Friday, November 14, 2003

Pride and George W. Bush

Gene also passed along to me this quote from a Molly Ivin's column from the current Mother Jones:

So what manner of monster is behind these outrages? I have known George W. Bush slightly since we were both in high school, and I studied him closely as governor. He is neither mean nor stupid. What we have here is a man shaped by three intertwining strands of Texas culture, combined with huge blinkers of class. The three Texas themes are religiosity, anti-intellectualism, and machismo. They all play well politically with certain constituencies.

Let's assume the religiosity is genuine; no one is in a position to know otherwise. I leave it to more learned commentators to address what "Christian" might actually mean in terms of public policy.

The anti-intellectualism is also authentic. This is a grudge Bush has carried at least since his college days when he felt looked down on as a frat rat by more cerebral types. Despite his pedigree and prep schools, he ran into Eastern stereotypes of Texans at Yale, a common experience at Ivy schools in that time. John F. Kennedy, the consummate, effortlessly graceful, classy Harvard man, had just been assassinated in ugly old Dallas, and Lyndon Johnson's public piety gave many people the creeps. Texans were more or less thought of as yahoo barbarians somewhere between the Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance. I do not exaggerate by much. To have a Texas accent in the East in those days was to have 20 points automatically deducted from your estimated IQ. And Texans have this habit of playing to the stereotype -- it's irresistible. One proud Texan I know had never owned a pair of cowboy boots in his life until he got a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. Just didn't want to let anyone down.

For most of us who grow up in the "boonies" and go to school in the East, it's like speaking two languages -- Bill Clinton, for example, is perfectly bilingual. But it's not unusual for a spell in the East to reinforce one's Texanness rather than erode it, and that's what happened to Bush. Bush had always had trouble reading -- we assume it is dyslexia (although Slate's Jacob Weisberg attributes it to aphasia); his mom was still doing flash cards with him when he was in junior high. Feeling intellectually inferior apparently fed into his resentment of Easterners and other known forms of snob.

Bush once said, "There's a West Texas populist streak in me, and it irritates me when these people come out to Midland and look at my friends with just the utmost disdain." In his mind, Midland is the true-blue heartland of the old vox pop. The irony is that Midland along with its twin city, Odessa, is one of the most stratified and narrow places in the country. Both are oil towns with amazingly strict class segregation. Midland is the white-collar, Republican town; Odessa is the blue-collar, Democratic town. The class conflict plays out in an annual football rivalry so intense that H.G. Bissinger featured it in his best-selling book, Friday Night Lights. To mistake Midland for the volk heartland is the West Texas equivalent of assuming that Greenwich, Connecticut, is Levittown.

In George W. Bush we may see the clearest manifestation of the failure of the rest of the nation, particularly the North East, to treat the South as dignified human beings. Bush is responsible for his own reactions to the abusive stereotypes he encountered. But karma is also resulting in payback for those who have heaped on the abuse with glee.

1 Comments:

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