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Mary McGrory

A Bit Too Much Texas Swagger

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, August 25, 2002; Page B07

Don't call George W. Bush a unilateralist. He'll get sore at you.

Don't say he's a chauvinist, either. He's just a Texan, dammit.

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His month-long stay at his ranch -- punctuated by meetings of high moment and oodles of fundraising expeditions -- has brought out the Lone Star in him. He says he'll "go it alone" in Iraq if need be, and he sounds plausible on that dusty plain where the lonesome cowboy is a fixture and you don't find authors of hostile op-eds.

And his anti-eastern, anti-Atlantic Coast bias breaks out, as in that strange outburst the other day about people who unaccountably prefer sea breezes to the dead heat of central Texas.

The president told Associated Press reporter Scott Lindlaw, who was permitted to follow him on his ranch rounds, that he knew not everybody appreciated the local charm but that more did than you might think -- "Most Americans don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine."

What was that all about? Was it a reflexive lunge at his permanent piñata, Bill Clinton, who used to vacation at Martha's Vineyard -- and forever sullied it for Bush? But island-wide excessive drinking has not been an issue, and so far, at least, Clinton has not been charged with wine-swilling even by Bob Barr. Or was it just his free-floating resentment of the East Coast and his conviction that it is inhabited by whining winos, decadent, supercilious, unpatriotic elitist liberals, who are now, to their surprise, quoting Dick Armey, the House Republican leader from Texas, who doesn't want to go to war. When Bush was a candidate, Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams took memorable note of his "curious air of resentment, the more puzzling for its place in a life so touched by advantage." The petulance surfaced in Paris last spring. Who could forget his flare-up at David Gregory, an NBC reporter who asked a question of the French president, in perfect French, which he had learned as a child in France. It didn't seem a major offense, but Bush, for some reason, thought that he was being challenged and that Gregory was showing off, which he finds unforgivable when it invites comparison to him.

In Texas, it's okay to be a little bit surly; it adds to the aura of a citizen of a large, assertive state that doesn't think much of the rest of the country. And Bush, who is proudly unassimilated, does not just talk Texan -- dropping his g's and quoting old wanted posters. He walks Texan, too. He throws out his knees and holds his arms bent and away from his body in the classic pose of the cowboy or sheriff who may have to reach for his pistol at any moment.

He tries in every way he can to live down his long exposure to the East, Andover, Yale, Harvard. Has George W. forgiven his parents for his being born in Connecticut? His father, George H.W. Bush, also a native of New England, longed to be taken for a Texan. It was a bit of a stretch. Although he assiduously dropped his g's and professed a passion for pork rinds and truck stops, the prep-school accent and manners gave him away. It is one competition with his father that George W. wins going away. The only question is, does he go too far with it?

We got used to having a Texan in the White House personalize a war -- just think back to Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson, a graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College who decided fatefully to take over Harvard grad Jack Kennedy's unfinished business in Vietnam.

Bush surely cannot imagine he can wiseguy his way into a war with Saddam Hussein. "I'm a patient man," he said last week at a news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, which they tried to turn into a soft-shoe routine, feeding each other lines and chuckles. Bush repeated that he was a patient man as if that were all the explanation needed for his intentions.

He will consult our allies, he said breezily, while Gen. Tommy Franks was telling another audience that he had the war plans.

Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, would need a little more to take to his people. Secretary of State Colin Powell would probably like to know what plans Bush has for pacifying the Middle East before he starts another war. The Joint Chiefs of Staff still want to know where the bombers will be based, as country after country in Iraq's neighborhood sends back the NIMBY word.

A show of gravitas is called for, a humble copying of his father's coalition-building when he invaded Iraq. It would be appropriate for a nod and a gesture to the United Nations, an international organization that is held in "minimum high regard" in Texas. Bush could improve his credibility by paying our bill to the United Nations. As of June 30, we owed more than a billion dollars.

There are times to be a Texan. Bush's swagger and defiance met the national mood after Sept. 11. Now, if he is going to lead the West into war, W. has to be an American.


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