At Greg Abbott’s Inaugural Blowout, a Governor is Born

Kelsey Jukam

Inaugurations are an odd part of American civic life, and they vary wildly from state to state. In Oregon this year, the re-election campaign of Gov. John Kitzhaber was nice enough to distribute cookies to the public after his inaugural address. In Washington State, a “non-partisan, nonprofit committee of citizen volunteers” planned a few events, which could be attended by members of the public for a flat fee.

But this is Texas, where we do politics as God intended, and so the inaugural ceremony that ended the decade-and-a-half reign of James Richard Perry and began the bright new era of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick was a $4.5 million corporate- and donor-powered blowout, complete with a flyover of F-16 fighter jets, cannon fire, and enough barbecue to feed a small army, and their horses and those horses’ horses.

It was a reminder that Texas disdains nothing more than modesty. It was also, of course, a chance to take the pulse of Abbott and Patrick as they take hold of power. Abbott spoke genially and tamely about the greatness and goodness of Texas, his family, and God, in no particular order; Patrick proved he can still stoke fires and poke eyes.

Patrick’s swearing-in came first, administered by his son, a Houston judge. It’s remarkable how little has changed since Patrick’s address to the state Republican Party convention this summer, the first time he declined a chance to swerve to the middle. He opened his speech by invoking Proverbs 21:31 to explain his election victory—“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.” Patrick, one presumes, is the horse.

“I worked hard,” Patrick told the crowd, “but the victory was His.” He was now, as he had been during his primary run, “a Christian first, a conservative second, and a Republican third.” He would strive to be “trustworthy, encouraging to others, and humble.”

Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.
Kelsey Jukam
Dan and Jan Patrick pose for admirers.

With humility close to mind, he would strive to be the “best lieutenant governor in the history of Texas.” He urged the crowd again and again to repeat with him his speech’s refrain: “It’s a new day in Texas.” The last decade of all-Republican government had been fine, as those things go, but Patrick would take it to 11. “As conservatives we have done many great things over the last 12 years since taking the majority,” he said to applause, “but it’s time to take it to the next level.”

Remaining humble, Patrick invoked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech. “I don’t think he could have dreamed that 52 years later that many of our inner city schools would still be failing our children,” he said. Dan, too, had a dream. “Some in Austin tell me school choice will never pass, but Dr. King is not the only one who can dream.” Patrick’s voucher and charter agenda would give every left-behind child a way to “break the bounds of poverty.”

Patrick laid out, with a strong measure of certainty, his legislative agenda—school choice, tax cuts, transportation funding, increased use of natural gas, more and more funding for border security. He excels at painting bright lines around himself and his opponents. Will that work well for him this year, now that campaigning is done? Patrick’s grandiose pronouncements—“We’re going to secure the border in this legislative session,” he told the crowd at one point, as if it had never yet been tried—shows what he feels he must deliver to his voters. But as time goes on, the scope of what he can actually get accomplished will narrow. Can he sell it back to his supporters?

Abbott, for his part, gave a much more traditional inauguration speech, in that it was essentially about nothing. Policy did come up, inasmuch as he vaguely asserted he would do something about traffic congestion, and water shortages, and standing up to the feds, but the specifics will wait for another day.

Here is a fine measure of the rhetorical difference between the two men: Patrick, as mentioned, defines himself simply. Christian, conservative, Republican. How does Abbott? He’s proud to claim the title of governor, he says, but the name of which he’s most proud is “Dad.” Aw.

Abbott spoke of his personal struggles—his ascent from his Houston hospital bed some decades ago was thanks to God’s grace, and the boundless possibilities of Texas. His message was carefully post-partisan. “Our children transcend politics in this state,” Abbott said. Except, of course, for the precious moments where he was able to hit at D.C. “Any government that uses the guise of fairness to rob us of our freedom will get a uniquely Texan response,” he said, in one of his largest applause lines. “Come and take it!”

He closed by asking the crowd to look at the pavement and grass under their feet. That was more than just soil. It was the trophy won by the fathers of the Texas Revolution and all those who had fought to give us liberty. Under the shadow of an enormous Confederate cavalryman’s memorial, attendees nodded.

It would not be the end of the festivities—there was barbecue, and a parade replete with Hummers and oil-themed floats, and tonight’s ball, headlined by the country band Lady Antebellum, who had to change their name, one imagines, from “Lady Prewar and her Things Were Better Back Then Band.” Long live liberty.

Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.
Kelsey Jukam
Greg Abbott in the inaugural parade, the first since 2003.

There was a godly theme at the Capitol grounds today. Dr. Tony Evans, a Dallas preacher who bills himself as “the urban alternative,” urged his audience to remember that “government was created by God, for the benefit of the people it serves.” He hoped that the pink dome behind him would continue to be “His house,” belonging to the “ultimate King.” Abbott and Patrick’s speeches did their best to flesh out what this would mean in practice.

Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.
Kelsey Jukam
Joe Gaston will be carrying his cross around the Capitol grounds for three days of prayer and fasting.

This was not lost on Joe Gaston, who came to the Capitol with an enormous, wheeled cross. He told the Observer he’d be circling the Capitol for the next two days, bearing the cross and praying for the state’s leadership. He was happy, he said, that “God was not hid” in the men’s speeches: “To hear a politician get up and publicly make that kind of statement, you’ve got to be bold.”

But beneath the godly gild today was a surfeit of earthly riches. Today’s big bash cost a hell of a lot of money, a modern record. To put it in context, it’s roughly comparable to the total amount of money Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lite guv, raised for her race in 2014. Some came from corporate donors like Comcast and Chesapeake Energy, companies with important business before the Legislature. There’s no requirement that donations for the inauguration be made public.

Some came from individual donors. Abbott’s appointees to the inaugural committee, which planned today’s events, include plenty of traditional GOP donor types, like Javaid Anwar, a Midland oilman who recently got named to serve on Dan Patrick’s advisory committee on energy. There’s even a member of the Walton family. Patrick’s appointees include more grassroots types—but that apparently didn’t inhibit them from raising the money they needed. In that respect, the new regime is the same as the old regime.

Additional reporting by Kelsey Jukam

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

Published at 5:20 pm CST