Ranch Dressing

Just another Texas town, ready for its close-up


According to Jean Baudrillard (echoing Plato, who dismissed the world we inhabit through our senses as an unreal imitation), all is simulation. In the postmodern hip-hop world of universal sampling, it is meaningless to ask whether something is primary or authentic. Only a patent attorney might worry about the honesty of an eatery that calls itself Tía María’s Original Tacos. So when Ronald Reagan, emphasizing his disdain for Washington, established a ranch in Santa Barbara as the Western White House, few voters cared that the former screen actor’s version of home on the range was copied from Hollywood.

Though George W. Bush was born in Connecticut, far from sagebrush and saguaro, he emulated Reagan’s imitation. In 1999, using profits from the sale of the Texas Rangers, Bush purchased 1,583 acres near Waco, Texas, that he calls a ranch, despite the fact that it lacks any livestock other than four or five cows, hardly enough for a stampede or a cattle drive. In fact, according to Revolution of Hope, the 2007 autobiography of Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, Bush is a “windshield cowboy,” more comfortable roaming the prairie by Mustang than by mustang, and terrified of horses. Nonetheless, the Crawford “ranch” helped convince American voters in 2000 and again in 2004 that its proprietor was a reasonable facsimile of John Wayne (the celluloid saddle tramp born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa).

Though Bush’s status as (mostly) absentee cowboy has profoundly affected the community, Bush is a spectral presence in Crawford, the cinematic portrait of a town whose population of 705 has been overshadowed by presidential entourages, outside agitators, members of the media, and curious tourists. We see Bush address the graduating class of Crawford High School and catch a glimpse of his motorcade zipping past locals on its way to or from the ranch. Austin-based director David Modigliani includes TV footage of the president responding to 9/11 and outlining his policies in Iraq, but he doesn’t draw on interviews with Bush or his associates.

Instead, Crawford‘s focus is Crawford, a municipality with one stoplight, two gas stations, and-because of the attention lavished on it due to its most famous landowner-a global reputation for torrid summers and quaintly rustic citizens. (The film begins and ends with four local good old boys playing nickel-ante dominoes, a metaphor of sorts for the collective consequences of Bush’s real estate acquisition. The fortunes and misfortunes of the president could not help but have a domino effect on the community he chose as his personal trademark.)

During the previous 30 years, Crawford had become a rural backwater with most of its stores boarded up, the kind of place that hemorrhages its brightest and most ambitious young people to urban centers offering more exciting possibilities. But the presence of the latest Western White House up the road changed things, at least temporarily. It precipitated a real estate boom; vacant fields began fetching prices more appropriate to urban parcels. At Crawford Country Styles, where a life-size cutout of George W. Bush stood beside the cash register, entrepreneur Norma Nelson-Crow became prosperous marketing cuff links, mugs, and other souvenirs. “Crawford’s changed so much it’s unreal,” horse handler Ricky Smith said at the peak of the frenzy.

However, as the novelty of the presidential neighbor wore off and his presidency began to wear down, Crawford went back to bust. Property values plummeted, and businesses folded. The town where everyone knew everyone else and doors were never locked had been utterly transformed, and the trade-off no longer seemed reasonable. “The way we were was better,” says Warren Johnson, an educational administrator. “I wish he’d never showed up,” one of the domino players adds.

Dick Cheney, Silvio Berlusconi, Vladimir Putin, and Hosni Mubarak show up in Crawford. Yet however many world leaders and Washington officials make their ways to the tiny Texas town, the fate of the high school football team remains central to the community’s identity. Not many adolescent athletes are congratulated personally by the president, as are the Crawford Pirates, the smallest school in their division. They managed to win the Texas state championship in class 2A not long after Bush defeated John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Nevertheless, the school motto seems designed to immunize local folks against excessive regard for celebrity: “Nobody big, nobody small, everybody the same.”

Modigliani honors that spirit of egalitarianism by focusing his film not on Bush and other grandees, but rather on half a dozen unfamiliar figures, men and women who live their lives in Crawford out of range of the scores of TV cameras deployed to cover the big cheeses melting in the Texas sun.

Cindy Sheehan

One of Crawford‘s stars is Misti Turbeville, a high school history teacher who opposes Bush’s politics but welcomes his presence because, she says, “I love having discussion, controversy.” When she takes her students on a class trip to the Crawford Peace House, headquarters for protests against the administration’s war policies, Turbeville herself becomes the target of controversy, accused of subjecting her students to left-wing propaganda, and of blasphemy for questioning the pronouncements of local religious leaders. When she leads a class discussion about why Bush came to Crawford, one student notes how useful it is for politicians to associate themselves with the old-fashioned virtues the heart of the homeland is presumed to embody. (Ken Judy, a banker, had earlier pointed out that in virtually every TV broadcast datelined Crawford, the network correspondents stand in front of the same bucolic bales of hay, though the town’s public image might differ if the camera were panned just a few feet to either side).

Uncomfortable with the frontier aura that Bush appropriates from Crawford, the student insists: “We’re not all cowboys.” Though exasperated by her town’s insularity, Turbeville takes heart from the way proximity to Bush concentrates developing minds: “These kids are much more political than they would have been otherwise,” she says. One kid in particular, Tom Warlick, is radicalized by his increasing awareness of injustice and intolerance, moving from skepticism to cynicism to despair about the ways in which power is acquired and exploited.

Another local dissident, W. Leon Smith, edits the Crawford Iconoclast. He backed the war in Iraq until becoming convinced that Bush deceived the world about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. When Smith endorsed Kerry for president in 2004, his paper lost half its circulation and most of its advertising. When it became impossible to buy the paper at any store or rack in Crawford, the publication migrated to the Internet. “I think they’re brainwashed,” Smith says of his fellow citizens.

Horse handler Ricky Smith, by contrast, supports the president and advertises his contempt for the hundreds of strangers who gather in Crawford to protest the war in Iraq. Smith uses black shoe polish to inscribe “God bless America and our troops” on the flanks of a white horse that he rides up and down Crawford’s main drag, American flag in hand. Across the road from “Camp Casey,” the five acres that Cindy Sheehan purchased to memorialize her son and rally opposition to the war in which he was slain, sits “Camp Reality,” where counterdemonstrators shout: “Freedom’s not free.”

Local merchant Nelson-Crow says, “I’m a believer in George W. Bush,” even after declining interest in her idol desiccates the market for presidential tchotchkes and forces her to close her souvenir shop.

Likewise, even after the out-of-towners vanish from her Coffee Station, where locals have been able to mingle with international luminaries, Dorothy Spanos cannot be talked out of her conviction that the war is necessary: “If we were not over in Iraq, they would be here,” she says.

If Bush had never stepped in Crawford, the town would likely still be worth examining as a laboratory for personality development and group dynamics. Tom Warlick would still be beset by adolescent angst, and Mike Murphy, pastor of the First Baptist Church, would still be preaching the imminence of Armageddon. “We were praying for a miracle,” he recalls about the coming of Bush, who never does come to Murphy’s services.

Magical realism demonstrates that the most ostensibly mundane objects, examined closely enough, begin to assume phantasmagorical qualities-like the unexpected universe the eye discovers when an ordinary human hair is placed under a microscope. With a population that’s 88 percent white, Crawford is not exactly a microcosm of America. There is nothing special about the place except that it happens to be where an American president cuts cedar to impress an international audience.

Ultimately, the location of Bush’s frontier retreat serves simply as a plausible pretext for Modigliani to take a long, close look at one Texas town. In contrast to the network stars who parachute into Crawford for stand-up reports in front of hay bales, he began this long-term project even before Bush moved into the Eastern White House. It is clear that Modigliani, a patient and attentive observer, spent enough time with the citizens of Crawford to earn their trust. It could not have been easy for a stranger from Austin to get these people to reveal themselves the way Bill Holmes, a retired justice of the peace, does when he criticizes the prodigious expense incurred every time Bush’s bloated entourage passes through town; or Pastor Murphy does when he dons a ridiculous “belt of truth” and “helmet of salvation” to teach a group of children Christian truths; or teacher Turbeville does when she weeps at the death of her most liberated student.

It is probably an exaggeration to claim that to understand America during the Bush years it is necessary to know Crawford. But Crawford does explain why the nation’s chief executive, who could afford almost any address, would choose to spend his summers in a desolate Texas oven.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

The South by Southwest Film Festival hosts the world premiere of David Modigliani’s documentary Crawford on March 8 at 4 p.m., with additional screenings March 10 (11 a.m.) and March 15 (1:30 p.m.).