy. Above all, Connally grasped Texans’ love of language, ending his eulogy: “He [LBJ] first saw light here. He last breathed life here. May he now find peace here.” Wow.
Reagan regularly read The Saturday Evening Post. Working there after Connally lost, I discovered the State with the magazine’s largest subscription total was also the continental U.S.’s largest geographically — Texas. A typical issue tied medicine, business, politics, and a profile of the latest film. Parochial elites viewed such fare, quoting Upton Sinclair, as “standardized soda crackers,” looking down on Texas. As Harvey shows, Texans have every right to look down on them, but are too big to act that small.
Outside of marriage, the last stop on my Lone Star trek was an adopted Texan. I wrote for President George H.W. Bush in 1989-93, later privately. After World War II, Yale ’48 typified millions of outsiders, largely veterans, who came to Texas – Bush as an oil wildcatter — enjoyed, and stayed. Background meant less than ability, the future president finding that skill and friendship could dwarf even lacking a Texas drawl. “People from other States as neighbors, barbecues,” he said of post-war Texas, “helping each other.” As Harvey shows, helping is what Texans do.
They also believe. I found Bush to be a privately but deeply religious man, saying “I don’t see how a man can be president without a belief in God.” Texas has historically been the Buckle of the Bible Belt: city and small town, houses of worship on street corner after corner, block after block. Three decades before Harvey, Bush addressed the Catholic University of America’s annual dinner. The speech went well. Later that week he thanked me. I paused, then said “It’s funny. You’re Episcopalian, I’m Presbyterian, and the audience was Catholic.” Bush laughed, saying, “Well, we’re all on the same side,” meaning not one denomination but “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
All on the same side, fueled by the universal admonition to “do unto others,” including non-believers, Texas in late summer 2017 wrote a stunning tale of kindness and recovery – thousands of every color, religion, and political stripe fighting tragedy by land and sea and air via air mattress and pool boat and helicopter.
Trusting faith, local churches jammed during Harvey. Living the Western’s big-skied and -hearted creed. Forging opportunity. Being color-blind, not blind to suffering. Sounds like a great State – and road map for tomorrow. What can we learn from Texas? How united America once was, and, pray God, could be again, if only we would let it.
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