The Scent of Texas

by Joshua H. Liberatore

POTUS is generally credited with having brought to the White House his special way of speaking, his folksy manner, and his frontier values from his Texas upbringing, with much attendant pride. Never mind that the Bush family hails from a long line of New England bluebloods, what most Americans will remember about Bush the Younger is that he was a right, honorable Texan, who stared down foreign adversaries and pesky journalists with all the swagger and rustic flavor of the Lone Star State. Given that POTUS is heading back to his beloved homeland in just under 5 days, let’s take a moment to walk down memory lane with him before he reenters the warm embrace of that fabled soil.

As a basic tribute to his Texas roots, POTUS often highlighted its distinctive linguistic inflections in an effort to educate his diverse audiences:

I want to thank the mayor, Rick Coleman, of the town of Dallas. That would be Dallas, North Carolina. [Laughter] And I want to thank Mayor Billy Joye of Belmont. Where’s Billy? Billy, you here? Billy, yes. See, Billy, they don’t know our connection, do they? Billy and I flew F-102s at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston, Texas. Thank you, Billy. As we used to say, “He was a heck of a stick” – [laughter] – which means you’re probably a heck of a mayor, Billy. Thanks for coming. Appreciate you being here. (July 15, 2005)

With POTUS as its ambassador across the far reaches of the United States, the Texan lexicon achieved national renown once again, and though not as colorfully vulgar as Lyndon B. Johnson’s, POTUS’s remarks paid loving tribute to his rich, inherited vocabulary:

Coach Robinson and others coach the mighty Golden Gophers of Minnesota in the University of Minnesota men’s wrestling team-grapplers. This spring, you earned the third national title in team history. And I appreciate the fact that you train hard, work hard, and as we say in Texas, “out-wrastle ’em.” [Laughter] Congratulations, and welcome to the White House. (September 21, 2007)

Sometimes he rather cleverly used such language lessons as a pretext to deflect difficult questions in press conferences. When pressed about a photograph documenting an apparently warm meeting between Iran’s firebrand President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – a Middle East reality that nonetheless presents formidable political difficulties for POTUS – POTUS took evasive action:

Jim [Jim Rutenberg, New York Times], I haven’t seen the reports. Before I would like to comment upon how their meetings went, I would like to get a readout from our Embassy, who, of course, will be in touch with the Prime Minister and get his readout. And so it’s a-you’re asking me to be a little speculative on the subject. I haven’t seen the picture. Look, generally the way these things work is you try to be cordial to the person you’re with, and so you don’t want the picture to be kind of, you know, duking it out; okay, put up your dukes. That’s an old boxing expression. (August 9, 2007)

On this occasion, POTUS even took care to illustrate the expression by raising his fists in a mock-fighting stance, and though initially eliciting laughter and light-hearted repartee, he soon got a bit hot under the collar when the subject of the picture brought back associations of his own recent photo-op trouble with indicted “superlobbyist” Jack Ambramoff, whom POTUS claimed never to have met:

THE PRESIDENT: And so, I don’t know, Jim. You’ve obviously followed this a lot. You’ve seen the reports. I’m sure you’re confident that what you’ve asked me is verifiable. I’m not surprised that there’s a picture showing people smiling.

Reporter: However . . .

THE PRESIDENT. Let me finish, please. And so it’s a-anyway, let me get the facts on what happened. Now, if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart to heart with my friend, the Prime Minister, because I don’t believe they are constructive. I don’t think he, in his heart of heart, thinks they’re constructive either. Now maybe he’s hopeful in trying to get them to be constructive by laying out a positive picture. You’re asking me to speculate.

Throughout much of American history, Texas was known to be a land unto itself, its people a breed apart. I remember learning in a high school history class that its state constitution provided for further division into several distinct states, a carryover from that brief period when Texas existed as separatist nation from its former mother country, Mexico. With this complex past in mind, it’s understandable that POTUS sometimes got confused when he visited specific places within that expansive territory. After a visit with wounded troops at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, he remarked:

I am here to highlight one of the world’s top rehabilitation facilities, right here in my home State of San Antonio, Texas. (November 8, 2007)

And non-Texans may understand the potential for confusion. Texas is so vast – geographically and demographically larger than most nations – and its largest cities among the most populous and most sprawling in the country, that it may almost conjure up a sort of multi-layered chauvinism, whereby cities become states, states become sovereign nations, and the rest can all just go to heck.

Visiting Texas on “the people’s business” – whether touring military bases, triaging with hurricane relief command centers, or just whacking weeds at the ranch in Crawford – was always a special time for POTUS. Sometimes these visits provided an experience so intense, in fact, that POTUS went right clear into the ether when trying to describe it:

It’s an amazing experience to come back to a place where you were raised. Laura was raised in Midland; I was raised in Midland. I was – this is one of the three homes I lived in, and I kind of remember it. [Laughter] The bedroom – actually, I do remember the wood on the wall that – in the bedroom. (October 4, 2008)

Even if we can’t quite grasp the specific substance beneath that obvious euphoria, we can surely recognize that POTUS is ready to go home. He’s been talking about it a lot, and for some reason, his deep love for Laura keeps cropping up in close juxtaposition to his affection for Texas:

And I’m going to miss all the folks who have made our life so comfortable here in the White House. On the other hand I am looking forward to going back to Texas. I love Texas. I love my wife. And I’m excited about the next chapter in my life. And so all three of those things, you know, are the sweet part of the – what’s going to take place on January the 20th. (January 11, 2009)

Although he couldn’t muster the term Inauguration there, the subject of Laura’s general excellence was clear as day:

I do want to thank Laura for joining me. She has been an awesome wife and a great First Lady. (January 8, 2009)

And his excitement to establish the Freedom Institute that’s being organized around his Presidential Library, and to be with Laura too:

By the way, these [gifts from State Department staff] are going to be at Southern Methodist University – [laughter] – proudly displayed at the presidential center I will build to remind our country of the timeless values of freedom and liberty. And I am honored to take them back to Texas. I’m honored to take my wife back to Texas, too. (January 15, 2009)

Of course, with so much media and popular attention focused on the incoming POTUS, there have also been a fair number of questions soliciting advice from POTUS to POTUS-elect. But Texas, and POTUS’s imminent return to it, has never been far from the horizon:

And he’s going to have to do what he thinks is right, Jim [Jim Axelrod, CBS News]. And if you don’t, then I don’t see how you can live with yourself. I don’t see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country. (January 12, 2009)

That’s good advice indeed. After all, POTUS has presided over some very tough choices, and agree or disagree with them, no one can accuse him of taking the easy path politically or riding out his last days in blissful irrelevance. On the contrary, he seems very aware of the difficult matrix of circumstances POTUS-elect will be assuming next Tuesday at noon.

You know, one of the very difficult parts of the decision I made on the financial crisis was to use hardworking people’s money to help prevent there to be a crisis, and in so doing, some of that money went into Wall Street firms that caused the crisis in the first place. I wasn’t kidding when I said Wall Street got drunk and we got the hangover. And – but nevertheless, President-Elect Obama will find the problems and the situations surrounding problems sometimes cause people to have to make decisions that they, you know, weren’t initially comfortable with. And there was such a decision when it came to Wall Street.

I mean, I had a lot of people – when I went out to Midland that time – say, “What the heck are you doing, boy? Those people up East caused the problem.” I said, “I know, but if we hadn’t worked to fix the problem, your situation would be worse. And – anyway, I really do wish him all the best. (January 12, 2009)

We wish him all the best too, POTUS. Expectations are so high, the craving for a political messiah so great, and the weight of the current problems so daunting, wishing him all the best seems to be about the best we can do, from the Commander in Chief down to the humblest civil servant.

I say all that because that’s – this has been – this notion about being briefed and thinking about this issue or that issue has been just a part of my life for eight years. People say, well, there you are in Crawford on vacation. You never escape the presidency. It travels with you everywhere you go. And there’s not a moment where you don’t think about being President – unless you’re riding mountain bikes as hard as you possibly can, trying to forget for the moment. (January 8, 2009)

Ride on into the sun, POTUS. You’ve served your time in the Oval Office. Now the scent of open steppes and plush gated communities beckons.

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