Deep in the Heart of Darkness: Under George W. Bush, the Worse of Two Texas Traditions Is Shaping America

Article excerpt

WHEN LYNDON JOHNSON WAS president between 1963 and 1969, the world grew familiar with the "Western White House"--the Johnson ranch on the Pedernales River west of Austin, in the heart of his beloved central Texan hill country. Three decades later, newly elected President George W. Bush began hosting foreign leaders and American officials at his own ranch--this one north of Austin in Crawford, Texas. To make sure that television audiences got the point, Bush aides hung a pompous "Western White House" seal at the town's elementary school when briefings were held there. Although Bush was ridiculed in the liberal press as a phony rancher--and indeed, many of his activities on the ranch, like ostentatiously clearing brush in the heat of midsummer or signing bills in front of neighbors seated on hay bales, were publicity stunts--there could be no doubt that Bush was an authentic cultural Texan. Although born in New Haven, Conn., George W. Bush grew up in West Texas, absorbed the Texas folk culture, and in most ways is as authentically a Texan as was Johnson.

Two ranches, two Texans, two presidents--yet in governing philosophy, Johnson the Great Society populist could hardly be more different from Bush the corporation-friendly cutter of taxes for the wealthy. The contrast reflects, in part, certain obvious differences between the men; they are of different eras, political parties, and family backgrounds (Johnson's origins were as modest as Bush's were patrician). But less obviously, the two Texas presidents represent two entirely different Texas political traditions, entwined in conflict inside a single border and reflected in the differences between Johnson's hill country and Bush's Crawford. The dominant culture in much of the hill country has always been that of German-American settlers, many of them descendants of German liberals and socialists of the early 19th century who fled from repression in Europe. In a state dominated by Southern Democrats, many Central Texans supported Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War and voted later for the progressive Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. The historic presence of Southern Populists, black freedmen and the Mexican-American community of San Antonio, alongside the Germans, explains why Johnson Country has long been more like a progressive prairie state than the rest of Texas.

And although Bush, a West Texan, was a newcomer to Crawford when he bought his ranch there in 1999, in political terms, Crawford was already Bush Country. The white voters of McLennan County, although not its numerous black and Latino residents, were among the strongest supporters of Bush in both his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. What is more, since the years before the Civil War, McLennan County has been identified with the intense economic, racial, and religious conservatism of yesterday's Southern Democrats who are the political and sometimes lineal ancestors of today's Southern Republicans.

Cultural geography is of little use in analyzing the personalities of politicians--but it is indispensable in understanding their politics. Political leaders are shaped by many influences, but to be successful they must necessarily reflect the values of their neighbors and constituents; if they did not, they would never have risen to high office. Lyndon Johnson grew up in a region shaped by German-American Unionism, liberalism, and antislavery sentiment, which does much to explain the remarkable differences between these radically different presidents from Texas. George W. Bush is a product of the Deep South tradition of the cotton plantation country, transplanted to the West Texas oil region.

More important, it explains the particular flavor of conservatism that, following the GOP's sweep of Congress this fall, now rules Washington. To a degree that has not been the case since the mid-20th century, when Johnson led the Senate and Sam Rayburn the House, a Texan political culture dominates national politics. …