A Couple of Texas Ranchers
Ranching no longer means what it once did, but in the Lone Star
State, it still means something
Not long ago, George W. Bush decided to become, like Lyndon
Johnson before him, a ranch owner. But few outside Texas have
understood what a revealing decision that is.
The two men couldn't be more different. An embroidered cushion on
a couch in Johnson's ranch house said, IT'S MY DAMN RANCH AND I
CAN DO AS I PLEASE. And when Johnson was there, that is exactly
what he did. He insisted that Hubert Humphrey visit the ranch,
then dressed the Vice President in cowboy clothes that were way
too large and made him ride a headstrong horse that left Humphrey
hanging on for his life. Johnson took reporters for wild rides at
high speeds in his Lincoln convertible, driving with one hand on
the wheel and the other around a beer. He described the sex life
of his bulls in intricate, ribald detail. He also, by his own
account, spent time in the oak grove where his ancestors were
buried. He would gaze down at the Pedernales River and ponder
those things a rancher and a President must ponder.
Now Bush has bought a ranch. Who knows what the embroidered
cushion on his couch will say. The film at the Republican
Convention showed him driving a pickup on his property at a
prudent speed. And if Bush is elected, the nation will have to
bear up under the knowledge that we will never see Dick Cheney in
a silly outfit trying to ride a horse. But there must be some
connection between Johnson and Bush, or why would Bush want a
ranch at all?
Johnson's ranch is a nice spread of 2,700 acres in the hill
country just west of Austin, without question some of the
prettiest land in Texas. Johnson was born in a house on the
property and first attended school in a one-room schoolhouse that
is also on the ranch. His father and grandfather had farmed and
ranched there. While Johnson used the ranch as a retreat, he
tried to make it pay too. He had a foreman who lived on the
property and bred Hereford cattle for show. Johnson hated being
thought of as a hick, but he never repudiated his heritage. That
ranch was where he began.
Bush's ancestors were patrician New Englanders. But he has bought
property in a forgotten part of Texas off a small state highway
west of Waco that isn't on the way to or from anywhere of note.
The land is rolling blackland prairie used to pasture Hereford
cattle or grow corn or wheat. It has a nice view across miles of
fields and pastures. Unlike Johnson, Bush makes no pretense that
the ranch will be a working enterprise. He says he'll spend his
time there reading or walking with Laura or doing chores around
the property. In other words, Bush will not be a rancher. He will
be something different--a ranch owner.
It is impossible to overestimate how much ranches dominate the
Texas psyche. That's why people in the cities still wear cowboy
boots despite how difficult it is to walk in that high heel.
Johnson's generation was born when Texas was still mostly rural
and when most people depended on farming or ranching for their
livelihood. The state changed during their lifetime, but their
sons and daughters--Bush's generation--who generally have left the
country for life in the city, cannot admit to themselves that
they have cut their connection to the land. To be born in Texas,
even now, is to want a ranch.
Meanwhile, squeezed by rising costs and low beef prices, the old
ranching families have sold out one by one. If their land is
attractive and reasonably close to a city, they can find buyers
in these good times among rich middle-aged men like George W.
Bush. They want a place in the country where they can hunt, fish,
sit with their wife on the porch in the evening, and maybe run
just enough cattle to qualify for an agricultural tax exemption.
But the biggest reward is that being a ranch owner fulfills their
belief that at heart they are country boys. They will go to the
country dances on Saturday night and attend the local church on
Sunday and come back to work Monday feeling "restored."
And in Bush's case, buying a ranch is even more significant.
While he doesn't repudiate his New England heritage, he has
always insisted that he is a Texan. Buying a ranch is a way of
saying once and for all that he's a Texan, that his values are
rural and instinctive rather than urban and intellectual, that he
is his own man and not the prisoner of his family legacy. Owning
a ranch is homage to a past that must be easier to honor than it
would have been to live in. It's walking in the footsteps of a
father and a grandfather--not his Connecticut father and
grandfather but, sweet irony, Lyndon Johnson's. Johnson's ranch
was where he began. Bush's is where he has chosen to end up.
Gregory Curtis, the longtime editor of Texas Monthly, is now a
Time Inc. editor-at-large