Part Five: The Bush Library at my Alma Mater…That’s Great, I Guess?
As a Texan living in Chicago—a Democratic stronghold—I am frequently asked the question, “What do you think of President George W. Bush?" This is, of course, a loaded question for a Texpatriate in these parts.
Most Chicagoans are decidedly anti-Bush and there is no question what folks here think of our 43rd president. They simply hate him—even now, 18 months after leaving office. Moreover, just as Chicagoans are most likely to be Democrats, at least statistically, most Texans are Republicans. Thus, when Windy City yokels ask me what I think of W., they automatically assume I’m a Republican and must be a fan.
I should first mention that Chicagoans are usually startled to learn that I’m a Texan since I don’t much sound like one. When they learn that I’m a 7th generation Texan they’re even more surprised that I left the homeland at all. (So are most of my friends and family; even my wife of 10 years is continually surprised.) But finding out that I didn’t vote for President Bush simply shocks the hell out of them.
To Chicagoans I am a paradox: I’m a multigenerational Texan living in Chicago who sounds vaguely like an Iowan (i.e. I am told I have almost no Texas accent whatsoever) and I’m not a raging conservative. Folks here assume that since I’m not a Republican I must hail from Austin. To non-Texans, Austin is perceived as the only place where one can find that unique species known as a Liberatus Texana (i.e. Texas liberal). Moreover, Austin is the one city that most non-Texans find appealing—not that most Chicagoans have ever visited Texas, much less its capital. But everyone outside of Texas has heard about Austin’s reputation for laid-back attitudes, great music, beautiful landscape, and hip culture. (All these stereotypes are at least partially true and Austin is indeed a great town, but it's certainly not the only great place in Texas.) Of course, I’m not really a raging liberal, either—at least not by Chicago standards—as I don’t vote straight ticket for the local Dems. To do so would mean voting for likely felons and narcissistic ne’er-do-wells.
Ultimately, Chicagoans don’t know what the hell to make of me. I think it bothers some folks here that I don't fit neatly into their stereotypical view of Texans. On too many occasions to count I have been present when a friend or colleague openly criticizes Texas for one reason or another—usually to condemn Pres. Bush, Gov. Rick "Tea Party" Perry, the “greedy oil industry,” the Texas State Board of Education and its ignoble decisions regarding the content of history textbooks, or some loony secessionist with a gun. They usually remember I’m a Texan midsentence and sheepishly proclaim, "oh…but you're different, Dave." (Most of the time, I simply want to respond: “Yeah…and you’re an asshole from the bland, Godforsaken Midwest.”)
To Chicagoans—or to just about anyone outside of Texas, other than the big cluster of red southern states reaching from Oklahoma to Florida—Texas is a gun-loving, Bible-thumping, oil-obsessed, evolution-in-schools-banning, redneck-sounding, uneducated, unsophisticated, Republican-dominated, unmitigated hell hole. Moreover, most non-Texans tend to assume Texans are stereotypical one-dimensional caricatures in cowboy hats wearing six shooters and quoting Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. (Okay, to be completely fair, there are certainly plenty of folks who fit that description.) But Texas is much more complex and diverse than most outsiders would believe. In fact, non-Texans tend to think of Texans much the way Europeans think of Americans: simply put, they think we’re a bunch of rubes.
My Pet Goat
I voted against President Bush twice and both times my candidate lost. With respect to political choices and voting history, I’m generally quite familiar with defeat. I was hugely disappointed in many of Bush’s decisions, especially the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq. I found his leadership style and his glib manner disappointing and unbecoming of a president. Yet, I had—and have—difficulty hating him, unlike most of my fellow Chicagoans. After all, hate is a pretty strong emotion. Furthermore, I tend to assume that all presidents have thousands of challenging decisions to make and they genuinely try their best to make the so-called "right" decision based on the facts available to them. Perhaps that’s naïve, but I honestly believe that anyone behind the desk in the oval office—regardless of what the liberal or conservative pundits would have you believe—aims to make decisions that are in the best interest of our country and its citizens. What is “best” is, of course, up for debate. In reality, the conservatives and liberals in the U.S. are not really that far apart, relatively speaking. (Seriously—it’s not like we’re stuck having to vote for Kim Jong il, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, or Adolph Hitler, regardless of what you might be instructed to believe on Fox News or MSNBC.)
I did hate many of W's decisions, but I tend to reserve most of my hatred for more important things, such as: the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, all Florida football teams (both college and professional), the Big Ten, the White Sox, the Bears, the BCS, bland Mexican food in the Midwest, drivers who don't use turn signals, green relish or ketchup on hot dogs, brown gravy (vs. cream gravy) on chicken fried steak, sour cream on anything, “happy talk” anchors on the local news, reality TV shows, Orlando—or anywhere in Florida—in August, window-unit air conditioning, and music of just about any boy band (and that means you, New Kids on the Bloc, ‘N Sync, Hanson, Jonas Brothers, and Backstreet Boys, to name a few). To be fair, I also hate the simplistic vitriol of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, caustic far right- and left-wing pundits, and the 24-hour news cycle that contributes to the perpetual political stalemate we find ourselves in lately.
In this Texpat’s humble opinion, hate is an emotion best employed to express simplistic responses requiring little depth or nuance. Politics (and politicians), government service, wars, and other truly nuanced, weighty issues simply deserve more thoughtful, subtle emotions than hate. Anger, frustration and disgust are perfectly reasonable, but hate is something altogether different. For issues and matters of true seriousness and importance, hate is intellectually lazy. The world is far too complex and abstruse to reduce the work of our government and its leaders to simplistic emotions such as hate. Silly sports rivalries, lousy cuisine, bad drivers, and other daily annoyances in life—as well as the shrill music of boy bands (and I know you agree with me)—are more appropriate outlets for our hatred. (Florida college football teams are especially appropriate.)
I don’t have blind faith in the decisions or abilities of our political leaders, I am just keenly aware that U.S. presidents and political leaders in congress must make difficult decisions that may not be popular—and which may turn out to be flat wrong with hindsight. (And, in my opinion, Bush’s decisions were dreadful quite regularly.) But I think it’s far too easy to play armchair quarterback with each and every decision after the fact.
I do wish George W. had cleared less brush on his ranch in Crawford and spent more time focusing on things that matter. (After all, I never much enjoyed hours of yard-work in August and have difficulty understanding why the leader of the free world should enjoy it quite so much.) Bush clearly made errors in judgment with respect to selecting a Vice President, appointing key cabinet members (Rumsfeld and Rice, to name a few), and executing important initiatives, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to his response to Hurricane Katrina. But not everything he did was bad, despite what many of my friends may think (e.g. aid to African). Similarly, President Obama is criticized for every decision from the right. The endless partisan blame game is both exhausting and disgusting.
So when I learned that Bush was creating his presidential library and think tank at SMU, my alma mater, I was rather conflicted. As a history major and one who understands and appreciates the value of the archives that will eventually be accessible to scholars at SMU from this critical period in American history, I am thrilled. Moreover, it’s very hard to know how the Bush legacy will be perceived and understood in fifty years or more. I know enough about history to comprehend that historians of different epochs tend to view the past differently than prior generations—especially contemporaneous generations in history.
On the other hand, I have to endure the indignity of explaining to folks in my adopted city of Chicago that: A) SMU, my alma mater, is not a radical religious college run by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or other right-wing religious nut jobs whose sole aim is to burnish the Bush reputation, and B) yes, President Bush’s library will contain more books and archives than a single copy of “My Pet Goat” (i.e. the book Bush was reading on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were felled by al-Qaeda). In this context, it often feels as though SMU won the booby prize of presidential libraries. Well, if we can endure the NCAA death penalty in football, I guess we can endure the short-lived ridicule associated with the Bush Library.
Of course, my Chicago friends have very little to be proud of with respect to politics other than Presidents Obama and Lincoln.
Politics in Chicago vs. Texas
Today in Chicago my former governor, Rod “helmet head” Blagojevich, entered a courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building—two blocks from my office—to commence his corruption trial. Blago was indicted 18 months ago on 24 counts of fraud, conspiracy, bribery, and racketeering. His shock and awe corruption campaign included a failed attempt to sell President Obama’s vacated senate seat to the highest bidder. (Who wouldn’t? After all, “it’s bleeping golden!”) Amazingly, Blago campaigned for governor as a reformer in the wake of scandals involving George Ryan, our prior governor, who is currently serving a six-year sentence in Terra Haute, Indiana for a corruption conviction. (Instead of a prison in Terra Haute, the authorities should have made him live in a typical Gary, Indiana neighborhood—I guarantee prison is safer and preferable to Gary.)
Illinois has a long, proud history of political corruption. Indeed, six Illinois governors have been charged with crimes, either during or after their administrations. Otto Kerner, Jr., Daniel Walker, and George Ryan all served time in prison. Two others—Lennington Small and William G. Stratton—were acquitted. (They must have had friendly Chicago juries.) Blago is the sixth to be indicted, and jury selection for his trial began today.
Just in the city of Chicago, Blago’s hometown—and my adopted home—29 aldermen have been convicted during the last four decades. That has to be a record for any American city. (For context, we only have 50 wards in Chicago. Given how corrupt politics is here, I’m frankly surprised the number of convictions isn’t higher.)
I don’t know precisely how Chicago’s corruption compares with other American cities, but I’m willing to bet that it’s at or near the top (i.e. the top being the worst). An FBI friend here corroborates my assumption about Chicago being the most corrupt big city in America. (I’m so proud—at least the Second City is number one in something!) In the City of the Big Shoulders, shoulder pads are required as politics is a full contact sport, and the referees tend to get bought off to ignore most violations. To put it bluntly: this place reeks of corruption and everybody knows it.
So when friends ridicule Texas politicians—as lousy as many of them may be—they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Blago and his fellow Chicago politicians who make Rick Perry actually look good by comparison (as hard as that is to admit).
The Library…Last Thoughts
I am actually eager to visit the Bush Library, once it’s completed. Having visited the LBJ Library at the University of Texas, which houses a fascinating museum and a historical treasure trove of documents and memorabilia, I genuinely appreciate the value of these unique places. Johnson was arguably even less popular than Bush when his library was created in the late-60s thanks to the escalation of the Vietnam War during his tenure. Yet today, the library is an invaluable archive for historians and political scientists.
So, at the end of the day, I’m actually rather excited about the Bush Library. Perhaps I’ll even check out a copy of My Pet Goat, just for kicks…