The week before the inauguration, my 26-year-old daughter and I began a road trip to California. She was headed to a new job in Palo Alto. I went along to offer worldly advice, insightful commentary and a treasure trove of hard-won wisdom that would be helpful to her. You know, the usual mother-daughter trip. If we didn’t strangle each other at a truck stop somewhere in the middle of Arizona, we’d have a fine time.
“We’re driving in a car with Texas tags,” I mentioned to her before we left. “Can you imagine all the nasty comments we’re going to get along the way, with Bush’s approval ratings in the toilet? It’s going to be intense.”
But we’re both pretty good at handling nasty criticisms, at least when it comes to George W. Bush. I had trekked across Europe a few times over the past eight years. While there, I usually found it best to initiate conversations with an apology. Thanks to W, I can now apologize in several different languages. I’m from Texas-and je suis dÃ©solÃ©e!
It invariably worked. Everybody seemed charmed by my humility. Or maybe my pronunciation was so wretched, the Europeans had no earthly idea what I was talking about. Who cares? I always felt better after groveling a little.
Inside my own country, speaking my mother tongue and being in no danger of imminent deportation, I’d learned to push back. No, George W. Bush didn’t really come from Texas, I’d patiently explain to New Yorkers or Californians or anybody else who was leaning on me and working up to a condescending sneer. In fact, he’d been born in Connecticut and educated at Yale and Harvard. Oh, and the Crawford “ranch” that had been in the Bush family for generations? Actually, it was a hog farm purchased in 1999-a photo-op backdrop, along with all that brush-clearing, that enchanted the media.
My husband was even more direct. Once, when he was speaking in Wisconsin during W’s first term, he got cranky about the constant barrage of criticism aimed toward Texas and Bush. “I’ll tell you what,” he announced to the hectoring audience. “If you’ll stop talking about Bush, I won’t bring up your old senator … Joe McCarthy.” Silence ensued, he reported.
All of which is to say, my daughter and I were prepared for a deluge, a street fight, if necessary. We could hold our own.
Over the next week, we drove on superhighways and back roads. No one honked at us or made obscene gestures. We lingered in Tucson and Phoenix and spent three nights in Hollywood, home to the liberal, moviemaking, creative anti-Bush universe. Occasionally my Texas accent was remarked on. Sometimes people told us how much they liked Austin.
We were being treated, I slowly came to realize, pleasantly and politely. No hard glares, no insults through clenched teeth, no hostility, no condescension. Finally, painfully, heartbreakingly, I got it. We were being treated like everybody else. Nobody really cared that we were from Texas. Nobody wanted to trash W and, by association, us. Nobody wanted to think about him ever again. They were all looking ahead. They wanted to forget the last, blighted eight years as quickly as they could. They were finished with all of us.
It killed me to realize it: We weren’t special any longer.
Oh, sure, I know. We’d been special in a breathtakingly odious way. For years, we’d sworn we wanted to die as we watched this president become a caricature of the worst Texas stereotypes-the strutting, the drawling, the chickenhawk taunts, the simplistic worldview, the cheap and swaggering cowboy persona. We were mortified and indignant, we assured one another-and anybody else who would listen.
But after eight long years, I’d gotten pretty good at jumping in with my garbled multilingual apologies, my in-your-face defenses, my little Texas-insider comments. (“We got invited to the inaugural ball and refused to go!” “We got thrown off George and Laura’s Christmas card list for some online petition I signed!”)
If Bush had created his own deluded, hallucinogenic image of being a Texan, hadn’t I created my own in reaction? Who was I now if nobody cared about him? Was it worse being attacked, or ignored?
My daughter and I drove the long miles, watching the scenery change-the plains giving way to deserts and mountains, then bright flowers and lush vegetation, following the sun, listening to music, talking, laughing. We didn’t strangle each other at an Arizona truck stop, but we did see some filthy bathrooms and hideous souvenirs.
Since I was the one with all the experience, I should have figured it out long before we left: You never have the trip you prepare for. It’s always something different and unexpected. If it weren’t, why would you ever bother to travel in the first place?
Somewhere, a fat lady had sung. My tiny role in our long national nightmare was finished. I was going to have to create my own little dramas from now on.
Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker lives in Austin and blogs at www.geezersisters.com.