From 1965 until 1980 I grew up in Dallas, more specifically in University Park. It is one of two small independent cities sitting on top of slight rise in the the Texas limestone now crowned with the George W. Bush library and its annex, SMU. Traditionally white and a mixture of middle and upper class Texans University Park shared an independent school district with even more affluent Highland Park. The Park Cities, as the two are often called, are now very affluent and the middle class has spread out into Preston Hollow and other nearby north Dallas areas where former President George W. Bush now lives.
I still like going back to the Park Cities to see my parents and a few friends. I usually find an excuse to visit some rural town for barbecue and perhaps some crazy bit of history – the kind Rick Perry is likely to relish. The combination of great Tex-Mex, barbecue, and a brashness about life from dirt farmer to wealthy oil and gas man is the essence of what makes it a fun place to visit.
Texas is an incredibly diverse place from coast to swamp to hill country to rich farmland to dry farming to mountains and places in West Texas that resemble the moon. A road trip across Texas home to Boulder or south from Dallas to Austin, San Antonio, or Houston reveals almost every sort of rural vista and history. But the unifying Texas ideal is of a self-made man that earned everything through work, wealth, and influence. If you can work your way through life, you do not need a public hand out or even a hand up. The hard way is the best way.
The organizers of my recent thirtieth high school reunion used Facebook to evangelize the event. Facebook really is the ideal social tool for the girls of the hot summer pool days of 1980. And what is amazing to me is how much charity activity women of my era in Texas devote to private charties either as philanthropists, fund-raisers, organizers, and volunteers. A huge amount of the work is focused on specific local charities for the poor, animal shelters, and other targeted charities. This is no anonymous corporate drive for the United Way where you write a check, but hands on changing conditions one person/one cause at a time. Private charity versus a government handout is a core value in the Texas ideal.
But there are an enormous variety of politicians behind these bigger than life Texan businessmen and philanthropists. Where does Mr. Perry fit into this picture? Clearly, he is not a Bush of either flavor. Whether you cringe or soar at the sound of a Texas twang, you could never confuse the halting delivery of a Bush for the perfectly timed Perry. In fact his career was made from gobbling up Texas politicians of the patrician streak. He may never have defeated a Bush, but he embarrassed Senator Hutchinson who is a north Dallas Episcopalian member of the Republican establishment.
Perry for me harkens back to a prior generation of Texas politician straight to Lyndon Johnson. Like Perry, LBJ’s beginnings were humble and Johnson had to work his way through college and into rural Texas politics before winning election to the House of Representatives. During World War II LBJ served in the Navy honorably just as Perry served in the Air Force. After their service both of these men spent virtually their entire adult careers in government as politicians. While Perry is a genuine Texas conservative, he did start out as a Texas conservative Democrat making his way over to the Republican Party. Like Johnson, Perry was able to change loyalties in pursuit of political ambition. Can you imagine any Bush changing party or ever being a Democrat?
Johnson was profane and crude. At least in many circles calling the Federal Reserve Chairman potentially traitorous if he follows a monetary policy independent of politicians is crude. Johnson had a history as a hard campaigner (the daisy ad against Goldwater). Perry has done what it takes to not only beat his opponents but to dismantle them within the tagline of each election. And despite these records their opponents perennially underestimated them as hicks.
Johnson was a notorious dealmaker and powerbroker of a kind no Bush would ever emulate. He knew which districts needed what favor or held what dark secret and he used that information both as a legislator and executive. He believed in the patronage system. Whatever it took legally or at least arguably for the next election. Over the last decade Perry has followed LBJ’s example and built a substantial patronage following throughout Texas government. And as far as we know Perry engineered all of it legally in a very old school Texas sort of way.
Perry differs from my Texas experience – hard work, private enterprise, success, brash celebration of success, charity, and power – the Bush version. In the Park Cities version I grew up in, politics was a slightly dirty business that successful Texas businessmen or women entered at the end of their career to clean up the mess in gubr-ment. Governor Clements began the Republican revolution in Texas from this path. The other older version is the permanent government power broker whose career success is a reflection of his mastery of the campaign, populism, and all his political skills.
Perry on his record has never had a non-government job, except for five years nearly thirty years ago when he worked on his father’s farm. He has a quick turn of phrase and a strong political instinct. But he does not have the background as an oilman, a banker, a trader, or small businessman. All his success is in government and in particular in elections. That is not the Bush background, but the LBJ model.
It is a mistake to characterize anyone from Texas as Yosemite Sam. And it is a bigger mistake to underestimate perhaps the most ruthlessly ambitious politician Texas has produced since Lyndon Baines Johnson. Once you strip away the political art, you see a genuine small government conservative with typical heart felt evangelical positions, no foreign policy experience, virtually no private enterprise experience, outside the embrace of the Republican establishment but talking to it.
Perry is a Texan, but a very different kind of one from the Bush family tradition of public service. LBJ’s tradition is one of consummate ambition for power. Perry is not going to stutter and step backwards out of politeness from intemperate questions. He is going to give the questioner what LBJ’s victims called the Johnson treatment – focus on the questioner like a laser, physically appear to overpower his opponent, recite his facts, throw out whatever gasoline he can, then set off the fire with a closing line. And his political opponents had better master the art of not standing around with a dumbfounded Chardonnay face of surprise.