The Birthplace of Bush Paranoia
From the October 25, 2004 issue: How the political culture of Austin, Texas, infected the presidential race.
Oct 25, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 07 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Jeff is barefoot and ear-ringed and prefers black--today it's black jeans under a flyaway black linen shirt, unbuttoned to the sternum. With his business partner Bill Callan, he is founder of "Two Unemployed Democrats Co." an Internet and mail-order business that not long ago, in response to popular demand, opened an outlet store in Austin, the state capital of Texas. They sell bumper stickers, T-shirts, lawn signs, refrigerator magnets, and coffee mugs dedicated to a single, timely proposition: George W. Bush is (1) an incompetent moron driving America into a ditch; (2) an evil genius bent on having America run the world; (3) a plutocrat; (4) a puppet of corporate America; (5) a Machiavel; (6) a dupe of Karl Rove, who's a Machiavel; (7) a cynic whose every utterance is a lie; and (8) a daddy's boy who can barely talk. Hold the email: I am aware that technically this counts as more than one single, timely proposition. But that's what happens when you spend enough time in Austin with people who are obsessed with George Bush. The strands of contempt all begin to run together.
The Two Unemployed Democrats outlet store is set implausibly in the middle of a residential neighborhood in south Austin, which is, if anything, even funkier and more self-consciously cool than north Austin. On the porch, customers are greeted by one of those inflatable punching dolls, the kind with a rounded bottom that helps it pop back up when you smash it, smash it, smash it angrily about the head. The face on the doll is a particularly horrid caricature of Bush. At his side he holds a "to-do" list, with each item checked off: "Give rich friends more tax breaks. . . . Deceive American people. . . . Attack civil liberties. . . ."
It would be unfair to Jeff and Bill to suggest that all their humor is so lame, though it would be unfair to you, the reader, to suggest that a lot of it isn't. Indeed, their entire business plan traces back to a not-terrifically-funny joke that came to Bill while he was watching TV one night. At the time both he and Jeff really were two unemployed Democrats, laid-off bartenders. This was not long before September 11, and then as now neither Jeff nor Bill liked President Bush. At all. "And he's looking at Bush and the thought just goes through Bill's head," Jeff says--Jeff is by far the more talkative of the two, Bill stands by pensively during our interview--"he thinks, 'Like Father, Like Son--One Term Only.' When he told me about it, I just thought, 'Oh yes.'"
Jeff had worked briefly in e-commerce, so they decided to emblazon Bill's inspiration on T-shirts and market them over the web. "We had one slogan, one T-shirt, one coffee cup, one bumper sticker." Orders trickled in through their website, seeyageorge.com. They hit the road, opening booths at peace demonstrations and Gay Pride Day parades. Their product line grew to include lines that were sometimes funnier ("Somewhere in Texas, there's a village missing an idiot"; "I'm bored. . . . Who do we invade next?"; "The last time people listened to a Bush, they wandered around the desert for 40 years") and sometimes a little too angry, a little too righteous, a little too flared-nostril, to be funny: "Mission Accomplished My Ass"; "No one Died When Clinton Lied"; "How Many Lives Per Gallon?"; "If you aren't completely appalled, you haven't been paying attention."
Now orders come in at a rate of 500 a day, not only for T-shirts and bumper stickers, but also for inflatable Bush dolls (the nose grows, Pinocchio-like, when you blow him up) and Bush playing cards and CDs featuring such songs as "I Hate Republicans" and "The Yeller Bush of Texas." Twenty-two employees work 12-hour shifts. Jeff and Bill hope to top a million dollars in sales by November 3, when, they insist, they will put themselves out of business, no matter who wins the election.
"I have to say we've changed our mission a bit since the beginning," Jeff said. "We thought we were just having fun, exercising our First Amendment right to poke fun at the president. But then we started getting these emails, it's really kind of touching. . . . We were really connecting with people in a serious way, too. 'Thank God we found you. You give us hope. It's about time there was a voice out there. . . .'
"And of course it just makes sense that the voice should come out of Austin."
IT DOES make sense, it does. One is tempted to dawdle at the Two Unemployed Democrats store because, if (like some people I could name) you have a journalistically desperate cast of mind, the place practically screams Metaphor! Disgorging from its pleasantly shabby surroundings a whole host of anti-Bush paraphernalia to all points of the country, the business serves as a tiny symbol of Austin itself. With its university-town origins, its large population of musicians and artists, its long tradition of political liberalism, Austin is, as Jeff says, the "anti-Texas," where "Texans who don't really like Texas" choose to live. More important, it has also, in a larger sense, exported its own peculiar brand of Bush hatred to Democrats from one coast to the other.
Austin has a lot to answer for, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican. Ponder for a moment the strange course the presidential campaign has followed these last 18 months. Judged by the simplest, crudest criterion--comparing the state of the world as it was the day he took office with the world as it will be on the day he stands for reelection--George W. Bush should be the most easily beatable presidential incumbent since Jimmy Carter. A frontal assault on Bush's record, repeated endlessly and packaged cleverly, might well have resulted in a walkaway win for whoever the Democrats had chosen to oppose him.
It hasn't worked out that way, as we know. Bush's opponents instead find themselves in a tight race they well might lose. There are lots of reasons why, but one surely is that instead of mounting a substantial critique of what the president has done and hasn't done, his Democratic adversaries have obsessed over piecing together odd, paranoid caricatures of the man who's driving them nuts--Bush as the agent of Halliburton, Bush as the idiot son of Robber Baron privilege, Bush the religious crank, the right-wing ideologue, the draft-dodger, the front man for Enron or Rove or the Saudi royals or J.R. Ewing. The caricatures are familiar now to the millions of moviegoers who saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, but they have an Austin pedigree; the fantasies were nurtured in the hothouse of Texas progressivism before they caught on nationwide. A large number of the most popular anti-Bush books--and many of those Moore used in assembling his movie--were written in Texas by veteran Texas activists who have grown bitter from the endless frustration and resentment that is their unhappy lot: Bush's Brain, Boy Genius, Cronies, The Politics of Deceit, The Dirty Truth, Unfit Commander, The Mafia, CIA, and George Bush, Immaculate Deception: The Bush Crime Family Exposed, Bushwhacked, Shrub . . . the list is very long. Surf the DNC website or Buzzflash.com or listen to one of Terry McAuliffe's press conferences, leaf through an issue of Vanity Fair or scan a columnist on the op-ed page of the New York Times, and you see at once how deeply the Austin fantasy has penetrated the Democratic mind.
Shrub, by the Texas journalists Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose, was granddaddy to them all. Published in 1999, it stands even now as the template for the Bush critique. In his great essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," the political scientist Richard Hofstadter remarked how political paranoids in early America--the anti-Masons, for example--were alarmed from decade to decade by the same chimera: They convinced themselves that they saw, operating just beneath the surface of the national life, "a libertine anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights." Now, of course, the paranoids are bewitched by the mirror image: In Bush and his followers they detect, in place of a libertine anti-Christian movement, an uptight pro-Christian movement, given to the "virtue" of women rather than their corruption, the denial of sensual pleasures instead of their cultivation, and--perhaps most shocking of all--the preservation of property rights rather than their violation. Times do change. The earlier American paranoids imagined their enemies in drunken orgies and were horrified; today they see them at prayer--and they're still horrified.
Shrub bears all the marks of Texas progressivism. The carefully shaded accounts of Bush's stint in the National Guard and of his failed career as a businessman--accounts that have been plundered and plagiarized by nearly every anti-Bush book since--jump with class resentment. The then-governor's professions of religious faith are viewed with alarm and suggestions of primitivism. Dark, controlling forces move just offstage. Hidden agendas slither beneath the surface of the governor's policy proposals. The contradictions of the standard Bush critique are fully ventilated, and never acknowledged. In Austin not long ago I mentioned to Lou Dubose, Shrub's coauthor, that as admirable as the book is in many ways--it is a genuinely masterful polemic--a reader can never reconcile the contradictions in its portrait of Bush. Is he a dim bulb or a rascal--an ideological revolutionary or a go-along, get-along pol--a feckless rich kid or a cold-eyed manipulator? Dubose laughed. "Yes, to all of the above," he said.
DUBOSE IS TOO SKILLED A REPORTER, and Ivins too high-spirited a polemicist, for Shrub to come off as unrelievedly dark. There's even a grudging affection for its subject lurking in there somewhere; "He's such an affable fellow," the book concludes. "It's not Bush hatred," Dubose told me, smiling. "It's more liberal condescension, which is a much finer quality." Condescension is a key to the outlook of the Texas progressive. Tinged with paranoia, it finds its perfect expression in a dizzy, half-brilliant, half-mad book by Michael Lind called Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.
A Texan himself, and a graduate of Austin's University of Texas who grew up to become a fellow at a Washington think tank, Lind tries to explain George Bush for the rest of the puzzled world by means of the state's geography. Unlike many Bush paranoids--Dubose and Ivins among them--Lind thinks W. is not a pretender from the East but "an authentic cultural Texan," which is to say, a rube, a Neanderthal, and a racist to boot. Having grown up in oil-patch Midland, and now a resident of hell-hole Crawford, Bush is the product, Lind says, of "the most reactionary community in English-speaking North America," where "the sadism of the white supremacists...has few parallels in the chronicles of human depravity." Those Aggies can be fearsome fellows indeed, and Lind is relentless in bringing the point home. Made in Texas is full of parenthetical asides like this: "As it happens, the George Herbert Walker Bush Library at Texas A-M in College Station, like the younger Bush's ranch, is in the heart of the historic lynching belt." Coincidence?
In opposition to Bush's Texas, this scrubland-of-the-soul, Lind posits the Hill country that has the paradisiacal Austin at its heart. "While the Waco/Crawford area is infamous for its violent religious fanatics and its shocking lynchings, the Hill country has long been a haven for mavericks of all kinds--the very sort of people who are not welcome among many of George W. Bush's neighbors." Historically it is a region that "came as close to an egalitarian society as any in the country. Most people did their own work. Labor was not considered a dishonorable activity to be carried out by helots of a different race or class." Such happy worker bees! "Their beer gardens rang with the melodies of their singing clubs, and scholarship, journalism, and the composition of verse were valued in a society founded by surplus nobles and refugee professors. . . ." Yet all the while, lurking just beyond the horizon of the Austin Shangri-La . . . was Texas.
And slowly, Lind concludes, Texas has come to infect the entire United States, and beyond. "From its conception of economics in terms of the exploitation of cheap labor and the plundering of nonrenewable natural resources and its plan to replace the modern social safety net with faith-based religious charity, to its minimal government political theory, its bellicose militarism and the Bible Belt Christian Zionism"--here you may take a breath--"the second Bush administration illustrates the centuries old tradition . . . of the traditional Texan elite." Bush's America, in other words, is Bush's Texas, except even bigger. "Texas politicians, like George W. Bush" and his colleagues, are "a menace to the prosperity and the security of the world as much as to that of the United States."
Lind's book is the obverse of liberal condescension, Texas style. It is shot through with another essential characteristic of the homegrown anti-Bush paranoids: hatred for themselves as Texans. "Keep Austin weird" is the cute, self-congratulatory, semi-official motto the city's residents repeat insistently, and there is, sure enough, something weird here. But the city isn't weird in the way Austinites think it is. No matter where in Austin you find yourself--the waiting room of an auto body shop, the men's room of a beer joint--you'll be confronted with a community bulletin board coated thickly with fliers announcing a poetry contest or some new development in Hatha Yoga technique. In that way Austin is no weirder than any other college town. It's weirdness lies in the fact that, unlike every other college town--Madison, Wisconsin; Lawrence, Kansas; Eugene, Oregon--it has never made peace with its home state. Texas progressivism sets itself in opposition to its surroundings, defines itself by what it isn't. It depends on a blend of boosterism (for Austin and for a few progressive neighborhoods in Houston) and contempt (for everything else north of the Rio Grande Valley and south of the Mason Dixon line). "The feeling you get in Austin sometimes," Nathan Husted told me, "is like we're all living in West Berlin during the Cold War."
NATHAN AND I were sitting with his wife Maka in the beer garden of Mother Egan's, on West Sixth Street in Austin. Nathan and Maka are so young and eager and idealistic, so forward-looking and well-mannered, it seems rude to pin them with the tag of Bush-hater. But they really don't like Bush very much at all. They help run Austin4Kerry, a group of activists who (I suppose this is self-explanatory) live in Austin and are rooting for (ditto) John Kerry in this year's presidential race. They felt the need for their own organization, separate from the official Democratic party. With Texas a sure thing for Bush, the local party tends to concentrate on local candidates, reckoning correctly that statewide and national candidates aren't worth the effort. The Kerry campaign has a single paid official in the state, and she's a fundraiser.
So Nathan and Maka and their friends started Austin4Kerry. "Everybody wanted to get involved in the Kerry campaign," Maka said, "but there was nothing to do." Every week or two they send out emails and invite their fellow activists to Egan's, or to Ruta Maya, a coffee shop in South Austin, where they hold a "meet-up" to swap intelligence, drink coffee or beer, and get inspired by a celebrity speaker. Ann Richards, the former governor who was martyred by Bush in 1994, came by one evening, and so did Tony Sanchez, who ran for governor in 2002 and met a similar fate--a fate shared, incidentally, by just about every Democrat who makes a play for statewide office in Texas these days. Lou Dubose gave a talk, too.
"I think everybody in Austin has read Shrub," said Maka.
"And Bushwhacked," said Nathan.
And on May 27, Ben Barnes came to speak. Barnes is a legend in Texas politics. Silver-tongued or flannel-mouthed, depending on your point of view, he was a golden boy of the Democratic party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a protégé of LBJ and lieutenant governor before the age of 30, whose career was cut short by a peripheral, and non-indictable, brush with the Sharpstown real estate scandal that devastated the ranks of Democratic politicians in 1972. Barnes abandoned public office and went into lobbying instead, and got much richer, much more quickly, than even a Texas officeholder could. Last year he declared himself an early supporter of John Kerry.
"We wanted to tape an interview with him to use as an introduction for our website, as a very distinguished party leader who could give legitimacy to the site," Nathan said. "So we went to his office, and he was so . . . so . . ."
"He was so forceful and inspiring," said Maka.
"And we just thought, we should ask him to come to a meet-up," Nathan said.
"He stood right up there," Maka said, pointing to a spot near the front of the beer garden.
"Right there," Nathan said. "And just as an afterthought, we thought, well, let's tape his talk here, too."
"For the website," Maka said.
The Barnes tape went up on the website in early June. "It just sat there for a couple months," Nathan said. "Then Jim Moore saw it, when he was surfing the web." James Moore is a celebrity of sorts in Austin, a former journalist, anti-Bush agitator, and coauthor of Bush's Brain, an exposé about Karl Rove that's consulted like a textbook by national Democrats. The Barnes clip excited Moore inordinately. In late August he sprayed links to the Austin4Kerry site via email to his friends in the press, including a reporter for the Associated Press, who wrote a story about it, and also to Mary Mapes, a producer for 60 Minutes. Clip in hand, Mapes and her on-air reporter Dan Rather talked Barnes into repeating his story for 60 Minutes, where it appeared along with several "newly discovered" documents purporting to show irregularities in Bush's National Guard record.
THE REST is journalism history. The story became one of the most enjoyable press scandals in recent memory. Used to handling 1,500 hits in a busy week, the Austin4Kerry website crashed when it was buried by 250,000 hits in a single weekend. "We had to buy more bandwidth," Maka said, glumly. "Bandwidth is expensive." The clip, which is still on the Austin4Kerry website, cross-cuts between the office interview with Barnes, sitting before his ego wall hung with pictures of great and powerful friends, and his speech at Mother Egan's, addressing the young people of Austin4Kerry as cars roll by on Sixth Street.
"Let's talk a minute about John Kerry and George Bush. And I know 'em both," Barnes says, name-dropping. "And I'm not name droppin' to say that I know 'em both. See, I got a young man by the name of George W. Bush in the National Guard when I was lieutenant governor. I got a lot of other people in the National Guard because I thought that was what people should do when you're in office."
Barnes went on: "I walked through the Vietnam Memorial the other day, and I looked at the names of the people that died in Vietnam, and I became more ashamed of myself than I have ever been, because it was the worst thing I ever did," he said. "I apologize to you as the voters of Texas."
The 60 Minutes story blew up, as the world knows, because the documents on which the report was partially based were bogus. As for the Barnes interview, CBS clung to it and clings to it still, though there was some fudging in that portion of the piece, too. Barnes was speaker of the Texas House, not lieutenant governor, when Bush entered the Guard. He has shifted his story here and there over the years, depending on his audience. The dramatic fillip about being at the Vietnam Memorial "the other day" first surfaced in a different version of the story Barnes told years ago (and which didn't include a mention of Bush). When more recent visitors to Barnes's office have been treated to the story of his National Guard "shame"--this according to two separate visitors--he's pointed dramatically to a note sent to him by then-Governor Bush, hung on his ego wall. "I guess I'll have to take this down," Barnes says, removing the framed note.
It makes for a dramatic moment. But both visitors say they saw the note restored to the wall a few days later.
For our purposes, however, what was most interesting about the 60 Minutes imbroglio was the light it shed on the tiny, hermetic world of Texas Bush-hating. Rather himself--perhaps the world's most prominent Texas Bush-hater--has a daughter, Robin, who is an activist in, and future contender for the chairmanship of, Austin's Travis County Democratic party, which Rather once helped raise money for and whose chairman at that time, David Van Os, now serves as the attorney for Bill Burkett, who gave 60 Minutes the bogus documents and who has worked as a source for James C. Moore, who discovered the Austin4Kerry tape and whose book, Bush's Brain, was co-written by Wayne Slater, Austin bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, whose News colleague, Mark Wrolstad, is married to Mapes, who produced the 60 Minutes segment and who knew Moore when both were TV reporters in Houston, where Mapes still lives. It's dizzying to think what Bush-haters would do with this web of intimacies if they were on the other side. (And inevitably, Rather-haters have tried to spin a controversy here, too, with elaborate box charts spreading across anti-Kerry sites on the Internet.)
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there's a good explanation for why Texas progressives all seem to know each other: There aren't very many of them, and they all live together, more or less, either in Austin or in one of those progressive neighborhoods in Houston. That's one reason they can feel so self-satisfied and so bitter at the same time, and this strange combination of superiority and contempt may be what leads them to prefer caricatures and conspiracy theories to the world as it presents itself. Desperation is a pitiless goad; Mapes, we now know, worked for five years trying to nail the Bush National Guard story, in the mistaken belief that someone other than her fellow Bush-haters would care.
Yet the feeling that runs through Texas liberalism--the feeling of being besieged, outgunned, impotent if not hopeless--is well-founded. Even paranoids are sometimes on to something. For nearly a century, Texas liberals shared the majority party in Texas, the Democratic party, with conservatives. It was an uneasy alliance but it satisfied both factions with separate spheres of influence. No more. The good news for Texas progressives is that they've finally purged the Democratic party of right-wingers and now have it all to themselves. The bad news is that the party is roughly the size of a well-attended kegger. And it promises to stay that way for the next generation.
The change is notable not only for its comprehensiveness but for the rapidity with which it took place. In Texas, the first Republican since Reconstruction took statewide office in 1978. Within 20 years, all 22 statewide offices were held by Republicans. Unbudgeable, decades-old majorities in both houses of the Texas legislature vaporized just as quickly. You can't blame Texas liberals for being disoriented. "There's something about being so concentrated ideologically that makes them more strident than they'd be under other circumstances," Will Lutz, managing editor of a political newsletter called The Lone Star Report, told me earlier this month.
"But it doesn't work. You saw it with Ann Richards, who really is the darling of the Austin left. When Bush ran against her in '94, she went after him like they're going after him now: He's a failed businessman, he's tainted by the oil companies, he's a rich kid. She made jokes about his intelligence and his daddy. It didn't work. That sort of thing only works with people who already agree with you."
REPUBLICANS learned this lesson themselves, suffering a lengthy, and equally pointless and debilitating, epidemic of Clinton-hating for most of the 1990s, when it bubbled up from the fever swamps of Arkansas and laid waste to vast stretches of the national party. Like Clinton-hating, Bush hatred is the creature of a marginalized mentality--the irritable gesture of the perennial loser. I saw it in action one morning when I was invited to a demonstration staged by Travis County Democrats outside the Austin Club, on Brazos Street downtown. The word was that Tom DeLay--second only to Bush as an object of liberal revulsion--would be appearing at a fundraising luncheon.
First they got the date wrong, then they got the address wrong, but by the time the actual event rolled around, the Democrats had gathered outside the club, sweating under a glazed sun, reasonably confident that at last they had their coordinates right. There were about fifteen of us--several slacker youth, a larger number of middle-aged women with close-cut gray hair, dressed in jeans or wraparound skirts and sensible shoes, and a handful of men in T-shirts showing a large "W" with a red slash through it. A bearded man named Jamie pulled up on a bike, introduced himself, and showed me a painting he had done for the occasion. It was highly abstract, with shards of orange scattered across a field of gray.
"It's more of an Ashcroft painting," he said, shrugging. "But I think it'll do for DeLay. Don't you?"
Assuring him it would, I resumed sweating. The sun was very hot, and several of the women were getting impatient as DeLay's time of arrival came and went. This was to be the party's main "action event" of the day, and they wanted to get it right.
"Who's worse," I asked Jamie, killing time. "DeLay or Bush?"
"Oh, Bush. Ashcroft, DeLay--they're front men. A dime a dozen. Bush is the guy. And we know Bush here in Texas. We've been trying to tell you. All I can say is, 'We told you so.'"
"That's it!" one of the women shouted suddenly. Tired of waiting, she marched to the front door of the Austin Club, opened it, and stepped inside, bullying her way past a pair of Austin businessmen, looking puzzled in their blazers and slacks.
A minute later she marched back out.
"The son of a bitch!" she shouted. "The son of a bitch! The Son. Of. A. Bitch. He was here for breakfast!"
Steeped in anger, inflamed with passion, crippled by incompetence--our national Democrats should hope the Austin contagion doesn't spread much further.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.