This month, New York Times columnist Gail Collins published As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. It’s an often funny, studiously researched traipse through Texas issues Observer readers will know well: abstinence education, textbook meddling, environmental deregulation and the like. As the subtitle suggests, Collins makes a case for how some of the more catastrophic national policy developments got their start in our backyard. Locals (ahem) might be torn between recognizing the harsh political realities Collins describes and resenting having them pointed out by a Yankee—but more in the full Observer review here.
Collins is speaking at the Progressive Forum in Houston on Tuesday night at the Wortham Center’s Cullen Theater, and last I checked, tickets are still available. I spoke to Collins by phone Thursday afternoon as she prepared for her swing through the Lone Star State.
Dateline Houston: First of all, who’s your audience?
Gail Collins: People who do not live in Texas, actually. It’s for the outside world. This is an outsider’s view of how Texas has influenced the rest of the country. And I’ve talked to many people, lovely people in Texas who say, “Well, I don’t disagree with your general conclusions, but you aren’t, you don’t have the nitty gritty, you don’t understand the texture and the subtleties of life in Texas.” I totally agree with that. Texas has ten billion great writers and I trust them to produce that story. My story is about what Texas is doing to the outside world.
DH: If you were asked to be interviewed on air by Fox News, would you do it?
GC: I don’t know. It would depend on who it was. Do you have an invitation?
DH: No… no, we don’t speak. But if I were an outsider and I read this book, I would think, Oh my gosh, all my craziest, zaniest, nastiest, kitschiest ideas I ever had about Texas are all true. Then I think about how I regard Fox News as the cartoon version of this certain kind of Republican—
GC: Well, I’m pained to be compared to Fox News, but I appreciate your thought.
DH: What I meant was, is that an audience you’d approach?
GC: My next stop is going to be in Texas, and that’s going to be a challenge enough. Although people in Texas do, I think, agree with me that, which other people outside of Texas do not in general appreciate, how important the state is. I think most people in Texas would agree with me that the state has been underestimated by the rest of the country. Also, when I go around in the North and the East and the West, I always try to point out to the audiences that the people of Texas are truly amazing, and wonderful, and that I doubt very much that, if, say, Newark was hit by a hurricane, that New Yorkers would [as Houston did after Katrina] as readily invite 200,000 refugees into their town—
DH: And then tell them to go home, but…
GC: They did tell them to go home, but at least there was that first impetus, which was not something I think you would have gotten from a lot of places that fancy themselves to be way more liberal than Texas is. I try to make it a point to bring that up every place I go. In fact, I was at an event in Washington yesterday and a guy got up and said, “Well, if the people in Texas are so nice, how come their politics is so weird?”
DH: I have always had that question myself.
GC: My answer is, it goes back to the theory that I have about empty places and crowded places. If you believe yourself to be living in an empty place, you tend to be hostile to the very notion of government because you don’t really see any good effect of it. You think you’re on your own, you’re in an empty place, you take care of yourself, all government does is tax you or get in the way. The interesting thing for me is that although that division between empty places, the philosophies, have been around since Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, in recent years it’s become more of a mental state than an actual physical state. I was in Washington, the state of Washington, last week and I ran into people who live in the forest but they have this vision of themselves as part of this very large, maybe planetary community of people with needs and responsibilities and that they’re very much intertwined in and they think of themselves as being crowded-place people, even though they can’t see any neighbor from where they live. And on the other hand, you have people who live in 400-unit condos in Boca Raton who are convinced they don’t need the government for anything whatsoever, even if they’re living off social security. So one of the reasons Texas is so powerful in this kind of empty-places philosophy is because people in Texas, I did find, generally think they live in an empty place, even when they live in a city, because there is so much empty space, because you have to drive so far to get anywhere. There’s a sense, that sort of sense of wide-open spaces even if you’re in a metropolitan area, which 80 percent of people in Texas are.
DH: The book is a pretty good rundown of Texas’s issues and the often pretty tragic results of our policies. Was it a challenge to maintain the kind of wry tone that you have in your columns over the length of a book, and a book that’s about things that are very sad and often very dark?
GC: It is. It was hard. The other books I’ve written have mostly been histories, and they were political commentary, and I, while I attempted to make them readable, I didn’t have that same feeling of a need to really hit a tone that would keep people going. As a writer, as a columnist, as a political writer, it’s always been my goal to use humor to get people through the reading of information that they might not actually make their way through if left to their own devices. I’m really happiest when people say, “I never would have gotten through a whole column on savings and loan deregulation or the education privatization or whatever.” If you maintain a certain level of humor, people can stay with you for a lot longer. That was my goal in this book. It would be hard otherwise to keep people who do not live in Texas going through an entire book about the politics of Texas without some encouragement.
DH: Were there times when you were doing the research that, in your writing, you wanted to get overtly angry or upset or sad?
GC: It’s always been a goal of mine in writing—I told myself this when I started really writing in New York—that I didn’t want people to come away from what I wrote beating their head against the wall or wanting to throw themselves out the window. I wanted to give them a sort of sense of cheerfulness in spite of unpleasantness on occasion.
DH: Did you ever see anything out of Texas during your research, like the sonogram law, and go, “Oh my gosh, that’s great for my book!”
GC: Yeah, it’s very strange when you do what I do, you sort of try to balance that. You try not to say, “Oh great, something terrible has happened, therefore it’s going to really improve [my column].” I must admit, I do get a certain amount of glee when something just really funny and outrageous happens.
DH: Like Perry.
GC: Yeah. Rick Perry was just a blessing from God. It’s very hard to do a column off the news when the news is happening, and I tend to do them whenever there’s a debate on Wednesday night, which is my deadline night. It’s a challenge, because the deadline for the column is nine o’clock, and the debates tend to end at nine o’clock our time. I was doing one of the debates and I was sort of—it’s really not the easiest thing in the world—and that was the moment that Perry forgot his third agency that he wanted to close. And it was just like the heavens opened up and the angels sang.
DH: Did you know that he was going to implode?
GC: No, I didn’t. But I didn’t write the book because of him. I was writing the book before he announced. But I had thought he would be potentially, I mean on paper, he looked good, although I was suspicious of the fact that he hadn’t debated when he ran for governor last time. He did seem to have a history of avoiding debates whenever possible, so I guess I should have been more suspicious.
DH: Governor Goodhair.
GC: He’s got great hair.
DH: This book came out in the middle of an election year, and there’s the court cases about the voter ID ongoing and the delayed primaries—were you worried about there being big changes happening on the way to print?
GC: Yeah, whenever you’re writing a book like this, that’s always a challenge. There are a lot of things in the book I was a little less specific about than I would have been if I was absolutely sure what was going to happen in a court case or a primary election or whatever by the time the book was out. Things change all the time. You just have to do the best you can and move forward.
DH: Who are some of your favorite Texans?
GC: Do they have to be famous people?
GC: One of the reasons I got involved in this entire project is, the book that I did before this was a book about American women and what had happened to them in the last 50 years. I went looking for people all around, women, whose stories I could tell in the book. Somebody directed me to Sylvia Acevedo, who lives in Austin. She was trained as an engineer, she’s now a businesswoman, and she just has an amazing life story. It, in every single way, was fascinating. When I got to Texas to publicize the book, she took me around, to various projects—she was a person of many, many projects—that she was working on, that involved young parents and trying to bring young Hispanic parents into the school system to get them more comfortable helping their kids to learn. She took me around to meet various people who were working on family planning issues and other things. She’s very into demographics and told me a lot about the demographics of Texas, and was one of the people who really convinced me that Texas was the future of the country, because of the size of the state and the size of the birth rate. She really brought me around on this whole thing. I would have to say she was one of my favorite people, all told. When I think of Texas, I also think of people like Sylvia. It’s not all Rick Perry.