BROOKE GLADSTONE:: During the past year of the presidential campaign, the media declared open season on Texas whether it was grimy air in Houston, poverty along the border or the nation's busiest execution chamber -- Texas was portrayed as truly the land of wretched excesses. But does this image bear any resemblance to how the state sees itself? We asked NPR's John Burnett, a native Texan based in Austin, to explore the media images of Texas.
[JOHNNY CASH SONG ABOUT THE LONE STAR]
JOHN BURNETT: There are the old Texas cliches in which Texans tend to see themselves as culturally distinct with their own history, heroes, humor and a sometimes endearing, sometimes unsettling earthiness.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Dogs have always been my friend.
JOHN BURNETT: Here retired President Lyndon Johnson performs a duet with his favorite ranch dog, Yuki.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Come on, sing for me! [SINGS LIKE YUKI]
[RANCH DOG YUKI SINGS ALONG]
JOHN BURNETT: But this past election season saw a degree of Texas-bashing that went far beyond the old cliches. Al Gore slammed Texas of the 21st Century and its chief executive, the governor. Evan Smith is editor of Texas Monthly magazine.
EVAN SMITH: This is a state of great universities and wonderful achievement in technology and, you know, some of the largest corporations in the world; some of the most admired CEOs, and yet Texas was portrayed as this backwater, worse, if possible, than Arkansas was portrayed in, in '92. You had Houston turned into Boston Harbor. You had South Texas turned into one big maquilladora; you had the education system of Texas made out to be-- completely inept. You would have believed everybody had a little switch in their house to execute people.
JOHN BURNETT:On the campaign trail, George W. Bush bristled at the pounding his state took. Here he invoked his late political ally Bob Bullock in his defense of the Lone Star State.
GEORGE W. BUSH: We worked side by side; he endorsed my re-election. And I know he is with me in spirit in saying to those who would malign our state for political gain, "Don't mess with Texas."
JOHN BURNETT: The stereotypes of course resonate to a degree. Texas does trail the nation in welfare for children, pay for teachers and health care for the poor, and it leads the country in toxic waste emissions, prison construction and lethal injections. Then again, Texas is the nation's second largest producer of electronic components. Texas led the nation in job creation during the 1990s. If Texas were a country, its economy would rank ninth in the world. And Texas has the largest road network of all fifty states.
[SONG ABOUT MILES AND MILES OF TEXAS]
JOHN BURNETT: With the state's reputation for blowhardiness, Republicans expected a reckoning. Nobody likes Texas. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison told the Dallas Morning News last week people generally think that we think a lot of ourselves.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: People punish certain states for their cultural baggage, and Texas is particularly vulnerable.
JOHN BURNETT: Lawrence Wright is an Austin author and a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: I feel like it's perfectly legitimate to look at the culture of, you know, the state that the governor-- comes from, but it was remarkable to me that there was no such examination of Gore and Tennessee.
JOHN BURNETT:But the campaign is over. The Bushes have moved to Washington, and trend watchers in the nation's capital can't wait to confirm their corniest expectations. Mark McKinnon was Mr. Bush's Austin-based media advisor.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: You know, it's all about steers and big hair and loud obnoxious people and, you know, again it's, it's just a stereotype and listen, I -you know frankly, I think it works to our advantage, because it, it lowers the bar. People tend to under-estimate Texans in general!
JOHN BURNETT:But how does all that big hair get under the bar? I put the question to Dr. Don Graham, an English professor at the University of Texas who's written extensively about Texas and popular culture.
DR. DON GRAHAM: The last big-haired Texan that we had to my knowledge of any prominence was Ann Richards, and that was several years ago. And if you go to Dallas, you go to places like Dallas or Houston, you see some awfully good-looking women, but you don't see a lot of big hair. They don't dress like that. They don't do their hair like that except in sit-coms. That's what the media thinks!
JOHN BURNETT:Just the gossipy, corporate ratings-driven media? In the spirit of full disclosure, an NPR producer who's intelligent and informed stopped me in the hall a couple of weeks ago and asked: we want to do something about all the Texans coming to Washington. We were thinking about calling a local beauty salon and asking if their hair dryers are big enough.