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A Couple of Texas Ranchers

Ranching no longer means what it once did, but in the Lone Star State, it still means something

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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


Cover Date: October 9, 2000



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