Q. Mr. President, in a visit to Texas, in Brownsville I believe it was, in the Rio Grande Valley, you did observe that the economic recovery was uneven. In that particular area of Texas, unemployment was over 14 percent, whereas statewide it was the lowest in the country, I believe, 5.6 percent. And you made the comment, however, that man does not live by bread alone. What did you mean by that comment, and if I interpret it correctly, it would be a comment more addressed to the affluent who obviously can look beyond just the bread they need to sustain them . . . ?
REAGAN: That had nothing to do with the other thing of talking about their needs or anything. I remember distinctly I was segueing into another subject -- I was talking about the things that have been accomplished and that was referring to the revival of patriotism and optimism, the new spirit that we're finding all over America. And it is a wonderful thing to see when you get out there among the people. So that was the only place that was used. . . .
As it happens, I spent some time in the Rio Grande Valley last winter, a place, it is true, of virtually boundless Texas-style patriotism and optimism -- and hospitality as well -- the fastest growing area in the country, they say: the rugged new frontier, full of rugged individualists (and a lot of foreign money). The Chamber of Commerce calls it "the Magic Valley" because the earth is so fertile and the climate benign.
As I sped Texas-style on the superhighways through that flat delta countryside, from McAllen to Brownsville to Padre Island and back again, several times in all, I could see what they were talking about. The reality -- raw and ugly, but rich -- seemed almost to correspond to the myth. On Padre Island, the new condominiums tower above the Gulf. In McAllen, the shops in their new malls are very smart, and the old hotel in the Spanish style has been elegantly redone. You'd never have known, looking at McAllen last winter, that two years before a hundred businesses failed when the peso took its disastrous fall.
But then there are a lot of things about that valley that might escape the notice of the casual tourist from the north, driving along the highways, listening to the voice of Paul Harvey or a gospel preacher coming from the radio. They used to say that the tourists came to the valley with a clean shirt and a 10-dollar bill -- and changed neither. They don't say that any more.
The population of the area is about half a million and growing fast, and the "winter Texans," as they are called, add a hundred thousand more and, of course, a lot of money to the economy. Some of them become permanent residents, attracted by the state that has no corporate or personal income tax, an abundant and growing supply of very cheap non-union labor and, of course, the usually agreeable weather in the valley. Palm trees and hibiscus flourish there, and where the terrain has been watered and landscaped it is very green and very pretty. As the president said, there is a revival of patriotism and optimism in this land -- if, indeed, it ever wavered -- and man does not live by bread alone.
Strange then that amidst this church-going, church-supporting population -- good people, really, the salt of the earth, as they say -- resides another and largely hidden population. Statistically, the dynamically growing valley is among the poorest in the country. The back roads, unpaved and rutted, leading through the vast fields seemingly to nowhere, reveal the grimmer reality: the old poverty behind the new money. Clusters of shacks and broken down vehicles, children huddled in doorways looking listlessly at the stray visitor in his shiny new car, chickens wandering the road. There is no plumbing in these ramshackle dwellings, and the heat is primitive, mostly from open charcoal fires. As a consequence of that, housefires are frequent, but the local governments provide no fire or police protection to the random settlements that have sprung up far behind the citrus groves and cotton fields and startlingly new but carefully manicured country club developments; and of course the counties have no zoning ordinances.
I would not have known these things or seen this hidden valley, either, had Hernan Gonzalez, the director of the Division for Christian Service of the Catholic Archdiocese, not shown it to me. I would have thought, for example, that the population was aging, not mostly under 20. I would not have known that the schools for these miserable many are woefully inadequate in a society that requires literate labor even to pump gas.
"Why?" I asked.
"You have to be sophisticated enough to read a credit card," he said.
Public assistance provides about a dollar a day per person, $86 a month for a mother with a dependent child, he said and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations verifies. Not a lot of food and housing, as anyone would agree.
That evening in Texas, I heard on television that unemployment in the valley during Christmas week was 18.4 percent; in Starr County, the worst hit, it was 35.2 percent. The statistics were followed a few minutes later by the usual Christmas appeals for the needy. The response was heartening because man does not live by bread alone.
As I listened to the president Sunday night, I was also thinking of another valley with which he is familiar: Palm Springs, that small miracle of green in the arid California desert where, I have no doubt, most of the people would agree with him that "yes, they are better off than they were four years ago." Especially, I imagine, the guests at the birthday surprise described in The New Yorker Oct. 8 under the heading "Social Notes From All Over." The theme of the party, according to the account that the magazine reprinted from the Palm Springs Desert Sun, was "elegant hobo." The champagne was served in a brown bag, waitresses dressed as bag ladies passed out the hors d'oeuvres from a shopping cart with "a few trash can 'finds' still hanging out the sides," the caviar was spooned from an enamel pot and the fetuccine from a tin can. The party favors included a can of pork and beans.
Sometimes I, like the president, have trouble with my segues, and as I was sipping my wine and watching the debate Sunday night, my mind wandered from these things I have described -- these valleys in the Sun Belt, the wine I was drinking -- to the veal I had eaten shortly before and to an essay a friend had recently shown me: George Orwell's "Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War."
"How right the working classes are in their 'materialism'," Orwell wrote. "How right they are to realize that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time!"
The guests at that clever festivity in Palm Springs would doubtless agree, as they plucked their pastries from the toy boxcars circling the dessert table; as would those migrants eating their rice and beans around their charcoal fires in the Magic Valley; as would the comfortable rest of America, sipping their beaujolais like me and nodding in assent as the president talked about the wonderful spirit you see "when you get out there among the people." The belly does indeed come before the soul, and sometimes the price is very high.