It’s a given. People who live in Hollywood are going to feel uncomfortable in Texas. But Plano didn’t seem like Texas – but Plano may be a special case. When you work in systems that’s where all the giant mainframes are, and the high-level mad-scientist managers that seem to know what those do. So whether it was working for GM in Canada or the hospital chain based in Pasadena, sooner or later you knew there’d be a trip to Plano to chat with the masters of that universe. But it turned out the Dallas airport is pretty much like every other major airport in America – from the inside they all do look alike – and Avis rents the same cars they rent everywhere, and the short drive north to Plano is just another freeway, and a Holiday Inn is just a Holiday Inn. Where were the weathered and nasty looking old men in pickup trucks with the gun rack in the rear window, with the guns, and the formidable tall women with the big hair? It was shopping centers and Starbucks, with the parking lots filled with Toyotas mixed with the odd BMW and Mercedes, and an odd Cadillac here and there – but without the big cattle horns on the hood. Texans do make claims to be extraordinary – big, brash and bold, like their state, where everything is bigger and better than it is anywhere else, or so they say. But America really has been homogenized.
A decade later it was El Paso and Fort Bliss, and much the same thing. Fort Bliss is a cool place – but the only cowboy around was the statue of the Buffalo Soldier at the main gate. And with Juarez right there and giant Fort Bliss in the middle of everything, it was an odd sort of international war zone – drug wars in a disintegrating nation just across the river to the south, and thousands of guys, few of whom were Texans, leaving for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or returning. And dinner with the Lieutenant Colonel and his wife at the fancy steakhouse was a bit odd. The restaurant seemed to be part of a chain, probably headquartered in Vermont or some such place. Sure, you could hum that old Marty Robbins song – Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl… but you were kidding yourself. The music in the background, the stuff no one listens to but gets people feeling mellow, so they spend more, was the Beach Boys. Texas is now just another place.
But now and then, very rarely, you’d see a bumper sticker – Don’t Mess with Texas. Someone was clinging to some sort of tribal pride, and defiance. And for them Texas was a mindset. In spite of the Starbucks and Toyotas, and their useless kids watching American Idol, there was a Texas way of thinking. You can make fun of us, but you’re nothing – we’re better than you. And you’d better not mess with us, or you’ll be in for some real pain. To an outsider this bumper sticker sentiment seemed more curious than threatening, a case where understandable pride in a certain history and heritage, and geography, somehow turned into a big chip on the shoulder, a very big chip. They were daring you to knock it off, so the fighting could begin. You would be a coward if you didn’t, and then they’d mock you. Yes, true Texans can be a pain in the ass.
And we’ve had a few as president. Lyndon Johnson was one, but all those years as a senator in Washington had turned him into the ultimate power broker, and a man who wasn’t given to boasting and challenging others to step out back to settle matters. That was too public. Johnson was a behind the scenes guy – you’d help him get things done and you’d get goodies for your state or your congressional district, and if you didn’t he’d ruin you. No hard feelings, of course – that’s just how the game is played. It was all back room stuff, and in public he was mellow and kind of fun, if somewhat crude.
Johnson wasn’t the true Texan. George W. Bush, even after Yale, certainly was:
Gail Sheehy wrote an article about George W. Bush for Vanity Fair magazine in October 2000. She interviewed dozens of his childhood friends, Bible study buddies, old girlfriends and cronies from his oil and baseball past. …
By the time Bush graduated in 1968, America was embroiled in the Vietnam War and he, along with many people his age, was facing the potential of being drafted. And while he wasn’t exactly against the war, he didn’t seem eager to serve, either. So, with help from his father, Bush weathered the war from the relative safety of the Texas Air National Guard.
Sheehy says that at that point in his life he seemed to have few goals other than partying, an uncomfortable contrast to the earnest and workaholic George Sr. “He quite unapologetically says that he partied until he was 40,” she says. “He was somewhat confused, aimless. We know that somewhere in his mid- to late-twenties he had a confrontation with his father – well, that’s pretty normal, but this one was kind of an adolescent confrontation,” Sheehy says. He challenged his dad to a fistfight. “Mano a mano with Daddy, at 26, when you’re drunk – and I think it indicated some sense of inadequacy that he knew no other way to vent, than to challenge his father.”
That story has been verified and been told many a time, and it’s handled rather sympathetically in the Oliver Stone movie – but it really is hyper-Texan. If Bush had, or has, one defining characteristic, it’s that very large chip on his shoulder. And it showed up in minor ways – the sarcastic nicknames for members of the White House press corps, like calling NBC’s David Gregory “Stretch.” It wasn’t that he didn’t remember their names. It was a way to put them in their place, to show that no one was going to mess with him. At a 2002 joint press conference in Paris, Gregory had asked Jacques Chirac to respond to the question he had just posed to Bush, and Gregory asked the question in perfect French. Bush was visibly pissed off, as people had been making fun of his schoolboy Spanish – “That’s very good. The guy memorizes four words and he plays like he’s intercontinental.” The room fell into an awkward silence – as the French say, an angel passed. But everyone moved on. And then Gregory did the unthinkable – he later went on the Tonight Show and joked about it. It seems Bush never forgave him. It’s a Texan thing.
But that’s minor stuff. Sometimes a man meets the moment. And the moment was September 11, 2001 – when the nation was crying out for a man with a chip on his shoulder, ready to go mano a mano with anyone who messes with us, or anyone who gets in the way of us going mano a mono with anyone who messes with us, even if we’re itching for a fight with the wrong party over what we don’t really understand, or can hope to understand, and might not be true. And George Bush happened to be in office the time. It was fate. Everything aligned – the right man in the right place at the right time. Shortly after the attacks Chirac may have famously said we’re all Americans now, speaking for the world, or most of it, but Americans decided we were all Texans now. No one was going to mess with us.
But as with Bush’s suggesting to his father that the two of them step out back and settle matters with their fists, approaching life with a large chip on your shoulder leads to no end of trouble. And it makes for piss-poor policy.
Eight years ago, President George W. Bush delivered the commencement address at our Military Academy at West Point, and presented a policy vision that became known as the Bush Doctrine. The core of that was preemption – the United States would launch military strikes against potential foes, with or without international support, before the threat was imminent – “If we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long.” This was codified in a National Security Council document, the National Security Strategy of the United States, published on September 20, 2002. And that was that.
We had never held this position before – it seemed to be a statement that we would violate international law, as we would now be launching wars which sure as hell looked like wars of aggression, where there was no imminent threat to us, just our sense that there might be a threat in the future, sometime, maybe. And you can go into religious doctrine on the Just War Theory – even the Pope says sometimes wars are necessary – but no one could figure out how that applied to what Bush was saying. Pat Buchanan argued it was a new strategy for securing the realm, or some such thing. But it was really just a Texas thing. It was that bumper sticker turned into international policy.
Of all the things that happened in the eight years of the Bush administration this was the most radical – the one that fundamentally changed who we think we are, and changed how the world viewed us. Our international reputation hit rock bottom and anti-Americanism spiked to new unheard of levels around the world. But in that Texas way we said we don’t give a damn what other people think – no one messes with us. And then, as with the White House reporters, came the dismissive nicknames – Vladimir Putin was Pootie-Poot and Tony Blair was Landslide. John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia who stood by Bush no matter what his countrymen thought, was Man of Steel. It’s a Texas thing.
This was a big deal. Yes, Sarah Palin never heard of it – you remember the interview with Charlie Gibson – but it was a big deal. And when she becomes president in 2012 someone can tell her about it and she can decide what she thinks about it.
But West Point graduations come and go, and times change. Texas’ governor, Rick Perry, may have that same big chip on his shoulder and keep talking about secession – people have been messing with Texas long enough and maybe it’s time they declared themselves a sovereign nation and coined their own money and raised their own army and had their own foreign policy and ran things the way they should be run – but he’s a marginal figure. But President Obama is not, and, like George Bush, he just spoke at West Point.
And he reversed things. We are not all Texans. Maybe we’re all from Chicago now. And as the fancy new headquarters of the New York Times is just thirty miles south of West Point, they sent someone upriver to report on how Obama would have the nation execute its national security strategy going forward:
President Obama previewed a new national security strategy rooted in diplomatic engagement and international alliances on Saturday as he essentially repudiated his predecessor’s emphasis on unilateral American power and the right to wage pre-emptive war.
Eight years after President George W. Bush came to the United States Military Academy to set a new security doctrine after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Obama used the same setting to offer a revised vision vowing no retreat against enemies while seeking “national renewal and global leadership.”
“Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system,” the president told graduating cadets. “But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation. We have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice, so nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don’t.”
The message was clear. Well, that didn’t work, did it? Preemptive whack-a-mole wars, where we pretend there might be moles out there, one day, has nearly ruined us after all, and not done much good. Sure we’ll fight our enemies, but we won’t just make up stuff to justify it. And we’ll figure out who our enemies are, and who can be steered, one way or another, to being less of a pain in the butt.
It was a bit of a dissertation on the limits of being Texan:
Mr. Obama said the United States would “be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well,” while also trying to “build new partnerships and shape stronger international standards and institutions.” He added: “This engagement is not an end in itself. The international order we seek is one that can resolve the challenges of our times.”
In short, it’s time to move beyond that bumper sticker. A bumper sticker is seldom good policy. And the president, like Bush, is scheduled to formally unveil a National Security Strategy this week. This was the sneak preview.
Yeah, the graduating class at West Point had a right to be a bit grumpy. They get used as a captive audience for announcements of astounding shifts in national policy – first Bush and now Obama. But of course both Bush and Obama said the usual right thing – good job, guys – now go do good things. But they were still used. That’s the way it is. When the Lieutenant Colonel graduated in 1990, on a fine day, we listened to Colin Powell, who was at that time chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as Vice President Dan Quayle wasn’t available. Sometimes substance is okay.
At the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman has more on the Obama speech, and this summary of Obama’s new policy:
It’s an assertive multilateralism with “American innovation” – that is, a vigorous, healthy and balanced American economy – at the core of the international order. And it’s a rejection of the proposition that American power is either restricted by international cooperation or generally on the decline.
We’re strong, and getting stronger. There no point in being defensive and hair-trigger angry. Obama implies that’s a sign of weakness, or of not realizing your strength. We don’t need any belligerent bumper stickers. We’re not worried.
So maybe America’s Texas phase is coming to a close. But Texas, itself, was always a myth anyway. And of course so has Obama’s Chicago:
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders…
That’s not us either. America really has been homogenized. And the myths, while emotionally satisfying, were dangerous.