My father never forgave St Michael hospital for the defining circumstances of my birth. Until Fall 2004.
He and his family had lived for decades on the Texas side of Texarkana, a town in the northeast corner of the state. My mother and her family, meanwhile, lived on the Arkansas side of town. It seems that the State Line, which bisects Texarkana into Texas and Arkansas portions, also ran directly through the hospital, and when my mother was wheeled into the delivery room, she was physically being transported into Arkansas. Thus my parents’ eldest son had Texarkana, Arkansas, forever listed as his place of birth.
And so began my father’s long emotional trauma. Texans are like that.
There is a postcard, which I believe is still sold in the also-divided main post office on State Line Avenue, depicting an elderly Arkansas farmer and his mule standing side-by-side with the white demarcation of the state line running directly on the pavement between them. The caption on the postcard reads: “Man in Arkansas with his ass in Texas.”
Like I said, Texans are like that.
Especially their politicians. Even the supposedly sane ones. The single lasting image I can remember of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was a vastly successful and thoughtful leader of this country until he took on the Vietnam war, was a black and white news photo. In the internationally-distributed picture, the president is holding up his shirt so reporters and photographers can get a look at the massive stitches that remained after his abdominal surgery. The sight was not pleasant on front pages, especially coming in tandem with so many gruesome images arriving daily in newspapers from southeast Asia.
This was the same rational LBJ who fought for Americans’ civil rights, who boosted Public Broadcasting into prominence, who brought Medicare and Medicaid to life, who worked tirelessly for the environment (“his wife “Lady Bird” at one point all but eradicated roadside billboards in Texas) and furthered education for all. This was a man who conducted a decidedly personal 'War on Poverty'. All these accomplishments were eventually brought to a public perception of irrelevance, and the fall-out forced his retirement from politics, in large part because of his bigger-than-life 'Texas' approach to his presidency and its relation to how he envisioned larger government.
We have since had a string of further presidential involvements from the state. George H.W. Bush began a family tradition of starting then deserting dust-ups. Even though his ties to the state of Texas had diminished, ole H.W. knew a good oil plains gun battle when he smelled one. After his defeat of the Central American super-power Panama in the Winter of 1989, he responded to the invasion of Kuwait in Summer 1990 as a proven, though quickly bored, gunslinger. He quickly leaped into, and out of, Iraq, leaving the entire region in disarray. The elder Bush’s inattention to the socio-political results of his actions in the Middle East allowed Saddam Hussein to regroup, and formed the basis for an excuse his son would later use to claim vendetta, and re-invade.
The Texas Showdown at the Not-so-OK Corral in Baghdad has dragged on the better part of two decades at the cost of thousands upon thousands of lives. Bush was forced from office by Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton was from Arkansas.
George H. W. Bush’s name now adorns the former Intercontinental Airport in Houston, and a life-size bronze statue of the man stands just to the rear of the security gate at the airport’s main entrance. The statue, ironically entitled “Winds of Change”, depicts the elder Bush with his jacket over his shoulder and his bronze tie flying back in the wind.
This past week, with the country heaving through a gruesome sex scandal in US collegiate football, the on-campus bronze likeness of dismissed and disgraced coach Joe Paterno of Penn State became an unlikely image of moral failure. Paterno’s metallic tie flies in much the same manner as does Bush’s, and the statues, though in different poses, are eerily similar. Vandals cut the glasses off the Paterno statue, which is noted to be that of an “Educator, Coach, Humanitarian”, early this past Saturday morning.
Then there was that true Texas cowboy, George W. Bush. Failed as a soldier, failed as an oilman, failed as a professional sports executive, failed as a governor, and most spectacularly failed as the tongue-tied and logic-challenged leader of the free world, his legacy lives on appropriately in his and his Vice-President’s contradictory memoirs.
These quotes are not included in those two scholarly tomes:
''See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.''—President George W. Bush, Greece, N.Y., May 24, 2005
"I think it was in the Rose Garden where I issued this brilliant statement: If I had a magic wand -- but the president doesn't have a magic wand. You just can't say, 'low gas.'" --George W. Bush, Washington D.C., July 15, 2008
"There is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it's only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it's only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self-government. I reject that notion." --George W. Bush, London, June 16, 2008
"We got plenty of money in Washington. What we need is more priority." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 2, 2008
"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office." --George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008
''You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.'' —President George W. Bush, at the 2001 Gridiron dinner
''I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me.''—President George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., May 27, 2004
* * *
George W. Bush left office with an approval rating of 22%.
* * *
And now, just when Americans had desperately come to hope that the state’s political “hoof-in-mouth” disease might have become a thing of the past, they are faced with Texas Governor Rick Perry. Yet another Texan who wishes to be President.
Perry, once George W. Bush’s Lieutenant Governor, has this past year tried to distance himself from his unpopular former mentor, especially when newspapers like The Washington Post started asking “Is Rick Perry too George W. Bush-y?” and The Atlantic to proclaim “Is America Ready for 'George W. Bush on Steroids'?”
His own personal gaffes at the podium and in Republican debates have amplified the comparison. The BBC News Magazine tried to guess what was happening in Perry’s head as his brain “froze”. The Late Show with David Letterman featured Perry in full spin mode with Perry himself doing a self-mocking segment on “Top Ten Rick Perry Excuses”.
Still, the candidate has $14 million in the bank and is reportedly getting ready to throw the entire amount at the American people through public media over the next weeks, to try and salvage his campaign.
He will undoubtedly do it in rehearsed and edited, non-impromptu sound bites.
* * *
Meanwhile, back in late 2004, shortly after George W. Bush took his second term in office, my father stopped kidding me about my Arkansas birth certificate. He himself was born in Texas. But today, with him 98 and still going to work every day, and having spent over sixty of those years in Louisiana, Dad won’t even discuss the state.
He just can’t stand the thought of having to defend yet another Texan, president or no.