- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Land Commissioner George P. Bush stood on a temporary platform in Alamo Plaza in the midst of what 181 years ago was a battleground in the seminal moment in Texas history.
“You may not have known it, but you stand on sacred ground, but it doesn’t look very sacred, does it?” Bush said to the small audience that was gathered Monday to hear about efforts to restore seven cannons used in the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
“So we must restore the battlefield to honor the Alamo’s gallant defenders,” Bush said as traffic rumbled past the plaza, a vendor selling snow cones nearby. “We must respect this sacred space. We must and will ensure that 1836 lives here every single day.”
“Simply put, we want to tell the story of the Battle of the Alamo proudly, purposefully and better than we ever have before,” Bush said.
With that, the Houston-born grandson and nephew of presidents answered a mounting tide of online vitriol about his management of the Alamo and its future that came to a head two weeks ago. The executive committee of the Texas Republican Party, at its quarterly meeting in Austin, voted 57-1 to rebuke his agency’s stewardship of the Spanish mission turned shrine to Texas liberty.
It is too soon to know whether Bush’s rearticulation of his vision for the 273-year-old stone structure and surroundings will quell an uproar from tea party activists and descendants of Alamo defenders. At best, he was carelessly safeguarding hallowed ground. At worst, he was seeking to rewrite Texas history.
“There are forces at work to remake or ‘reimagine’ the history of the Alamo and diminish its inspiring message while the property around it undergoes renovation to increase profits from tourism,” the GOP resolution states.
It declared that decision-making authorities “shall affirm and emphasize the intrinsic significance of the 1836 battle in telling the story of the Alamo” and called on Bush’s General Land Office to “voluntarily commit to transparency in finances and operations of the Alamo.”
Monday’s speech effectively launched a Bush counteroffensive against what he described as “allegations and spurious claims” about his agency’s seven-year $450 million plan to redevelop and improve the historic site with, among other things, a new museum housed in nearby state-owned buildings and additional historic programming.
A new website, AlamoTruth.com — “Get the Facts” — went live Wednesday, and an extensive radio buy began Thursday promoting the website and touting Bush’s record on the Alamo — “Commissioner George P. Bush is saving the Alamo so that we can tell the story of the heroic battle for liberty for years to come.” The website and ad campaign are both paid for by his campaign to win a second term in 2018.
Bush has his work cut out for him.
“They talk sacred, but I don’t see it,” said Lee Spencer White, of Fredericksburg, the founder of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association and a direct descendant of Gordon C. Jennings, who was, at 56, the eldest of the defenders to die at the Alamo.
It was an hour after Bush’s appearance Monday at the Alamo, and White was standing by the Alamo Cenotaph, the large granite and marble monument bearing the names of the defenders who perished at the Alamo, and statues of some of its most famous heroes — William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, David Crockett and James B. Bonham.
It has stood in Alamo Plaza since it was erected in 1939 — the first thing most visitors to the Alamo see — but under the current though not final master plan, it would be moved to another location and perhaps some distance off the plaza.
A cenotaph is a tomblike monument to those buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war. In this case, the defenders were burned in funeral pyres away from the Alamo by Santa Anna’s army.
“The Alamo Cenotaph is our family headstone,” White said. “The Alamo Plaza is our family graveyard.”
“Why not have it where they bled and died, where their souls left this earth to heaven?” White said. “Leave the cenotaph where it sits. It’s sitting where it should be.”
White, whose group will be holding a demonstration at the cenotaph at noon next Saturday, fears that “boot-kicking” the monument blocks away would remove it from the Alamo experience of most visitors.
“Tourists are not going to see it obviously,” she said — they won’t even know it exists.
Ultimately, decisions about what to do with the Alamo and adjacent areas rest with Bush, a Republican, and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an Independent who was elected in June. While Bush’s vision for restoring the battlefield depends on moving the cenotaph elsewhere, its fate depends more on the mayor because it belongs to the city. It is hard to imagine the cenotaph going quietly.
“If they move that cenotaph, it will be an absolute political nightmare for George P. Bush and the mayor of San Antonio,” said Oklahoman Ron Jackson, who got to know White when he was writing his book, “Alamo Legacy: Alamo Descendants Remember the Alamo.”
“George P. Bush’s political future hangs in the balance,” Jackson said.
‘Not reimagining the history of the Alamo’
By all rights, Bush should be sitting pretty. The scion of one of America’s great political dynasties, he won more than 60 percent of the vote in his first run for elective office in 2014. Two years later he was the state GOP’s victory chairman — the member of the Bush family who had made his peace with Donald Trump, who had humiliated his father — the early front-runner for the Republican nomination — as “Low Energy” Jeb.
Forty-one and handsome, a Bush with a Mexican-born mother, he seemed the perfect person to lead Texas Republicans into the future.
But the Bush name, at this moment in Texas political history, is a burden with the Republican base, a relic of a kind of genteel establishment out of favor with the populist, tea party and Trump grassroots.
In an act of daring early in his tenure, the generally cautious Bush wrested control of the Alamo from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, alleging mismanagement.
Bush had been warned that anything he tried to do with the Alamo would be at his peril. Previous attempts to restore and improve the state’s most visited historic site have failed.
“To be honest with you, when I came into office, that was exactly what was explained to me, not only by people in the (General Land Office) but people in San Antonio and throughout the state and the country — there’s no way you can ever restore and reclaim the battlefield of 1836,” Bush told the American-Statesman. “I viewed it as not only the priority of my first term but a challenge to take on.
“Even if I’m unsuccessful, so be it,” Bush said. “At least I’ll go down and be known as somebody who tried to reclaim the original battlefield.”
Douglass McDonald, the Alamo CEO since August, offered a robust defense of Bush’s leadership.
“Every Texan should keep their eye on what happens at the Alamo,” McDonald said. “The Alamo defines Texas in many respects. The church itself is probably the most important artifact in the state of Texas.”
And, McDonald said, “If Texans pay careful attention to the facts and what we’re doing, they will be delighted. And the facts are we’re fully transparent. And the facts are that the centrality of the 1836 battle will always be central to the Alamo — always has been, always will be.
“We are not reimagining the history of the Alamo. We are reimagining the experience people have when they come to the Alamo, so when you come to Alamo, if you were here yesterday, you wouldn’t be trying to listen to people talk about 1836 cannons, Texas revolutionary cannons, and have two barking preachers telling you that you’re going to hell in the background,” he said. “So anybody who credibly looks at the facts and looks at the decisions that have been made will realize and come to the understanding that what we’re were doing is to the betterment of the Alamo.”
Jerry Patterson, Bush’s predecessor as land commissioner, stirred some of the discontent with a June piece in San Antonio’s Rivard Report — “Don’t Like a Reimagined Alamo? Time to Put Up or Shut Up” — in which he wrote that then-Alamo chief planner, George Skarmeas, had said, “The events of 1836 were just one small chapter in 10,000 years of history.”
McDonald said that was cherry-picking an unrepresentative quote. McDonald provided the Statesman with a Sept. 8 letter to the Alamo Master Plan Management Committee, from Skarmeas and a partner, describing the 1836 battle as “one of the most significant events in not only American history but world history” and the necessity to restore “dignity and reverence” to a “sacred site.” (McDonald said Skarmeas is still working on restoring the church but is no longer involved in guiding the broader restoration effort.)
Patterson agrees that many of the concerns articulated by skeptics are unfounded.
“There’s nobody changing the name of the Alamo. There’s nobody that’s going to create a Disneyland, but that’s what happens when you allow things to fester — imaginations run wild,” Patterson said. “People believe the U.N. is going to take over the Alamo or UNESCO is in control. That’s absolutely bogus. UNESCO will not be in control.
“But those kinds of things are circulating because you got to get ahead of these things. When things start going south, you let them get momentum, it makes it much more difficult to get things straight,” said Patterson, who early in Bush’s tenure said his successor should “put more focus on doing his job and less on covering his derriere.”
“Particularly when there’s nothing to hide. There’s no malfeasance. There’s no hanky-panky. There’s no money under the table,” Patterson said.
The viral concerns about a United Nations takeover of the Alamo stemmed from UNESCO granting the Alamo, along with four other San Antonio missions, a World Heritage Site designation in 2013 when Patterson was commissioner, meaning it has been identified as a significant historic and cultural site.
“Horse hockey,” Patterson said of U.N. takeover talk at the time.
And yet, four years later, there was the Texas Republican Party executive committee voting, “Be it further resolved that Texas’ authority regarding the Alamo shall not be infringed upon by any organization or authority, including but not limited to local governments, the federal government, the United Nations, or UNESCO.”
On the transparency concerns, Bush, who is also chairman of Alamo Complex Management, the nonprofit he set up to replace the Daughters of the Republic to manage the Alamo, told the Statesman on Monday that going forward the group would provide information beyond what is legally required by open records laws, from which nonprofits are shielded.
“In terms of PIRs, in terms of minutes and other documents within the (Alamo Complex Management), the position of legal counsel has been that it is not disclosable, which legally is correct, but I have made the decision as chairman to turn over everything,” he said. “There’s nothing to hide.”
“We’re now setting up a website for more speedy communications of that material to the media,” he said.
McDonald said that the use of tax dollars by Alamo Complex Management has always been publicly available.
“So let me be perfectly clear, 100 percent of every state of Texas dollar spent here at the Alamo is a public record, always has been a public record, and any request for those public records has always been granted, 100 percent,” McDonald said.
The Alamo does not charge admission, but receipts from the gift shop, the $300,000 collected annually in the donation boxes by the door and even the pennies in the fountain are sent to the state, and the state then sends the money to the General Land Office, which reimburses the Alamo for its expenses. Those reimbursements are a public record, though they are more difficult to obtain than if the work were performed by the General Land Office itself.
Patterson believes it would have been simpler and more transparent if, after the Daughters of the Republic were removed as stewards of the Alamo, the General Land Office had run the Alamo itself. McDonald explained that “private organizations can react faster, be more flexible and hold higher levels of accountability. The public benefits with higher effectiveness and lower tax subsidies utilizing private nonprofits.”
By setting up Alamo operations outside state government, the nonprofit employees aren’t counted as state employees, which allows Bush to tout his efforts to cut staff positions and streamline the agency.
In contracts between the General Land Office and the three nonprofits at the Alamo, obtained by the Statesman through requests under the Texas Public Information Act, Bush signs for the General Land Office and two Alamo nonprofits, both of which he initially chaired.
“I’d have concerns about conflicts of interest and conflicts of fiduciary duty,” Patterson said. “If there’s no chance of a conflict or dispute, why would you need a contract? I would not have contracted with myself to run the Alamo.”
But McDonald said he has been assured by the Alamo Complex Management legal counsel at Dykema Cox Smith that what Bush did is neither unusual nor problematic, that in each case it is the entity that is a party to the agreement and not Bush as an individual.
‘We have to keep politics out of it’
The next step in redeveloping the Alamo is hiring a design firm.
In May, the San Antonio City Council approved moving forward with the master plan, but, Nirenberg said, that didn’t mean it agreed to all details.
Ultimately, the City Council would have to vote to convey the plaza, which is city property, to the state and agree to road closures to remove vehicular traffic from the immediate area.
The master plan calls for repairing the aging cenotaph and moving it to a small park some blocks away that was reputedly the site of one of the funeral pyres where bodies of defenders were burned, though White questions that claim.
McDonald said restoring the battlefield requires relocating the monument.
“We’re trying to reclaim the battlefield and remove from it all nonhistoric architectures and objects as much as possible, so the cenotaph can be moved, and moved in a way that gives attention to all the people that are memorialized on it,” McDonald said. “You can have the names of the people who were left off added, and we think we can add exhibits around it.”
McDonald also said the “free speech zone” now on the plaza needs to be relocated. But Nirenberg told the Statesman, “I believe there is a way to ensure that there is a respect and a reverence for the site and all of the history on that site without closing of the public nature for free speech.”
On the centotaph, Nirenberg said, “The significance of the cenotaph had less to do with where it was than the actual symbolism of it, and that the bigger problem with the cenotaph is that it is falling apart and we have to deal with that issue.”
“I am in favor of moving it,” Nirenberg said. “I’m open to hearing objections, but to this point, they don’t outweigh the needs for making sure it’s secure in a different site.”
Nirenberg said his relationship with Bush on the endeavor is very good.
“We’re in a very positive place,” Nirenberg said. “There’s a cooperation and a partnership that exists with the state for the redevelopment of the site that’s never occurred in our history before, and it’s a very delicate balance that we have to be sure addresses public concerns and also keeps politics out of the process.
“Out of respect for the centuries of history as well as the many people who have tried and attempted to really restore the Alamo, we have to keep politics out of it,” Nirenberg said.
That’s proving to be difficult.
On Sept. 30, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz appeared at a NE Tarrant Tea Party Event, at which he was asked, “Where do you stand on the Texas land commissioner’s plan to reimagine the Alamo?”
Cruz and Bush are friends and allies. Bush backed Cruz in his 2012 runoff against David Dewhurst. But his answer suggested that the safest political course is not to rise publicly to Bush’s defense.
“Well, I will confess that I know a lot of people are concerned about the Alamo. Now, look, the Alamo is a priceless Texas treasure, and it needs to be preserved for generations to come,” Cruz said. “And I think the people of Texas should be very vocal defending the Alamo. I think that is important.
“I confess I haven’t studied the details of the particular plan,” Cruz said. “I know people have very real concerns, and the wonderful thing about our democratic process is that people have the opportunity to express our concerns and make them clear.”
That’s what Ray Myers, a tea party activist from Kaufman County, was doing back in April when he called a statewide Republican elected official he knows to express his concern that all the members of the Alamo Endowment board, one of the nonprofits Bush chaired, were “fat cats” and lacked a grassroots voice like his own. (McDonald said the board, through the Remember the Alamo Foundation, will be launching a $200 million fundraising campaign once the project is a go, and that those donors will not be a public record.)
Myers said that soon after, Bush called to thank him for his interest and then Ash Wright, Bush’s political director, called and answered some questions. “Endowment board members are all native Texans with significant business and philanthropic experience,” Wright wrote to Myers in an email. “In addition, each member of the board is asked to raise or give a minimum of $250,000 for the endowment.”
“Who can afford $250,000 to be on that committee to be the watchful eye?” said Myers, a retired teacher.
On Oct. 14, Myers and some allies will be headed to San Antonio to join members of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association at the demonstration for the cenotaph.
“What we’re hearing now is the city of San Antonio is going to move the cenotaph in broad daylight, right in front of everybody,” Myers said Friday.
“We don’t trust the city of San Antonio there at all,” Myers added. “That gives us pause.”
‘All history is contested’
With Confederate statues coming down all over the country, Myers worries that slavery will be used as an excuse to discredit the heroes of the Alamo — “for something that was just as common in its day as football is today.”
“Bowie had a slave there that stayed with him,” Myers said. “Travis was standing right next to his slave when he was killed.”
While he said he heard Bush made a very good speech Monday, Myers remains concerned.
“We don’t want the battle diminished,” Myers said, recalling the story of Travis drawing a line in the dirt a few days before the battle and asking those who were prepared to fight — and die — with him in the Alamo to cross it.
“One hundred eighty-seven men stepped over a line right there, and that line in the sand that Travis drew is as deep as the Grand Canyon,” Myers said.
Myers was paraphrasing the famed Texas historian J. Frank Dobie, who said, “It is a line that not all the piety nor wit of research will ever blot out. It is a Grand Canyon cut into the bedrock of human emotions and historical impulses.”
But did Travis really draw that line in the dirt?
The story is based largely on the recollection years later of Susanna Wilkerson Dickinson, one of the few survivors of the Battle of the Alamo.
But another survivor was Travis’ slave Joe, the subject of a book, “Joe the Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend,” co-authored by Ron Jackson and Lee Spencer White. Joe’s firsthand account of what happened at the Alamo, delivered at the time, informs much of what we know today, Jackson said, and Joe said nothing about a line in the dirt.
“If we can’t argue about whether Travis really drew a line in the sand, then what’s the fun of it?” McDonald said. “All history is contested. If it’s not contested, if it’s not challenged, it’s really not very valid.
“To me the right museum exhibit is to actually present the records on both sides, because it helps people understand that we can’t know all this precisely with certainty,” he said. “That’s what we do as a history institution, tell the history as best we understand it, knowing that it will evolve.”
In the meantime, McDonald has no concerns that the Alamo will fall victim to historical revisionism that so many latter-day defenders of the Alamo seem so anxious about.
“Civil War statues are coming down,” he said. “This is not the Civil War. And I’m confident that between the state of Texas and the Alamo Rangers, all of these things are quite safe.”