Interview with New York Times columnist Gail Collins about her new book, ‘As Texas Goes’

A native Ohioan, Gail Collins says her fascination with Texas began when she heard Gov. Rick Perry deliver an Alamo-like speech at a 2009 Tea Party rally. “We didn’t like oppression then; we don’t like oppression now,” he roared. The problem was, says Collins, “this was a rally about the stimulus package.”

Collins’ new book is titled “As Texas Goes . . . : How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda” (Liveright Publishing/W. W. Norton & Company). The first woman editor of the New York Times’ editorial page, she is also author of “America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines and When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.”

Now a columnist at the Times, Collins is known for unshrinking criticism of the gun lobby, small-minded politicians and discrimination against women. While covering the 2012 election, Collins reminded readers that Mitt Romney had crated the family dog and strapped it to the roof of the Romney’s car during a family vacation. The reference appeared 68 times.

Rosenberg: “In As Texas Goes,” you debut the concept of people who live in “Empty Places” versus “Crowded Places” and say they don’t feel the need for laws to deal with everyday intrusions like neighbors. How is this different from the rural/urban concept?

Collins: It is more a mentality than the actual places people live as Jefferson and Hamilton would argue about—city versus country. For example, someone could have an empty place mentality yet be living in a condo in Boca Raton. Of course, Texas is so huge it really is empty places; people can easily drive an hour and a half to work every day, so even if they’re actually living in the suburbs it sure feels as if they’re in a remote location.

Rosenberg: Is Texas’ size part of the reason for the resistance you cite in the book to environmentalism and the threat of climate change?

Collins: Certainly people in empty places feel they have the right to do what they want to their property and don’t necessarily see the effect of their pollution or pesticides on others. But Texans have an appreciation for water problems and are very aware of the droughts. I write about how in Midland, the mayor (?) instituted water conservation measures like restrictions on car washing. He made a point though that they were only “suggestions” and not government telling people what to do. But then his constituents got very ticked off at the sight of their neighbors breaking the rules and demanded that they be made into actual laws with penalties.

Rosenberg: Many Texas politicians do not come across too well in “As Texas Goes,” especially Rick Perry, the current governor and a presidential candidate over the summer. Did he really “name” his boots Freedom and Liberty?

Collins: Yes.

Rosenberg: Did he really reply when asked by the Texas Tribune‘s Evan Smith for actual statistics proving abstinence reduces teen pregnancy, “I’m sorry, I’m going to tell you from my own personal life. Abstinence works.”

Collins: Yes.

Rosenberg: Did Perry really vote against legislation that would have kept farm workers out of the fields while the fields were being sprayed with pesticides?

Collins: Yes, but the owners argued that they could work out their own plans for protecting the workers, not that they intended to spray them.

Rosenberg: That’s a relief. The conflicts of interest you cite in the book between government and industry are shocking like the former lobbyist for the Texas Chemical Council, Ralph Marquez, becoming the Texas Natural Resources Commissioner. “At the time,” you write, the Council’s members were “responsible for 74 percent of all EPA-tracked toxic chemical emissions in the state, 98 percent of the toxic water pollution, and 67 percent of the toxic air pollution.” Why are such fox-guarding-the-henhouse arrangements tolerated in Texas?

Collins: Well of course that’s how lobbying works in general. Lobbyists really are experts in their fields and know what they are talking about. That’s why the government always listens to them as they tell the government what it’s doing wrong and what it should be doing instead. . . . .

Rosenberg: Since the book has been published, three topics you address have been in the news. The Texas secession movement has gained momentum, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas lost their exclusive stewardship of the Alamo and state representative Henry Aldridge (R-NC) made his infamous remark that women “who are truly raped” don’t get pregnant because “the juices don’t flow.” Were you surprised to see these issues newly debated?

Collins: The idea that if you don’t like how things are going, you can just leave is so engrained in Texas, the secession movement is no surprise. In a November New York Times column, I quoted Peter Morrison, treasurer of the Hardin County Republican Party, as saying in defense of secession, “We must contest every single inch of ground and delay the baby-murdering, tax-raising socialists at every opportunity.” I also quote him saying, “in due time, the maggots will have eaten every morsel of flesh off of the rotting corpse of the Republic, and therein lies our opportunity.”

At first, I felt bad judging an entire state by one county political official but then I found out Morrison had also helped screen public school textbooks, a topic which is another chapter in my book. The Alamo is managed by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a group whose members can claim a relative who was living in Texas during the revolution. The fight over mismanagement of the Alamo has been going on for years.

Rosenberg: You write, “Quite a bit of the information Texas students are getting seems to have arrived from another era. An abstinence-only program used in three districts assures them that if, ‘if a woman is dry, the sperm will die’—which harks back to colonial-era theories that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant unless she enjoyed the sex.” What’s surprising is that within this backward milieu, Perry also mandated that all girls be vaccinated with the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, which many charge promotes teen sex. This was also a case of lobbying since Perry’s former chief of staff had just turned Merck lobbyist.

Collins: Over the long run, many of Perry’s stances boil down to following the money.

Rosenberg: Many forgotten national stories like the presidential campaign of H. Ross Perot and Enron have origins or connections in Texas. So do present and past political figures, according to your book, like Phil and Wendy Gramm, Karl Rove, Tom Delay, Dick Armey, Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich and, of course, the Bushes. Still, I had no idea until reading your book how instrumental some figures, like Phil and Wendy Gramm, were in deregulating the financial markets and making the world safe for swaps. They were also linked to Enron.

Collins: Phil Gramm had a stump speech about how his mother’s devotion kept him from being an academic failure in life. She got him into a special school that turned him around—under a government program for the children of deceased veterans. He was repeatedly asked at press conferences why he would then turn around and support draconian cuts in federal funding for education. He never had an answer.

Rosenberg: Your book also reveals that the original deregulation of S & Ls and lending standards which caused the1980s S & L crisis and Keating Five scandal began in Texas. Deregulated lending standards are also what sparked the 2008 mortgage meltdown and subsequent US recession we are still in.

Collins: Yes it is one of many agendas that Texas gave to the rest of the country in the book. Charles Keating, by the way, spoke to my Catholic girls’ high school in the 1960s on behalf of Citizens For Decent Literature long before he went to Arizona. He cautioned us about the danger of wearing shorts and told an anecdote in which a mother who was wearing Bermuda shorts and pushing her child down the street in a stroller so aroused a male driver, he drove up on the sidewalk and struck and killed the baby. He made it clear that this was her fault for wearing shorts.

Rosenberg: You are kidding!

Collins: It was a very Catholic message.

Rosenberg: Looking back on writing “As Texas Goes,” were there any memorable high and low points?

Collins: The high point was that the people are really nice—despite the crazy politics—and I loved being there. The hardest part was knowing some of the things I was probably going to write about Texas would make those nice people very unhappy.

Rosenberg: Did you get any angry phone calls or emails after the book came out?

Collins: Yes, one man told me he would shove a rattlesnake down my throat.

An earlier version of this interview appeared on

Martha Rosenberg, author of Born With a Junk Food Deficiency (Prometheus Books, 2012) will be speaking at the Mid Manhattan Public Library this spring.

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