Texas, Hold ‘im — Please!

Garry South

July 25, 2011

The Huffington Post

Speculation is rampant that Texas Gov. Rick Perry may be getting ready to announce for president, and Perry himself avers that he may be “called” to run. (Oh my God, another Republican presidential candidate who talks directly to God?) All I can say is: Another Texan for president? You gotta be kidding!

When a single state has turned out three presidents in the past 50 years, and all three turned out to be clunkers in their own special way, one would hope that America has learned its lesson. I speak, of course, of Lyndon Baines Johnson, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush.

Dwight Eisenhower, to be sure, was actually born in Texas, but only because of a brief three-year sojourn in the state by his parents, who moved back to Kansas when Eisenhower was 2. So it can hardly be argued that toddler Ike was ever really imbued with the attributes of a “real” Texan, and he certainly never participated in the macho politics of Texas. Plus, of course, Eisenhower retired to Pennsylvania, not Dallas or Houston, and is buried in Abilene, Kansas. So in my book, he doesn’t really count as a president from Texas.

But let’s look at the three who do claim the Lone Star State as their home, either birth or adopted. Johnson was the only Texas native of the three, born in Stonewall in 1908. A larger-than-life personality – scatologically profane, given to bullying – LBJ did some undeniably great things, such as the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare. But after winning a full term of his own in a record landslide in 1964, he sacrificed the domestic achievements of his presidency to a dogged, expensive and bloody quest to rid Vietnam of the Commies, a hugely unpopular war that nearly tore American apart, dividing family from family, brother from brother, veteran from non-veteran.

In the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary, the battle-scarred Johnson was jarred by the poetry-spouting pacifist senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, who came within a shocking 7 points of beating the incumbent president of the United States. Shortly thereafter, Johnson issued a Shermanesque statement taking himself out of the running in ’68. When his hand-picked vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was defeated that fall by Richard Nixon, after a disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago that was essentially an urban riot and where Johnson was both a no-show and a swear word, LBJ retired to his ranch near his Texas birthplace, and died there in exile in 1972.

The second president from Texas, George Herbert Walker Bush, was actually a Massachusetts-born prep-school product with an aristocratic U.S. Senator from Connecticut as his daddy. “Poppy” was imminently more qualified to be president both in terms of experience and temperament than his ne’er-do-well eldest son, Dubya. Although achieving stratospheric approval numbers after liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in ’91, Daddy Bush’s public standing started a steady slide thereafter.
Like Johnson, Bush the Elder was embarrassed in the New Hampshire primary of ’92, scoring a less-than-impressive victory over rightwing gadfly Pat Buchanan, who although he had never run for office before, scored nearly 40 percent of the vote. Bush 41 turned out to be an aloof, desultory leader whose lack of passion was captured in the second general-election debate in October of 1992 when he was caught by the camera looking bored and checking the time on his wristwatch. In the end, he became only the second one-term president since Herbert Hoover in 1932, and hightailed it back to Houston.

Then, of course, there was the worst Texas president of all — if not one of the worst presidents ever — George W. Bush. And it’s not just me saying that. A survey by the History News Network of 109 professional historians in April of 2008, just nine months before Bush left office, found that 98.2 percent considered Bush’s presidency to be a failure, while a miniscule 1.8 percent classified it as a success.

Further, when asked to rank Bush’s presidency in comparison to those of all previous presidents, more than 61 percent of these historians thought it was the worst in the nation’s history. Another 35 percent rated W.’s incumbency in the bottom fourth, and only four of the 109 respondents even ranked Bush among the top two-thirds of American presidents.

The voting public was no kinder to Junior. Richard Nixon’s lowest Gallup Poll rating was 27 percent, just before he resigned over the Watergate scandal. But in October of ’08, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found Bush with an approval of only 23 percent – lower than the disgraced Nixon’s lowest low, and the second-lowest ever recorded for an American president (Truman clocked a 22 percent rating in 1952). In May of that year, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey discovered that 71 percent of Americans disapproved of Bush’s performance – the highest percentage ever recorded to that point and the first time in any major poll that a president’s disapproval rating had ever cracked 70 percent. But wait, in the October 2008 ABC/Post poll Bush beat his own record with an even higher 73 percent disapproval.

Comes now Rick Perry, George W. Bush’s lieutenant governor, George W. Bush’s successor as governor, and like George W. Bush, a former puppet of evil genius Karl Rove, Bush’s putative “brain.” Despite the well-known friction between Perry and the Bush clan – George H.W. Bush endorsed Perry’s primary opponent in 2010 – Perry, a native Texan and former Democrat, is even more of a pure product of Texas politics than Connecticut Yankee George W. Bush. He’s held elective office for the past 25 years, and is now the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.

Frankly, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that as a Democrat, I’ve never really forgiven Democratic Pres. James K. Polk for admitting Texas to the Union. Despite, though, my visceral disdain for pretty much all things Texas — from Tom DeLay to Tex Ritter to Mark Cuban — there are practical reasons why a governor of Texas in the 21st century has no idea how the rest of the country lives politically.

Texas hasn’t had an elected Democratic senator since Lloyd Bentsen resigned in January of ’93 to become Treasury Secretary. Only nine of the 32 members of Congress from Texas are Democrats. Every single statewide elected official is a Republican. The state House of Representatives is lopsidedly controlled 101-49 by the Republicans, the Senate 19-12. (I apologize for sounding overly partisan and perhaps snippy, but could this total GOP dominance have any relationship to the fact that Texas ranks 50th among the states in people over 25 with a high school diploma? Just asking.)

This is the real world a president of the United States finds in Washington and across the nation, where the two political parties are usually pretty evenly balanced and competitive? Texas is a “whole other country,” all right – kind of like the old Soviet Union when the Communist Party controlled everything lock, stock and barrel, and every “candidate” received 99.9 percent of the vote.

And the situation under Perry is even more one-sided than it was under George W. Bush. For his first term Bush at least had to deal with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a powerful figure and a longtime fixture in Lone Star politics who ran the state Senate, as well as a Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives during his entire time as governor. In fact, in the 2000 race, Bush cited his working relationship with Bullock as testament to his ability to work across the aisle, and Bullock even informally endorsed Bush in 1998. Perry, by contrast, has to talk to no one other than like-minded Republicans. Oh, and apparently, to God.

So, Lone Star State, do the other 49 states a favor and keep Rick Perry at home. The country may simply not be able to survive another president from your state. Texas, don’t mess with Uh-mur-i-cuh again – please.

Garry South is a California-based Democratic strategist and commentator who has played roles in presidential campaigns from George McGovern and Jimmy Carter to Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.