Who’s More Texan? Rick Perry, George W. Bush, and the Paradox of Texas Identity
Perry never had to prove his authentic Texas specialness, so he’s free to transcend it.
We didn’t plan on going to the Republican Leadership Conference for a bachelor party. It wasn’t a possible concept just 10 hours before, when we were at the Hi Ho drinking whiskey and listening to the Stooges Brass Band and getting rubbed down by Free, whose friend had a tattoo of an ejaculating penis on her thigh.
It became a possibility around noon the next day, when someone turned on CNN and we saw, extremely fortuitously, that the khakis and plaids milling about the Quarter in the June heat were donned by people who had quite a stake in the future of America, and who were showing it at the Riverside Hilton. Despite our lack of tickets, despite hangovers so severe that the lady at Central Grocery told us she felt sorry for us, we thought CNN’s announcement was a call.
We set up on the perimeter: Harrah’s Casino, just across Poydras Street from where some of the most important names in modern Republicanism were eating with those who cared to pay the extra bucks for the opportunity to dangle their teeth over bananas foster. There were roving packs of khaki/plaids who were either convention attendees or other bachelor parties, and who either way served as excellent foils to remind us that our debauchery was separate and distinct from their debauchery.
“If anything they’ll just assume we’re Ron Paul Republicans,” said the groom as we made the approach. It wasn’t until one groomsman observed that the Ann Taylor passing out brochures had “one nice Republican ass” that I noticed he was wearing an Infowars.com shirt and that we were probably 50 percent actual Ron Paul Republicans. It didn’t make me less nervous about crashing the party, and I was certain an older woman in zebra stripes at the registration table had figured out we probably didn’t register or pay the mandatory $100 fee. But we had to stay—the great leader of us Texans, Rick Perry, was coming up.
Rick began talking about the importance of individuals in recovering from Katrina, and what a great “story of survival” the city had proven to be. He rounded the “-ory” in “story” in a way that was so familiar, almost as though he accepted as a fact that he was so much like George W. Bush a guilt-by-association non-apology was in order.
Despite my West Texas provenance, I had only seen Bush once. A senior in high school, my tux aglow with satin-seam stripes, blinking like a pig into the dry January wind, my school choir sang Psallite for hours waiting for the newly elected President George W. Bush to arrive. It was his stop “at home” before he arrived in D.C. to ascend to the highest power in the world. And why wouldn’t he want to be greeted by tux-wearing Protestants singing in German and Latin? When he showed up dancing to Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” I felt a little too sincere for what I had taken to be an occasion worthy of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
The security team’s cowboy hats were pulled low, and the 24-hour coverage would bill this stop as Bush's throwback to his roots before transcending them. Later, our town would memorialize the George W. Bush childhood home and erect large signs at all the points of entry into town alerting whoever might come to Midland that George W. was indeed a native son.
This is perhaps why it’s rare for anyone in Midland to bring up Bush’s only electoral defeat, a 1978 race for U.S. Representative in Texas' 19th District. His opponent, Kent Hance, labeled him a carpetbagger and told a story about how Bush, lost in his Mercedes, stopped to ask Hance for directions. Hance gladly gave those directions, which included a turn at a certain cattle guard. In Hance’s imagination, W’s next question was what color uniform the cattle guard would be wearing.
The speech patterns and attitude Bush adopted from that campaign forward seemed so overtly Texan that he was rarely caricatured as the Northeastern priss that Midland saw in 1978. After a Bush presidency, it’s much easier to imagine him on a ranch clearing brush than cheerleading at Andover. But Bush’s Texanness was always suspect, and required intense laughter and forgetting on the part of state Republicans. For him to graduate from outcast carpetbagger to our town’s son is an existentialist triumph of identity negotiation.
The same isn’t true of Rick Perry. His time as a yell leader at A&M is incorporated into his persona, which for any non-Aggie is truly regrettable. Perry never had to prove he was authentically Texan, which allows in something more metropolitan. His plan for government with good hair is well known, and for some reason it seems easier to imagine him brunching than clearing brush.
To wit: Standing outside the Highball, a cocktail lounge in Austin that winks at The Big Lebowski, I saw the place was unusually swarmed with largely toothed young men in slim-fitting suits and young women in flattering Anthropologie summer dresses. These seemed to be the young urbanites of Austin that I always imagined were moving into the new condos downtown, talking about how good their parents are at investing, and entering the W Hotel with magnanimous smiles. It was a Rick Perry staff party.
Perry’s ease in his Texan identity allows him to be the good ol' boy without the overt political manufacturing Bush required. How else could Perry have attempted the Trans Texas Corridor, a highway project that threatened extensive use of eminent domain and that angered much of rural Texas, yet kept his Texas rural bona fides as clean as needles used in mandatory HPV vaccines?
The sad truth is that the rural population that Perry came from and then angered has only a small say in politics beyond their power to validate the rural Texas myth. The state’s population continues to urbanize in the massive cityscapes of El Paso, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston, and Perry has shaped his politics accordingly. Now that Perry is on the national stage, he evokes Texas’ specialness in job creation, but he also evokes the specialness of Texas in general through our legend of our rural borderers and settlers.
Sitting in that New Orleans auditorium in June, attempting to solidify our capillaries, glazed beyond the ability to comprehend the words Perry spoke, the paradox of Texas identity became clearer: If you don’t have it by birth and you court it, you are beholden to it, and if you are born with it, you may escape it but always appear fully part of it. That is the good fortune of Rick Perry.
The party ended with the crowd shouting, “Run, Rick!” With smirks and smiles, we knew he would. Texan specialness had a new representative.