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Sept. 20, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

What's the Matter With Texas?

Gail Collins is from Ohio. She did not grow up wearing a "Republic of Ohio" T-shirt or celebrating the victims of the Big Bottom Massacre. She was not taught that people from Ohio were all that special just because they were from Ohio. 

It's safe to say that most Americans share her experience - we identify as Americans, and while we may love our home state, we don't revere it.

Texas is not Ohio. 

Lone Star State children grow up believing that Texas IS special. Texans revel in their state's history ("Victory or Death!") and love to point out that Texas was a country once, too. 

Collins seems to resent this sense of exceptionalism, in much the same way many liberals resent the notion of American exceptionalism. "As Texas Goes ...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda" could have been subtitled "What Makes Them Think They're So Special?"

As Collins acknowledges, one thing that makes Texans think they're special is the success their politicians have achieved at the national level.

The Republic may have dallied with Britain and seceded from the union in the 19th century, but Texans are all in these days.

A slew of recent presidents claim Texas as their home, and a number of recent Congressional leaders, from Dick Armey to Jim Wright to Tom DeLay, have "Texas" next to their party affiliation. 

For Collins, too much influence from Texas is bad news.

She argues that the state's major politicians (these days predominantly Republican, though that is a relatively recent phenomenon) have brought the state's policy outlook to Washington, with dubious results. (Unfortunately, she doesn't consider the dubious results that President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs have had for today's debt crisis.) 

In any case, she is probably overstating the persistence of the Texas Model as a framework for national policy - Gov. Rick Perry didn't fare so well, even among Republican primary voters, and Texas is no longer represented among the senior leadership in either chamber.

But that didn't deter Collins, a New York Times columnist who served as the paper's editorial page editor during much of the presidency of George W. Bush. For those who recall how the Times op-ed pages treated Bush, the tenor of Collins argument will come as no surprise.  

Collins traces a great deal of Texas' outsized influence to the leading roles Texans have played in recent decades, particularly LBJ and the two Presidents Bush. 

Collins also spends considerable time on the failed campaign of Perry, whom she portrays as an opportunistic bumbler - a device that provides some comic relief but runs counter to her larger thesis (a fact Collins doesn't seem to grasp) that Texas is overwhelming the rest of the country. Perry couldn't even persuade his own party to support him.

Good Journalism, Bad History

The primary policy analysis in the book centers on President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, a Texas-inspired model for overhauling the federal role in education.

Collins effectively makes the case that while No Child Left Behind may have been something of a success on the state level, it was not designed for the national stage. She correctly points out that some of its early champions have abandoned it, although many of those who have are conservatives who would not agree with Collins about why it has failed. 

Collins also notes that, despite some examples of success in Texas education, notably the charter school movement, the state continues to struggle with educational disparity and graduation rates.

In addition to education, Collins discusses Texas' laws on guns, energy, zoning (or lack there of) and social policy. Collins argues that Texas inflates its successes, from the "victory" at the Alamo to its standardized test scores. These exaggerated claims, in turn, explain how Texas policies are revealed as colossal failures on the national level. 

But "As Texas Goes ..." is not really a book of policy analysis.

Her book is infused with humor, from her Perry quips (asked whether abstinence education works, Perry cites "my own personal life" as an example of success) to her constant questions and criticisms of what really happened at the Alamo. 

Before she even gets started, really, Collins cites Perry quoting Sam Houston, as saying "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression" and proclaims that Houston "was definitely attempting to break away from the country to which Texas was then attached."

On the contrary, Houston was a staunch advocate of the Union and destroyed his political career by opposing secession, the only Southern governor to do so.

Collins makes up for her dubious skills as a historian by putting her reporting skills to good use. The book is filled with dialogue and colorful narratives, moving the reader along through vignettes on policy and history, and tying both together with timely and relevant links to the current political discussion, including the 2012 campaign.   

Liberal and conservative readers who share an affinity for Lone Star State politics can enjoy this book, particularly as Collins takes the reader through some of Texas' more colorful characters and recent events. (Remember the time the Democrats absconded to Oklahoma on a bus to avoid redistricting? Or the collapse of Enron?)  

But loyal Texans will also find plenty to take issue with in Collins' depiction of their beloved home. Nowhere is this more evident than in her derisive analysis of the Texas creation myth.

Collins traces Texans' outsized pride back to the Alamo and the decision to die defending it rather than retreat to support Houston and his troops in a more significant battle. 

Her analysis of the military situation is not unique, but one wonders whether she feels the same about other disastrous/inspirational defeats such as Pearl Harbor or Masada.

When I summarized Collins' conclusion for another Texan, he was aghast at such criticism of the fallen heroes of the Alamo, martyrs who gave the Lone Star Republic the will to continue fighting and win its independence. 

Like Thomas Frank's risible "What's the Matter With Kansas," "As Texas Goes ..." provides an outsider's view of a state that the outsider doesn't have firm grasp of. Like Frank's book, it succeeds as polemic but fails to tell - indeed, fails to even try to tell - the whole story.

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