Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced last week that he would personally donate “up to 10” metal detectors to Santa Fe ISD, the school district where eight students and two teachers were killed by a mass shooter in May. As a step to prevent mass shootings in Texas schools, it doesn’t do much: It’s a bit like introducing extra pre-flight screening, but only on the route that United 93 flew. As a political measure, it’s odd, too, because it primarily redirects attention to what the Legislature isn’t doing. It’s best understood as a personal, psychological gesture. In other words, it is very Dan Patrick.
Other statewide politicians in Texas can be one-dimensional, like cartoonish Sid Miller, or amorphous, like Greg Abbott. But we know an unusual amount about Patrick, who has never been shy about giving us more data. His friends and enemies alike tend to have strong opinions of him, and there’s a popular liberal view of him as a sort of demon — perpetually dishonest, plotting, cruel, fake, troubled.
But Patrick is a person who wants very badly to do the right thing. He takes great pains to be in the right. It’s just that his personal moral universe is limited. I don’t mean that as a euphemistic insult — everybody’s moral universe is limited. Patrick’s is limited in a specific way, a theme throughout his adult life.
The shape of Patrick’s life, in brief, is this: Born Dannie Scott Goeb in Baltimore to a working-class family, he lived a rowdy life in radio and TV. He fought in bars and got a vasectomy on air and let himself get painted blue on TV to support the Houston Oilers. But he was unhappy. He had mental health problems and deep financial woes, especially after his line of sports bars went under during Houston’s oil crunch in the 1980s.
He turned it around. In 1989, he bought a Houston AM station, an acquisition that was timed perfectly to sync with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio. In 1994, he sold the stations to new owners at a trade show in Las Vegas, a deal that made him rich. At that exact moment, as he detailed in his 2002 book The Second Most Important Book You’ll Ever Read, he found Christ.
Lots of people have found Christ — he’s always getting lost. Often, that experience is born out of crisis, some humbling moment. The peculiar thing about Patrick’s experience is that it takes place not at his nadir, but at his top. Having just made his fortune, lying in his hotel bed in Vegas, he thinks back on the providence of the last few years — which is, chiefly, the rise of Limbaugh and the election of Bill Clinton, which sped up the talk radio boom — and comes to the conclusion that God must have done it. So he heads to a chapel near the old Tropicana and dedicates his life to the Lord.
It’s not insincere at all: his friends attest to this. But his spiritual rebirth is oriented around what God has already done for him as an individual, which is to save him from poverty and aimlessness, to gift him a windfall. It’s close to the teaching of the prosperity gospel, and part of the point of the book is that God can do it for you, too, if you want it enough. That day, Patrick the person became a vehicle for righteousness. His slogan, during his 2014 campaign, came from Proverbs: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick is the horse.
It’s an interesting read, if you’re studying Patrickology, but it ought be paired with the documentary he produced in 2008, The Heart of Texas. The 60-minute film relates the story of a comfortable white family living in a small town near Houston afflicted by racial and economic divides. The paterfamilias, Grover Norwood, becomes friends with his counterpart in a poor black family in the same town, Ulice Parker. One night, Parker, who is in his 60s and visually impaired, kills Norwood’s 4-year-old daughter with his truck. Norwood, thanks to his deep Christian faith, forgives Parker completely, and deepens his friendship with Parker’s family.
It’s all very heartwarming and human. It is to take nothing away from the people at the heart of the story to wonder why the makers of the movie saw such significance in the story of a black person who had wronged a white person and had been treated charitably for it. We can set that aside for a moment and note, generally, that Heart of Texas is a movie that attempts to tell the story of individual forgiveness and individual action healing the world.
Patrick, too, is attempting to heal the world with individual action — his actions, not as a politician but as a person. That’s what makes him such an odd figure. He has fought hard for power over the collective, but when people make claims against him, it is his own righteousness that he is most at pains to defend. To take one example, the state of Texas is very cruel to disabled children. It has gutted its Medicaid programs that provide healthcare to them, and it has aggressively sought to keep them out of expensive special education programs in public schools.
Patrick isn’t singlehandedly responsible for that cruelty, but he’s had a hand in overseeing it, both as a senator and as lieutenant governor. And indeed, he’s used the cap on special education service to push charter schools and vouchers. When criticized, he reminds listeners that he helped raise millions of dollars for charity for disabled kids in his prior, pre-political life.
Patrick’s brain, it seems, quite literally cannot compute the connection between his personal beliefs and the collective effect of his actions as a political leader. When he is presented with collective problems — say, the collapse of the Texas foster care system, which has sent children to their deaths with alarming regularity — his response is inevitably to respond in terms of individual action. The way to fix the foster care system, he believes, is to encourage good Christian families volunteer to take more kids. When there was a rash of cop shootings that captured national attention a few years ago, Patrick insisted the cure was in correcting the individual action of future victims — teaching, in school, the right way to be deferential to a police officer.
And in response to recent school shootings, Patrick has fallen into a familiar groove. The blame lies not with the availability of weaponry, but rather with nebulous cultural forces that warp individuals. God has been taken out of schools, and so the shooters are godless. Hollywood and video games have twisted their minds, too. Schools have been built with too many doors. Everything is to blame except the things that he has some control over in the office he holds — in this case, the mental health system and gun laws.
A cruder, more callous man would have responded to the panic over school security that followed the Santa Fe shooting by doing nothing, which is what many of Patrick’s counterparts all over the country have done. Those people are cynics. Most people in politics are cynics. But Patrick could not maintain his self-conception as a righteous person here and do nothing. I believe he fully feels the loss of these children. But he cannot, fundamentally, imagine this as a collective problem — he doesn’t have the imagination to consider the problem outside of himself. So he’ll donate “up to 10” metal detectors to be installed in the halls of the blood-soaked school, slaking his thirst for righteousness, and the other stuff can come later. Or maybe not at all — we’ll see.