During the 2011 state legislative session, the Capitol press corps spent several months salivating at the prospect of Rick Perry running for president. For journalists, commentators and bloggers, “Perry for Prez” would turn the attention of the whole nation to Texas. And so it did. National broadsheets discussed Perry’s boasts about the state; national pundits debated the “Texas miracle”; and local journos, like Erica Grieder, got in on the action — blogging, aggregating, commenting on the commentators, following the governor to cool places like Iowa, and generally having a good time.
Of course, when Perry crashed out, the conversation about Texas tapered off. Grieder wants that conversation to continue. Therefore she embarks on a mission — in 250 pages — to demystify Texas, to reiterate its strengths, and to trace the historical roots of those things that make home such an acquired taste. This is an admirable task, which — despite some rich seams of first-rate analysis — Grieder doesn’t quite manage to pull off.
Nevertheless, the book is pacey, colorful, humorous and cutting. Grieder sometimes strays from plucky to pithy (Texas, “is the state that gave America George W. Bush” — yawn) but still manages to sound fresh. Texans exhibit “casual belligerence;” our cities are distinguished by their “elbow room;” add in a little Faust, Goethe and Latin cliché and you’re talking about Texas in a whole new way. (Her use of the word “austerity” betrays her former gig as a writer for the British weekly, The Economist.)
Armed with these rhetorical tools, Grieder rapidly mobilizes: debunking myths, annotating history and critiquing the “Texas model.” Each chapter’s strength rests upon multipage nuggets that fuse heritage, data and analysis into bold conclusions. Solid chapters on oil, land and cattle, reconstruction and the constitution set the stage for bolder (and scrappier) forays into issues like jobs, the death penalty, abortion, the religious right, taxes and welfare.
Grieder obviously wants people to love Texas — or at least hate it for the right reasons. She understands that this will require imparting a little nuance to the debate. Sure, the religious right has power, but in all the places that don’t really matter. Sure, Texas is the reddest of red states where people say crazy things — but it’s more bluster than muster. Politicians generally put ideology aside when business interests are jeopardized (a prescient conclusion, considering the governor’s call this year to raid the state’s savings account for infrastructure projects.)
When it comes to labor rights, environmental practices and paltry state benefits, Texas smugly retorts, “jobs, jobs, and jobs.” For Grieder, Texas works, and the proof is that people — many of them very liberal — keep moving here.
Strongest when discussing the last decade, the book’s attempt to provide deeper context falls sadly short. Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, Sam Rayburn, John Nance Garner, and — to a surprising extent — LBJ are missing from this book. They are replaced with the likes of Molly Ivins, John Hagee and rather rehashed portraits of Austin and Houston. Grieder is a reporter, not a historian, and her attempts to ground her arguments historically merely result in the construction of rickety bridges from past to present — with only a few piers sunk between vast expanses of heritage.
This is a crying shame. In Garner and Rayburn in particular, Grieder would find more of the depth and nuance she is looking for. These were men who made the distinction between state (i.e. job-creating infrastructure) and individual (i.e. benefits) welfare during the New Deal. Their careers vividly outline the tensions and ideas that were to dominate political developments over the course of the century. While this is more-or-less an academic criticism, Grieder doesn’t get a pass because she insists on being so snarky and absolute throughout.
Snarky can be very funny, but it too often means that Grieder moves on just as her argument is getting interesting. A dearth of deep probing means that subjects are ruthlessly deconstructed, but never quite put back together. Due to a lack of narrative momentum, the nuanced Texas she believes in never quite emerges from the page. We are instead left with an impression that only adds to the collective confusion.
Flaws aside, the book is a commendable achievement. Some people are going to be very annoyed that they didn’t write it. Liberals will be annoyed for the fact that Grieder makes their points for them but at their expense. Conservatives will be annoyed because just when she appears to be on the emperor’s side, she cries “no clothes.” Neither apology nor sonnet, the book’s treatment of Texas is robustly moderate. Grieder’s pioneering efforts send a very positive message to those who also know a thing or two about Texas — get writing.
Erica Grieder will speak and sign copies of her new book at 7 p.m. May 2 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Ben Wright is a former Capitol staffer who lives and works in Austin. He is annoyed he didn’t write this book.
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