It was a quiet evening for the precinct captains working the polls at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, partly because so many people had voted early, but mostly because an era had already passed. The once modest and now grand St. Martin’s—it was converted, in 2004, into an updated, Texas-sized version of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres—sits in Tanglewood, a once modest and now grand Houston neighborhood that has been, and is now, home to George and Barbara Bush. St. Martin’s, known here casually as “the Bushes’s church,” seemed to grow and expand with the family fortunes, and it was icing on the cake that its vast expansion coincided with George W. Bush’s reëlection. Houston, after all, is dotted with tributes to the Bushes, from public libraries to elementary schools to the major airport. But on this night, St. Martin’s, the polling place for the staunchly Republican precinct 234, seemed almost vestigial. The television cameras were nowhere to be seen—the Houston Chronicle hadn’t run the traditional photo of George and Bar heading proudly to the polls—and people seemed sanguine about the election’s outcome. They looked more like well-moderated ’41 Republicans than fire-breathing ’43 Republicans: whites who were prosperous but not flashy, the men in khakis, the women in sturdy, appropriate heels, younger people who looked slightly older than their years. The poll workers’ snacks were ample but reasonable: homemade cakes and brownies, tuna fish—canned with mayo, not seared—chips and dips, pimento cheese, and, of course, salsa. Voices were politely hushed.
Since the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Texas in general and Houston in particular have had the feel of occupied territory. The senior Bushes served as local proctors, whether they meant to or not, Barbara playing bad cop to the Senior George’s good. They thrived surrounded by courtiers in their beloved Tanglewood, and their appearance at social events (rare) and charity events (frequent) made everyone stand up just a little straighter, lest they be found wanting. Except for a handful of people who had really known “Junior” growing up—they were the ones who quietly admitted they awakened each morning stunned that “George” was President—it was accepted that the 43rd President was “a good guy,” and part of proving your loyalty involved ponying up for Barbara Bush’s literacy galas and 41’s birthday benefits. Book signings for assorted memoirs generally produced queues of fans that would rival those for Beatles- reunion tickets. Contributing to Neil Bush’s entrepreneurial ventures, such as Ignite!, an educational software company for “different” learners, was not a bad idea either. The Houston Independent School District got in on that one.
This loyalty took on a maniacal edge after 9/11, with what you might call the Dinner Party Litmus Test. Suddenly, at events in fancy, deeply Republican neighborhoods like River Oaks and Memorial, there were more closeted Democrats than closeted gays. To mention opposition to the war was to risk excommunication, not just from the Houston social scene, but from the kind of friendly business deals that grease the city’s wheels. The writer John Judis once sucked the air out of a room at an otherwise cheery River Oaks gathering by voicing the sentiment—not so uncommon elsewhere—that the Iraq war was a catastrophe. No one dared put a Kerry sticker on his or her car in 2004, lest a crazed Tanglewood carpool mom take aim with her Ford Explorer. “You weren’t allowed to speak. If you weren’t on the team, you might as well have left town,” one longtime social observer noted, still cautious about speaking for attribution.
Then, like the tide ebbing, or a glacier slowly melting, Houston—which, by the way, voted Democratic in both 2000 and 2004—came back to itself. Certainly Bush’s lame-duck status, in 2004, cleared the air a bit, as did the quagmire in Iraq. But it was Hurricane Katrina, in the fall of 2005, that made many here take a second look at their favorite first family. While the rest of Houston busily displayed its beneficent side—reaping copious international praise in the process—Barbara Bush looked around at the shell-shocked evacuees in the Astrodome and voiced her fear that they might stick around: “…so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” It wasn’t that she said it—people knew she talked that way in private—but this time she was quoted locally, and the spell was broken. The run-up to 2008 turned into an old-fashioned Houston free-for-all, and for the first time in ages, the Democratic Presidential candidate carried Harris County. Even if Tanglewood went for McCain, the people at St. Martin’s knew it was over. They packed their tuna fish in plastic containers, and went back home.
Friday, November 07, 2008
Houston ATB (After the Bushes)
Former Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz, from the New Yorker blog: