Gail Collins: Texas runs America

In a Salon interview, the New York Times writer who made Mitt's dog famous takes dead aim at the Lone Star State

Published June 9, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

Gail Collins
Gail Collins

In New York Times columnist Gail Collins' new book, "As Texas Goes ...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda," …Collins trains her trademark wit and New York perspective on showing the rest of America the many ways Texas controls the policies and mind-set of the rest of the country, from textbooks to banking -- as well as how completely bonkers Texas can be. And Texans just really, really love it when New Yorkers point out their perceived shortcomings. Almost as much as they love rattlesnakes, hailstones and the federal government.

In an interview with Salon, she talked about Rick Perry's abstinence, poked fun at the Alamo and assessed the Mitt Romney campaign.

You don't seem like you're all that crazy about Texas.

Well, I'm certainly crazy about the people in Texas. They're kind of amazing. But as I said in the book, Texas has both managed to lead the country in paranoia about the federal government and dictate a great chunk of this national agenda over the last 30 years, which is kind of a strange combination.

I was a little worried about your book until I remembered that I knew you back when you made Connecticut sound crazy.

(laughs) I found that it was much harder to get people interested in Connecticut. Something about Texas really does fascinate people and certainly fascinated me. And I do think -- Texans will agree with me about this -- that Texas is wildly underrated in its significance right now.

They would totally agree with you. I liked the part about secession because that I think people in the rest of the country can't understand that's sort of always bubbling under the conversation here.

Nobody thinks that Texans actually would ever vote to secede, but when they do that, they're talking about rancor about the federal government of a level that makes the rest of us not feel beloved … Why are these people so angry? They run everything, and yet they're so ticked off about the federal government, and [my] trying to understand that was a great part of writing the book, which is totally an outsider’s view of Texas. I'm trying to understand what Texas means to the rest of us.

A while ago during the whole Perry kerfuffle, I wrote a piece and said that Texans think about secession the way most people think about a three-way: It's interesting, but it's probably not going to happen in this lifetime.

(laughing) See, I come from Ohio, and in Ohio a three-way is a kind of chili, honest to God.

That's hilarious. Explain to me about “empty places.”

When I was covering Congress, I would notice that the real debate … was always between the empty places and the crowded places. If you live in a place that you perceive to be a crowded place you appreciate government, you see it as this thing that protects you against crime, that keeps order, that makes sure that nobody puts a massage parlor next to your house, that keeps other people’s dogs from pooping on the sidewalk.

If you live in what you perceive to be an empty place, it's sort of like: What's the point? I'm here, I’m taking care of myself, I'm not bothering anybody else, why are you messing with me? And the sense of what government can do and should do is vastly different.

Now the problem for empty places is that outside of the U.S. Senate, if you don't have any people, you don't really have much power. Nobody is going to write a book about how Wyoming is running the country. But Texas is genius in that it's gotten huge. Most of its residents actually live in metropolitan areas, yet they really feel like they're all living in empty places. You can live in Houston and still feel as if you're living someplace where there's lots of elbow room and you're not getting in anybody else's way. It's very interesting.

When I was reading about the empty places, all I could think of was that Dixie Chicks song, “Wide Open Spaces” – “room to make a big mistake.” That's not contrary to your thesis.

No, and it's fascinating. If you're a kid in Texas, I gather, you think nothing of driving 300 miles in your school bus to go play a basketball game or something. It's just the sense of how far you have to go to get places, even if all the places you’re getting to are actually large, humongous metropolitan areas. It makes a difference. I did spend some time in West Texas. If you drive one day through parts of West Texas it is imprinted on your mind for a long time afterward that this place can be really empty.

But there are lots of parts of Connecticut that (have) lots of space, but Connecticut tends to think of itself as being very crowded. It depends on mind-set, really.

I swear there are people in places like Houston that think they're on the prairie, and they're in Houston. It's partly that Houston has no zoning, so you really can be in the city, and then you go two blocks and there's this really large empty space. It's a fascinating way to run things.

Yeah, it almost works.

In some ways it does. I think one of the things you have to pay attention to about Texas … is that the cost of housing in Texas is so low because there's so much less regulation and so much less zoning and so many fewer rules. Now, some people would say, "This is over the long run going to lead to a lot of collapsed houses," and others would say, "Wow, look, you give people the chance to buy houses. No wonder the place is growing," but I think attention must be paid on that front.

That's a thing that Texas kind of got right. It didn't go through the housing bubble and bust.

It didn't, and part of it is because of the low cost of housing. But also I believe Texas has had some really good consumer legislation as far as housing loans that made it harder for the bubble to happen, which, I would say, for once, "Go consumer legislation in Texas."  … I just really like Houston despite its craziness. There is a sense of energy and a kind of excitement, "We're going places and God knows what'll happen next." It's very interesting. It's very exciting.

Yeah, you sort of anticipated my next question, which is: What are the things that Texas actually gets right?

That would be one of them, for sure. Also, for a border state, I would argue that Texas is less lunatic on the subject of immigration issues than other places around it, like Arizona. They’re much more comfortable with their long-term identity as a place with a very large Hispanic population. That is not to say that they're comfortable with the idea that this is soon going to be a majority Hispanic state in which Hispanic people, politicians and business leaders would be running things. I don't know that the adults, at least, of Texas are ready for that one yet.

I know a reporter who goes up to public officials all the time and says, "Tell me what you think the percentages of Anglo kids in the Dallas school district and the Houston school district are," and he says they always get it wrong.

It's what, like, 20 percent. It's very low.

Oh, brace yourself: The percentage of Anglo kids in Dallas school districts is 4 percent; in Houston it's 8 percent.

There you go.

That's the future.

Sorry, I'm off. (laughs) I overestimated. If you look at the percentage of people over the age of 60 in, say, Houston you will find that the majority are Anglo. This change is happening so fast ... That's one of the things I was talking about in the book when I was talking about "As Texas goes, so goes the nation."


Because of, I would argue, its lunatic war on family planning and its completely crazy abstinence-only sex education in high school, it has a stupendous birthrate, a humongous birthrate, plus it has a lot of immigration, and its population is growing by leaps and bounds. And in 10 or 20 years, you're going to have a majority Hispanic state that makes up 10 percent of the workforce of the nation. There will be Texans, young Texans, all over the country who are a critical part of our workforce. If they have not been well educated, we're all screwed. And right now Texas is doing nothing but cutting its education budget for its schools. And that, to me, is the current great sin of Texas. If they can't deal with that, if they can't get that thing right, we're all doomed over the long run.

Amen to that. But that's sort of ... it struck me reading your book that a lot of things such as Anglo politicians are part of a Texas that is going to disappear.

The question is how fast it disappears. One of the things that's been so interesting lately in Texas is you find poor Democrats in Texas all saying we're going to be great because the Hispanic population is growing, we're already a majority minority state, and all of those folks are our people, and our time is coming again. But Texas’ voting in general is pathetically low … And (in) the population of minority voters, Hispanic voters, their turnout is even worse. The new voting laws that keep being passed down are making it even worse yet. I was just reading, as you called, a story from the Houston Chronicle about the number of people who've been removed from the Texas rolls between 2008 and 2010. More than 300,000 valid voters were notified they could be removed because they were mistaken for somebody else or failed to respond to a generic form letter or in some other way irritated the officials who are in charge of voting in Texas. Texas is not a place that seems to go out of its way to encourage folks to get out and vote.

[It’s] a state that's going to be majority Hispanic, and what you would want to see is a state that's preparing for this by doing a stupendous job of educating its minority kids … and that's making a real effort to integrate Mexican-American Texans into the voting population, into the political activities of the state and into the business activities of the state. And I’m not seeing the love there.

You spend a lot of time on the sex-ed problem.

Yeah, well, it’s sex, you know. I was totally taken by that interview that Perry did before his last election, with Evan Smith from the Texas Tribune, in which Evan kept saying, "but we've got one of the highest teenage birthrates in the country. Should we maybe revisit this?" and Perry kept saying, "Abstinence works." And finally he said, "Abstinence works, I know it from my own personal life, abstinence works."

There was great survey that was done  -- I think it was Texas Freedom Network that did it -- on what exactly schools are teaching as far as sex education, and bloodcurdling information about how you will die if you have sex, which might be discouraging until the kids actually do have sex and notice that they didn't die. Then you've lost them completely. Rules about that stuff that I (heard) when I was in Catholic high school 10 billion years ago about how if you go out and have sex, then you will probably be murdered on your way home, and that women who don't enjoy sex cannot get pregnant.

There's no Texas sacred cow that you left untipped, I think. You make fun of the Alamo.

Well, the Alamo was so important to Texas. Almost every kid in Texas goes on a pilgrimage to the Alamo. Nobody could go and hear that story and not think, "Oh my god, these poor people, oh my god what a tragedy, oh my god how brave they were" … but I must admit when I heard the story, I thought, "Oh my god, what a waste. Why the hell didn't they leave and go help Sam Houston fight the war of independence?" They could've done that if you hadn't had this guy Travis, obsessed with victory or death, running the show. And I think that that is perhaps a crucial difference, the idea that the standing-up part is the most important part  -- as opposed to the actually winning the argument part. So certainly you would not want to ever make fun of the bravery of the people at the Alamo. But the idea that this was a good plan is one that I just can't get my head around.

I was fascinated when I was there that there's actually a disagreement about whether Davy Crockett died during the Alamo because that was the part, growing up in Ohio, that I was sure I knew about.

Absolutely, I mean he looked just like Fess Parker.

Yeah, and he had a coonskin cap.

And so did all of us.

Yes, you know you cannot ever limit the ways that Texas, or a certain idea of Texas, spread to the rest of the country. I was fascinated that when the reality TV people kept duplicating the number of shows about people who bid on abandoned storage lockers, almost instantly, there was one only on Texans that bid on abandoned storage lockers. Everything can be redone in a way that's Texan because the myth of the sense of identity of Texas is so great. I grew up in Ohio … I  liked Ohio a lot, but we never had to pledge to the (state) flag. I wouldn't have known the Ohio flag if you hit me in the head with the Ohio flag … And it's a very Texan sense of self that I find both a little unnerving but remarkable. You cannot match that any place else in the country.

No, you really can't. I've talked to people who’ve said this to me: I'm Texan first, American second.

Which to the rest of us Americans is slightly bothersome because we thought we were all Americans first and then Ohioans second.

Frankly, I think most people who live in New York City where I live would say, "I'm an American first, I’m a New Yorker second" … People do have a real city identification, but it’s not something that trumps national identity in any way, shape or form.

I have to ask you: What's your favorite place in Texas? And you can't say Austin.

The great battle … between Austin and Houston, which only Houston is fighting, [is] which is the cooler city? Houston does have an energy. It's a weird place, but it does have an energy I was taken by. And the other place I really love … is Marfa, which is in West Texas in the middle of nowhere, but it’s near a lot of national parks and kind of near the border, and it is sort of an art colony in a very unpretentious way. And anyplace named after a Dostoyevsky character in West Texas you've really got to love. So I got to see the Marfa Shorthorns play the Panthers from Odessa, who are the “Friday Night Lights” models, and “Friday Night Lights” is my all-time favorite TV show, so that was a thrill, too.

I feel very bad that anybody in Texas would feel that I was making fun of them personally, because I really did love the Texans so much, and I had so many good times there. I would feel terrible to think that anybody regretted having met me while I was down there.

Are you ever coming back?

Oh, I'm going back this month on a book tour. I'm going to Dallas, Houston and Austin. But the generosity, the charm and civility of the Texans will save me, I think.

As long as nobody's packing. Mitt Romney is in Texas right now on a fundraising toot. He’s going to come out of it with $15 million.

I feel a certain sympathy with Texas on this. It’s like New York, in that the candidates come here just to get money. Nobody goes to Texas for the votes, just to Hooverize the money. Not to talk to the voters.

I don’t get a sense of how Romney will play in Texas.

You know about my theory of empty places vs. crowded places. Romney is really a crowded-places kind of guy. He’s a hard sell in empty-places Texas. But he’s the GOP nominee, and it’s a very red state, so they’ll learn to live with it.

By Kyrie O'Connor

Kyrie O'Connor is an editor and columnist at the Houston Chronicle

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