Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
In 2009, New York Times columnist Gail Collins attended a Texas Tea Party rally where raucous attendees waved signs reading “Secede!” The anger Collins felt from the crowd laid the groundwork for her new book, “As Texas Goes…” In it, Collins explores — with her trademark sarcastic humor -– the Lone Star State’s outsized influence on the national agenda. She joins Kojo to delve into Texas’s colorful people, politicians and policies.
- Gail Collins Columnist, The New York Times; Author of "As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda"
Read An Excerpt
Reprinted from “As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda” by Gail Collins. Copyright © 2012 by Gail Collins. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAbout three years ago, New York Times columnist Gail Collins attended a Tea Party rally in Austin, Texas. The star of the show was Texas' now well-known governor, Rick Perry, who was in blue jeans, boots and leading a bellicose cry against anything that might oppress the lone star state. Collins was fascinated by the crowd that seemed swept up in Governor Perry's remarks. Some Tea Partiers were even waving signs calling for Texas to secede.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe rally sparked her fascination with the state that she quickly learned has had a pivotal role in setting the national agenda from schoolbooks to bookkeeping. What happens in Texas, she found, doesn't stay in Texas. Gail Collins joins us in studio to talk about Texas and a lot more. She's a columnist for the New York Times. She's also the author of "As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda." Gail Collins, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. GAIL COLLINSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIThe most important questions for some inquiring minds would like to know how come you mention Mitt Romney strapping the family dog to the roof of the car in every single column in which you mention Mitt Romney's name? Thought I would start out.
COLLINSThank you. I'm always glad to bring up the dog right off the top. It was -- you know, I got interested in it the last time he ran in 2008. And when it came up the first time, the fact that he had, in fact, driven to Canada with the dog strapped to a cage on the top of the roof. And it's a long story that I will not bore you with, but when people asked him why, he said, the dog loved fresh air. And it was the answer that I found so fascinating. And it has become sort of a little test for me to see if I can just drop it in someplace every time I mention him.
NNAMDIWell, from several people I talked to this morning, you have been succeeding passing this test with flying colors. You managed to get it into all of those columns. If you'd like to join the conversation with Gail Collins, you can call as at 800-433-8850. Send email to email@example.com or send a Tweet at kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIStart with what's in the news. The President's latest initiative allowing children -- the children of parents who brought their children here illegally to something advocates for immigrants have long been wanting him to do for a long time. And that is allowing them to not only stay in the country but allowing them to go to college and do all of the things they'd like to do. Well, that would be presumably approved by Mexicans in Texas which has a very large population of Mexicans. But is it likely to help a Democrat get elected statewide to anything in Texas or for the president to win Texas?
COLLINSRight now in Texas where, you know, you'd have to, I don't know, save a hijacked plane and then, you know, ascend into heaven, I think, as a Democrat to win a statewide election in Texas right now. It's very, very, very red.
NNAMDIWhy is that with so many Mexican Americans in Texas?
COLLINSWell, you have a very -- well, it's already a majority minority state. And it's going to be a majority Hispanic state about ten or fifteen years down the line. But Texans, in general, do not have a great voting turnout record. And Latino Texans have a worst turnout record. And much of the new legislation coming through on voting in Texas is really pretty clearly aimed at discouraging new voters from getting into the system.
COLLINSThere's -- my favorite -- can I tell you my one favorite...
COLLINS...my favorite of all of the new rules that they brought out was that you have to have a state ID in order to vote. You have to show it at the polling place. And a student ID from the University of Texas does not count, however a gun carry permit, that's really good. That will get you through the door.
NNAMDISo you're not expecting to see a much larger turnout of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Texas.
COLLINSIt's going to be really hard. It going to take a long time I think for the very -- I mean, one of the great tests of how Texas does and how I really do think Texas is setting the trend for the next century and one of its big tests is how well it incorporates its huge and rapidly growing Latino population into the political and business power structure of the state.
NNAMDII was fascinated in what caused you to turn your attention to Texas. I read in an interview that you feel most comfortable writing about things that appear boring so that you can make them appear interesting.
COLLINSTexas would not be one of them.
NNAMDIOh, Texas does not fall into that category.
COLLINSNo. Texas -- I must admit I got into Texas 'cause it is so dang fascinating, it really is. And then someone sent me a headline that said, Man Allegedly Beaten with Frozen Armadillo. And I thought, wow this is a place I want to see more about.
NNAMDIWhat kind of image of Texans and their state did you have going into this book project and how did that change by the time you had finished it?
COLLINSI must admit I didn't -- I had not thought a whole lot about Texas before I got involved in this. I'd been there a few times but nothing, you know, not really to stay. And I guess I had the general image everybody does who's not familiar with it of Dallas and, you know, cowboys and, you know, the university. And Austin has great music. You know, everybody knows that. And Houston has oil and there -- and the rest of it's sort of empty maybe. But you -- it's so much more complicated and interesting than that. I must admit I learned so much.
NNAMDIIn his review of your book, James Hanson of the Texas Monthly writes, "Collins for all her wit epitomizes a coastal take on Texas that frowns on the state's political ideology even as it misses the underlying politics that actually explain things." Is there always a danger in turning your pen on a place you're usually viewing from thousands of miles away?
COLLINSYeah, and Texans often say to me very sadly, well, in general, I agree with you, but you've missed all the subtleties of our life in Texas. And that's true. This is an outsider's look at Texas written really for outsiders. I'm writing for the rest of the country about what effects Texas has had on the rest of us rather than trying -- and Texas has a billion great writers. They can explain themselves to the world perfectly well without my help.
NNAMDIAnd Molly Ivins did a pretty good job of it.
COLLINSMolly Ivins still lives on in Texas as, you know, this sort of great presence, you know. They still miss her.
NNAMDIWell, Gail Collins has often been compared to Molly Ivins. She's a columnist for the New York Times. She's also author of -- her latest book is called "As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to kojo, that's K-O-J-O @wamu.org. What is your own image of Texas and its residence? Are you a Texas native? What perceptions about your state do you feel are accurate? Which ones exaggerated? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIThe heart of this book is about Texas' outsized influence on the nation's political and cultural life. Let's talk about some of the ways it has done that starting with education and textbooks.
COLLINSYeah, their education is huge because, of course, the No Child Left Behind Law, which still directs all the federal involvement with public school education in the country, was written when George W. Bush was president. And it was totally based from Bush's point of view on his experiences in Texas. And there tends to be a tendency, as there was in Texas, to start out your reforms by adding new resources. Then the resources are in and the business community says wait a minute, we have to have accountability. And then come all the tests and all the various checkpoints along the way and all the evaluations.
COLLINSAnd then somewhere along the line, there comes a moment, as there did in the Bush presidency, in which people say, well, the money part is not that important as long as you have the accountability. So as long as we keep testing a lot and making people responsible for the tests, giving more money to the schools may not necessarily be the most important thing. That's happened in Texas. It happened during the Bush Administration here and it's a very interesting development that really does go right back to the heart of Texas.
NNAMDIIndeed in the 1990s, a Texas school finance bill helped form the foundation of what would become a national education policy. Can you give us some of that back story on No Child Left Behind?
COLLINSYeah, it started -- you know, Texas had terrible schools, and anyone in Texas would admit that, I think, until about the '80s. And then they did reform them by Ross Perot actually -- the famous Ross Perot ran around the state arguing for more money and for more resources. And he was so rich and he could hire so many lobbyists and he was so crazy he would say anything that it took over. And...
NNAMDIOnce it begins with the words, it's pretty simple.
COLLINSHis most famous thing there was a demand that people not be allowed to play high school football unless they were passing their courses. That was just wildly, wildly, wildly controversial. But he did get more money for teachers, more money for smaller classes, more money for preschool, a lot of reforms. And then as that went along and they needed more money to settle a court suit because the poor towns had been suing about the disproportion -- you know, everybody has that problem at some point or another. Texas resolved it by giving everybody still more money.
COLLINSAnd the schools got better. They really did get better. And then the tasks and accountability came back and somehow there came a sense that it was the accountability and the tests that were making the schools better rather than the money. And you could take the money away, it would still work. And as you saw George Bush running for president he talked way, way, way more about the testing and accountability than he did about the money. And that's pretty much where we are right now.
NNAMDIAround the time the so-called Texas miracle in education was happening a lot of other states became focused on testing also. But there was one aspect of the Texas system that was unusual. Can you remind us about disaggregation and what its legacy was for Texas and for the country?
COLLINSYeah, when I wrote the book, you know, I went through all the ways that Texas has really impacted the nation and there was the savings and loan deregulation, banking deregulation, energy and a war against the idea of global warming and No Child Left Behind. But when you get to disaggregation, as I said in the book, you have to give real serious credit to George W. Bush and to Texas. Because Texas and George W. Bush really did make an attempt way early in the game to judge schools not just by the general scores their students were making but how much poor and minority students were improving.
COLLINSAnd if you were a middle class school and your student grades were improving but your minority kids, your poor kids were not doing better than your overall grade was bad. And it drove many schools really crazy. It was one of the best things about George W. Bush, that commitment. And that's what he meant, you know, when he said the bigotry and soft expectations -- soft bigotry of low expectations. Sorry, George.
NNAMDIWhat do you see as the legacy of No Child Left Behind?
COLLINSIt's interesting and we think we're seeing right now the Obama Administration is trying to figure out a way to rethink it so that you've got all the states working together to have national standards, which would make it easier to figure out who's doing well and who's not doing well. Right now we have so many tests in so many different states that are all so different it's really impossible to compare them. It's very difficult even for a parent to figure out how well any given school district is doing because they're so all over the board. And that's one of the things that the Obama Administration is trying to deal with.
COLLINSI must say that Texas has universally said it's not taking part in any of this effort whatsoever. But the thought is a really good thought.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Gail Collins. She's a columnist for the New York Times. Her latest book is called "As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda." On to the telephones, here now is Dan in Westminster, Md. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANHi Kojo. Ms. Collins, I'd like to ask if you could explain your reasoning -- I've heard other people comment on this, but it's never made sense to me, with the voter registration that's proposed, it seems to me that allowing a state permit and not allowing a college permit, when many of the state -- or when many of the college students don't have to be either residents or residents of the state or even of the country, why that would pose a problem.
COLLINSI think the question is whether you make it easy or hard for people if you're comfortable going to vote. And it's -- all the states now -- the whole trend right now, including in Texas, is to make it particularly difficult to register voters outside of city hall, to go on voter registration drives. There's no evidence whatsoever that there's a real problem in this country with people voting without -- it's just not something that interests most crooks in this country, the attempt. And there's never been any indication there's a widespread problem with false voting, with people voting with false addresses, with dead people voting. It's just not a big issue. Our problem in this country is getting people to vote.
COLLINSAnd Texas spends, I think, four times as much money pulling people off the rolls as it does trying to expand voter registration. It's just the spirit of the thing that's not good.
NNAMDIDan, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. Here's Leslie, in Fairfax, Va. Leslie, your turn.
LESLIEHi Kojo. I love your show, as well. Anyway, first of all, I've got to thank Ms. Collins for the story on the dog and Mitt Romney. I think that tells us everything we need to know about this man and I too, also, never, never miss a moment just to inform people about it. But my question was, here I've worked on several occasions with some Spanish people. I don't speak Spanish. This is just something that I've heard. Apparently, there's a movement, they say Reconquistadors or something they call themselves. The idea is to take Texas back, you know, for Mexico.
LESLIEAnd my question is if indeed, you know, that is a bona fide movement that, you know, you've heard of, if you think that this bigoted and intolerant attitude of these leaders that they're choosing down there isn't gonna actually promote this movement amongst the Spanish giving it legitimacy because obviously, I mean, all this voting business is just a thinly veiled attempt to prevent minorities or Democrats or whatever from voting.
NNAMDIWell, Gail Collins, there are also some rising Hispanic political stars in Texas.
COLLINSThere are. There are twin brothers in San Antonio, for instance, the Castro brothers. One of them is running right now for Congress. And the other one is the mayor of the town. And they're sort of picked on as the new potential rising stars. But I must say that in a place as big as Texas -- and there's a candidate from the Republican side, a tea party candidate for the state senate who's Cuban -- for not state senate, but the U.S. Senate who's running right now. But you know I've not seen much evidence that the Hispanic residents, the Mexican-Americans who live in Texas, have any desire to put Texas back in Mexico.
COLLINSIt's sort of like the idea of Anglo-Texans that they're going to somehow secede from the United States and create an independent republic again. Those are just bragging things you do at the end of the day, but they're neither one of them are they serious political movements. Both groups just want to have more power within the state as it exists right now.
NNAMDILeslie, thank you very much for your call. We're gonna take a short break. If you have already called stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow if you have questions or comments for Gail Collins. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is New York Times columnist Gail Collins. Her latest book is called, "As Texas Goes: How The Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda." You write in your latest column that the biggest political division is the war between the empty places and the crowded places in this election cycle. What do you mean by that? And also, by the notion that apparently a whole lot of people in Texas seem to think that they live in empty places, when, in fact, they live in crowded places.
COLLINSThat's one of the things why Texas is leading right now in the whole Tea Party vision. I think it's always been true in America, going back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, that there's been a fight between the people who live in crowded places, who like government -- you can see, if you live in a crowded place, what good things government does. They protect you from burglars. NRH keep dogs from pooping on the sidewalk. They do, you know, they run the schools. They run all kinds of useful things you need.
COLLINSIf you live in an empty place, it's very hard to see the point of government because the dog can poop anywhere he wants. If there's a burglar, you're gonna shoot him with your rifle. All the stuff that you do doesn't seem to require government intervention. And that's always been the case in America. I think that's the great classic struggle. But now it's more imaginary. I mean, people think about where they live in terms that don't necessarily relate to the physical surroundings that they have. I was just in the state of Washington. And you run into many people there who live in what looked like very empty places, but they see interconnectivity.
COLLINSThey see themselves as part of the planet. And they see all sorts of needs and hopes and responsibilities all over the place. On the other hand, you run into people who live in 400-unit condos that were paid for with a federal subsidy who are now getting social security checks who go off to Tea Party meetings and yell about getting the government out of their hair. They think they're in an empty place somehow. And Texas, where 80 percent of the people live in metropolitan areas, is a place that generally thinks it's in a very empty place.
COLLINSIt looks empty. It's sort of got that empty look to it. And there are certainly lots of spaces between the metropolitan areas. So you can drive three hours to get to a football game and think nothing of it in Texas. So that helps it, I think, develop that sense which you hear a lot in the tea party rhetoric about government is not something to fix. Government is something to be gotten rid of. The point is not to improve government services or make them or efficient, it's to just eliminate them completely.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Phillip who says, "Texas may produce more U.S. Presidents, House speakers, White House Chiefs of Staff and it may influence our future by dent of its sheer size. Witness how the content of national school textbooks are adjusted to adhere to Texas ideology. Gail Collins may wish to have a t-shirt I once produced that reads, The Future's Complex, Don't Tex With Messes." How powerful is Texas's pull in the narrative of our country's textbooks in general, but our science textbooks in particular?
COLLINSIt's all the textbooks, particularly social sciences, regular sciences, health textbooks. If you've got a health textbook that explains that there are eight ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and does not mention condoms or birth control, but does mention get plenty of sleep so you'll make good decisions, that's the Texas influence right there. And it was very, very, very, very strong for a long time because they had a system of selecting textbooks that gave the power to the state board of education, which was elected in elections in which nobody showed up to vote.
COLLINSSo you did have really intense preference people, particularly people who would now be called tea party people, going out to vote, electing members of the board, one of whom believed publicly that public schools were the tool of the devil. Yet there she was on the school board. And trying to make those people happy made the publishers really think about Texas as they were producing books. And of course...
NNAMDIBecause Texas is one of the biggest buyers of textbooks.
COLLINSBecause it's so huge. And unlike some of the other large states, the state school board had a great deal of control of exactly what got picked so those two things worked together to give Texas a very outsized voice. It's not quite as much now. They've changed the rules some. It's a little bit less, but I think the result of all of this has not, in the long run, been inaccurate textbooks. Because generally by the end there would be some kind of an uprising that would stop them from putting creationism or forcing creationism into the textbooks, but what you have is really hard to read, boring, meandering, narratives that just exist to get around all the things that they know might tick somebody off on the Texas board.
COLLINSAnd that's the big inheritance, to me, of the whole textbook...
NNAMDITwo years ago, the social studies curriculum was up for revision. How are classrooms around the country feeling the fallout from that debate?
COLLINSWell, they're probably not yet 'cause it does take awhile for this stuff to get through, but, you know, if you notice that your kid knows a lot more about the history of the National Rifle Association then you would think necessary that may be the influence of Texas. I mean, there's a great pushback to anything that describes capitalism as something that might be in any way questionable. They don't even like it to be called capitalism 'cause that sounds sort of harsh. They like to make sure that whenever you talk about, say, the industrialization of the country that when you mention the big, you know, corporate giants of the '20s and the golden age, that you point out all the money that gave to the poor, whenever you talk about any negative influence they might have had. Stuff like that is a very, very big pushback.
NNAMDIBut hasn't the web made it easier for states to work around the preferences of states like Texas and California?
COLLINSYeah, yeah, you can do a lot of stuff on the web. And also through the web you can change things. Even the publishers can change things as they go along and adapt them from one state to the other. What they tend to do is to create a lot of boxes to put everybody's favorite stuff in as they go along. And again, all those boxes floating around also make it very hard to read the narrative. And the books have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger as they've been forced to include all this stuff as they go along. And, as I said, the result is just really, really hard to read books.
COLLINSWell, speak of other results because Texas as opted to go it alone in charting its own sex education materials. The state does not dictate what kind of sex education public schools should offer, but studies show that students overwhelming receive abstinence-only centered instruction. What kind of impact has that had statewide?
COLLINSYeah, another reason that I wanted to write this book was I ran across a tape of Rick Perry, the governor, being interviewed when he was running for reelection by Evan Smith from the Texas Tribune. And Evan said, Governor, should we be rethinking this abstinence-only education because we have the second highest teenage birthrate in the country and the second highest rate of pre-teenage pregnancies in the country? And Perry kept saying, no, no, no. It's good, it's good, it's good. And finally he got poked once too much and he said abstinence works well. I know it from my own personal life.
COLLINSAnd I really wanted to hear more at that point, but Evan is a gentleman so he dropped it, but they do. There was a study by the Texas freedom network that showed that the vast, vast majority of the school districts not only taught abstinence only, never mentioned condoms except to talk about how they didn't work or they were unsafe. There was one series of districts that made the teacher produce a papier-mache 18-foot-long model called Speedy, the sperm, which she was supposed to use to show that condoms did not work in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.
COLLINSAnd I kept thinking Texas teachers have a lot to put up with. They really do. But Speedy, the sperm is still down there. And some of the districts teach that sex out of wedlock leads to death. You know, there's the sleeping thing. One of the guys who did the study said he was interested in doing it because one of his students at the university, a male student, he asked very sincerely what the chances were that he could get cervical cancer. There's just...
NNAMDIDespite all of this, statistics indicate that Texas has the second highest birthrate in the country, after Utah. And that is out-of-wedlock births.
COLLINSIt's both. It's got the second highest birthrate. And it also has a very, very high teenage birth rate. And a very, very high out-of-wedlock birth rate. And it has 60 percent of all the deliveries in Texas are paid for by Medicaid because the mothers are so poor. And one of the things I was trying to do in the book was to try to figure out what state's rights really means and when Texas, as an example, can really do something that doesn't affect anybody else and when stuff sloshes over into the rest of the country. And we're of course paying half of the billion dollars a year in those Medicaid deliveries, which we're I'm sure happy to do to help the poor women who need -- but you also wanna make sure that they're helped with the ability to avoid unwanted pregnancies. And Texas has had a long war against family planning services that continues on today.
NNAMDIHere's Dan in Washington, D.C. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANYeah, thanks, Kojo. I'm looking forward to reading the book. I was born in Texas, raised in Texas, had Texas history class at an early age. And the reason I'm calling 'cause, you know, I wanna give a shout out lamenting the loss of a grand liberal tradition in Texas. That's utterly gone. It's so far gone that it's hard to remember when it actually existed, I guess, you know, Ann Richards being the last one. But, you know, the fact that we have, in many ways, we've got a civil rights act in this country because LBJ had the experience of serving as the school teacher along the Rio Grande River borders with Mexican-American communities and remembered those hardships.
DANAnd, you know, I mean, this is one example, Barbara Jordan. All that is just so far in the past And I'm not sure what it's gonna take to revive the Democratic Party in Texas or just these older, you know, these indigenous strains in Texas politics that seem completely extinct.
COLLINSWell, they're not extinct. If you go to, say, Austin you will definitely run into some Democratic liberals and Houston has, you know, Somebody from Houston called me the other day, very sadly, and said, you're generalizing. You know, we have a gay mayor in Houston. You know, you didn't talk about that. And so there, you know, there still are, but what there's not now is there's not a Democratic party stuffed with all those conservative Democrats who used to be Democrats back in the day, that could lift up and make the liberal Democrats statewide possibilities.
COLLINSAnd you're right, that started to change as soon as Lyndon Johnson got the civil rights bill through. And that's part of Texas, too. You know, there's a crazy Alamo tradition of victory or death that on the one hand you could see working out in the war in Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. And it was so destructive. And on the other hand, you could see him standing up with the civil rights act knowing he was ruining his Democratic Party in Texas for the foreseeable future, but knowing it was the right thing to do and just standing up there and doing it. And that's just the best part of Texas and it will rise again. It always does.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Gail Collins, thank you so much for joining us.
COLLINSGreat to be here.
NNAMDIGail Collins is a columnist for the New York Times. She's also the author of, "As Texas Goes: How The Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda." "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Tayla Berney, with assistance from Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein. The managing producer is Diane Vogel. Our engineer today, Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuralivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojosho.org. We encourage you to share questions or comments with us by emailing email@example.com, by joining us on Facebook or by tweeting @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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