Friday night, I was in The Woodlands ™ to see Sarah Palin, the tea party’s hot ex-girlfriend who sometimes calls just to make sure she still can. She had come on a tour bus with a Constitution printed on it (the creation of which must at this point be a booming cottage industry) to support Ted Cruz, who may rob David Dewhurst, the perennial bridesmaid, of the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
The Woodlands ™ is a master-planned community north of Houston, an upper-middle-class enclave with a mixologist’s ratio of pine trees to Cheesecake Factories, corporate campuses to Ann Taylors, and everywhere big houses on small lots in cul-de-sacs, with the effect of living in a very clean, sprawling outdoor mall. The setting, a smallish park a stone’s throw from a Sur La Table, seemed a little master-planned for an event that drew a lot of homemade T-shirts and appeared to be designed to give Ted Cruz a little down-home grit.
I was also there in January when Cruz announced his candidacy for Senate, in a tiny room with almost no press at a middling hotel off the freeway in Houston. There, Cruz wore a suit and accepted with great gravity a comically large check from local tea party groups, looking not just senatorial but presidential despite his soft, doughy handshake and sloping shoulders. He gazed at the assembly with sincerity and resolve, as if it were a crowd of thousands and not two handfuls of white-haired women wearing dozens of enamel American flag pins on their hats.
Now Cruz had his crowd of approximately a thousand, many of whom had brought chairs and coolers for the hour-long event. But it was plenty. Cruz looked actually happy on Friday, despite glistening in a chambray shirt with the sleeves half-rolled and loose jeans that puddled a little at his boots. He seemed to be aiming, sartorially and in rhetoric, to borrow a little Rick Perry salt without opening himself to ridicule. He used football metaphors, which I’d never heard from him before, and wore a Western-style belt, but the kind with a metal tip, not the kind with a big butch buckle. He wasn’t Mr. Harvard Law School now; he was a man of the people. He opened with the same joke he’d used before—“So is this the Obama re-election party?”—and later brought up a threatened West Texas lizard that conflicted with oil and gas production, saying he described that as “a reptile dysfunction.”
He added, “My view on lizards is, they make darn fine boots.”
And, of course, he told his underdog story, how nobody thought he could do it but you folks here proved them wrong. He promised to restore the Constitution, and called Obama a socialist and “the most radical president we have ever seen.” But he was also smart enough to get off the stage and give the people what they really wanted: The Palin.
She did not disappoint. How could she? All the people wanted was for her to be there in the flesh and pretty and mean, and she was. She had a dark tan and blonde streaks in her hair, which she wore down with a black knit miniskirt and a black V-necked top with pink boots on them. She also sported black cowboy boots that appeared to have a White House seal on them, which she said Rick Perry had given her. She then seemed to stumble into mentioning that Perry had endorsed Dewhurst, and quieted boos from the highly vocal crowd, saying, “We’ll be a team after this is over.”
It was a revealing moment, because it wasn’t true. Cruz’s ascendancy despite all Dewhurst’s advantages—money, experience and broad establishment support—has exposed the seriousness of the schism in the Republican Party. It’s not just moderates like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe who are being sidelined, who are not part of the team anymore. If Dewhurst can’t win, then the Republican Party at large does not have control of its base anymore.
Palin gave the crowd a Fox News Greatest Hits run-down, promising an end to that “death-panel-filled Orwellian nonsense called Obamacare” and saying, “There is nothing wrong with America that a good old-fashioned fair election can’t fix.” She reprised her “drill here, drill now!” exhortation—really? in The Woodlands ™?— urging citizens to exploit the “energy and resources that God created for man’s natural use.” Big cheers, especially from the guy holding a sign that said, “CO2 is plant food!”
Palin railed against Obama, Democrats, Republicans, the debt, the “permanent political class,” the “lapdogs in the media practicing yellow journalism,” pretty much everyone who wasn’t present and some that were. “Those who represent the status quo will stop at nothing to block positive change,” she said, but [Cruz is] still here with his head up, with his shoulders back.” (As much as possible.) Again she helped butch him up: “Ted is not going to make nice with the foo-foo, chi-chi cocktail crowd,” Palin promised. Nor would he turn for advice to people who know things. “Experts believe that they are smarter than you are,” Palin said, “but these experts are the ones who got us into this!”
Though it was overcast by the time she took the stage, Palin left on her gold-rimmed sunglasses throughout her gleeful tirade, and then glad-handed her way along the front perimeter of the crowd along with her husband. People were slow to leave.
George Larsen, 69, was all smiles afterward. He wore a Texas flag button-up shirt and had a bushy white moustache, a white cowboy hat with a gold rim and friendly eyes. “I thought it was great,” he said.
“When it started, and everything until it ended,” he laughed. Of Palin, he said, “She’s my second favorite woman,” indicating his wife, beside him, as the first. He said Ted Cruz was the first politician he’d ever donated money to, that Cruz had gotten him fired up like no one before. Then he added off-handedly, “I tell Communists to leave the country.”
As I walked back to my car, I heard two teens discussing someone in their neighborhood who drives around in a golf cart, taking pictures of people whose lawns are violating local code. I laughed. They were a boy and a girl who were The Woodlands ™ natives, carrying lawn signs and wearing stickers for Ted Cruz. Both said they were homeschooled. “We’re very conservative,” the boy said. “My parents raised me in that environment.”
I asked him why he was politically active when he couldn’t even vote yet.
He said, “It’s never too early to start educating yourself.”