World History and the Texan Mind of George W. Bush (Part 1 of 3)
Does President Bush’s “Lone Star” mentality threaten U.S. military and diplomatic leadership in the world?
April 6, 2002
In retrospect, George W. Bush’s Middle East policy appears to have been based on two goals supported by the President — if not by every member of his administration. The first goal was informal U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil supplies. This goal was to be realized by means of alliance with friendly Arab tyrannies (Saudi Arabia and a post-Saddam dictatorship in Iraq).
The second goal was to give Israel’s right wing a free hand in carrying out their long-cherished dream of crushing the PLO, reoccupying the territories and — if they thought they could get away with it — ethnically cleansing all Arabs from the former Palestine Mandate.
What makes Mr. Bush’s pursuit of these twin goals so perplexing is that they pair what used to be considered big opposites. After all, pro-Israel Americans often have been at odds with Americans in the oil industry — which counts emirs as its friends and business partners.
Weirdly enough, though, Texans like George W. Bush can be Zionists, and Arabists, at the very same time. That is because the traditional culture of Texas combines the religious ethics of the Old Testament with the economics of Arab oil sheikhs.
I know something about the subject. I am a fifth-generation Texan, whose earliest Texan ancestor came to the state in General Custer’s Federal army in 1876. I went to work in the Texas state legislature at the age of nineteen. I received the key to the city of Fort Worth, for my contributions to Texan literature. I am even a distant nephew of the actor Larry Hagman — TV’s “J.R. Ewing.”
And, last, but not least, I own a modest ranch in Texas not far from George W. Bush’s considerably larger ranch. Thus, I can claim some authority in explaining what appears to the rest of the world to be an insane strategy — a bilateral Israeli-American alliance lording it over the oil fields of the Middle East and Central Asia.
This is, in fact, the archetypal daydream of an Old Testament Protestant Texas oil man such as George W. Bush. Although Mr. Bush’s forebears are from the Northeastern United States, the landscape which has shaped him is that of Texas.
It’s a culture that combines a violent Scots-Irish strain of Old Testament religiosity and a pre-industrial economy that strongly favors the commodity-driven capitalism of cotton and oil over high-tech manufacturing and scientific R&D.
This unique synthesis has long held back social and economic progress in Texas. And now, as the inspiration for the Bush Administration’s disastrous Middle Eastern policy, this traditional Lone Star mentality threatens to undermine U.S. military and diplomatic leadership in the world.
George W. Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut. But he was raised in Texas — and he is a genuine cultural Texan. Mainstream Texan culture has important Latino influences, but it has been shaped chiefly by the culture of the American South — and a particular one at that.
To see all the influences that have shaped the 43rd U.S. President, one has to delve back into religion and history.
Texas is the culture of the Scots-Irish “rednecks” or “hillbillies” of the Highland South — and not that of the more aristocratic culture of the coastal Southern “Bourbon” elite. Think hoedowns, not debutante balls.
By the time they reached Texas, the Anglo-Celtic ancestors of today’s white Texans had been conquered and expropriated other cultures and nations for centuries. Originally, they were Protestant Scots whom the English planted in Ulster (on land taken from the native Catholic Irish).
In the 18th century, these same Scots-Irish then crossed the sea to the Ozarks and Appalachians. In the 19th century, they supported the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokees and other Indian nations. (Though, to be fair, a few noble exceptions such as Sam Houston and Davy Crockett — who both defended the Indians — did exist.)
Since that time, altogether five major “tribes” have lived in Texas — namely these Anglo-Celtic Southerners, Tejanos (Mexican-Texans), Germans, blacks and Native Americans.
To make a long story short, one can summarize the history of Texas from 1836 until the 1960s in one sentence: The biggest tribe, the Anglo-Celtic Southerners, expropriated the Tejanos, deported the Indians, crushed the Germans — and exploited the blacks.
Only 15 years later, the state’s Southern majority led Texas out of the Union and into the Confederacy at the outset of the U.S. Civil War. These Texas Southerners massacred dozens of pro-Lincoln German Texans — and the liberal and intellectual German community in Central Texas has never recovered.
During Reconstruction in the decade following the Union victory in 1865, schools in Texas were integrated — and blacks were elected by the legislature. When Federal troops were withdrawn in 1876, however, some Texans imposed a brutal regime of apartheid, enforced by lynchings.
It was a state of affairs that lasted until the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s. My Swedish-American grandmother recalled seeing crosses burn near her immigrant father’s farm in the early twentieth century.
The battles were fought in the culture at large as well. Texas’ right-wing politicians waged a constant war on the teaching of evolution and other such “heresies.” After World War I, Governor “Pa” Ferguson — an anti-intellectual Texas populist not unlike Mr. Bush — accused professors at the University of Texas at Austin of using taxpayer money to try to grow hair on the backs of armadillos.
Folksy populists such as Ferguson, and “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel — a Depression-era country music star who became first Governor and then U.S. Senator from Texas — provided the bread and circuses.
Behind the scenes, however, well-educated, conservative businessmen who bought their suits in New York and London and sent their sons to Ivy League universities ran the state.
Colonel Edward M. House, Woodrow Wilson’s closest advisor, and James Baker — the consiglière of the first Bush administration — belonged to this discreet, cultivated oligarchy.
This Lone Star aristocracy kept its close financial and personal ties to the old Northeastern U.S. establishment.
Over time, centuries of frontier conquest have transformed Anglo-Celtic Southerners into a people as militaristic as the ancient Spartans. That is part of the reason why Southerners have always been overrepresented in the U.S. military — as well as, unfortunately, in the ranks of the nation’s murderers and supporters of capital punishment. The legendary feuding families, the Hatfields and McCoys, were, of course, Scots-Irish.
Texas, in short, is where the violent South of the USA meets the violent North of Mexico. Thus it is a land of whizzing bullets — and not just in Hollywood fiction.
To Texan families, all of this is not just a matter of abstract historical record. My own great-great-uncle was murdered by a highway robber near Austin. As a young attorney, my father socialized once or twice with Frank Hamer — the legendary Texas Ranger who ambushed and machine-gunned the notorious outlaw couple, Bonnie and Clyde.
The culture of the gun is the culture of Anglo-Scots in Texas. The grandfather of a friend of mine — a South Texas sheriff — used to check his tommy-gun (machine gun) with hat-check girls at restaurants in the 1930s.
My scoutmaster grew up on a ranch near the Mexican border where a loaded rifle resting at every door. The former State Comptroller of Texas threatened an acquaintance of mine with a pistol. My niece shot her first deer — at the tender age of six.
Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program, New America Foundation Michael Lind is Policy Director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program. He co-founded the New America Foundation with Ted Halstead and Sherle Schwenninger, and was the first New America fellow. Mr. Lind has taught at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University and writes […]