This was the inevitable, one-word question that followed my every announcement, to New York friends and co-workers, that I was leaving The City to move Down There and edit the Observer.
“Texas,” I would confirm. Then, depending on who was standing there looking quizzical, if not mortally concerned, I might venture explanations: How I’d always relished the Observer‘s fiery-but-witty brand of muckraking, maybe. Or how Texas, with its zipping pace of demographic, political and cultural change, would be such a fascinating place to live and report.
Other times, I’d just wait for the second inevitable question: “Where in Texas?”
Sweet relief. “Oh,” the New Yorkers would say. “I’ve heard that’s a cool place. I was afraid you were going to say Houston or something.”
I suffered through no shortage of such exchanges during my three years Up North, where I was reporting for The Nation magazine about “red state” politics. One reason was the job: Explaining the evolving politics of states like Texas to America’s biggest audience of smarty-pants progressives was no easy task. Another reason was that, while I don’t hail from Texas, I do have a drawl.
Most of my life, deities be thanked, has been spent not in New York but in North Carolina. I grew up gay in a blue-collar, churchgoing family of Yellow Dog Democrats; developed a sick obsession with politics at age nine, just in time to witness the blooming mushroom cloud of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy; and decided that my life’s dream was to be a crusading columnist for an ass-kicking little daily paper. But by the time I approached crusading-columnist age, those ass-kicking dailies were chained and dying. So I landed in alternative journalism, at a Raleigh-Durham weekly called The Independent, where one day my editor asked me: “So what do you want to be, ultimately?”
“A great reporter who can write like a great novelist,” I told her, all swole up with puppyish ambition.
“Well, here,” she said, and handed over a cardboard box with old issues of The New York Review of Books, The Village Voice, and The Texas Observer. The Observer had been a model for The Independent, and it didn’t take long to see why. The glories that I found, reading and re-reading the best of Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Molly Ivins & Co., still define good journalism for me: dogged, thorough, funny, brave, and, above all other adjectives, skeptical-fiercely skeptical about everything and everybody: Republican, Democrat, John Bircher, Black Panther, LBJ, GWB. You name it, the Observer tore it open and examined its insides. And then delivered the results in ways that made you alternately think, groan and guffaw.
For 54 years, through its various editors and incarnations, the Observer has kept that strange and fearless spirit alive. Moving forward, our challenge-our promise-is to translate those timeless virtues into a timely vehicle for exploring a new Texas in a new media age. While we dedicate ourselves to digging up truths that the powerful want to keep buried, we’ll also be diversifying our pool of writers (and stories) to reflect the changing faces of Texas. While we watchdog the state Capitol, we’ll also be innovating online. While we poke and prod at the injustices of the present, we’ll take a critical look at the unfolding and inchoate future-at the people, politics and culture that will define Texas for the next 54 years.
And while we do all that, we’ll do our damndest to keep you thinking, groaning and guffawing. And if we don’t, you better let us know.