What happens when you turn one of the nation’s sharpest liberal commentators loose in one of the nation’s most ferociously conservative states? Think about mixing fire and hydrogen. Yankees fans and Red Sox fans. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell. The experiment promises to be combustible, but certainly not boring.
Just in time for beach-reading season, The New York Times’s Gail Collins is out with a new book, As Texas Goes..., in which the wickedly witty political columnist looks to explain the outsize impact of the Lone Star State on its 49 brethren.
Collins conceived of the project in the wake of Gov. Rick Perry’s April 2009 musings about whether Texas ought to contemplate secession in the face of an increasingly overbearing Washington. “It’s so weird that Texas is so paranoid about the federal government when, if you think about it, Texas has been running the federal agenda for 30 years,” she tells Newsweek.
And so Collins decided to dig in and explore the influence of the nation’s second-largest state (in both population and land mass) in areas ranging from education to taxation to regulation.
Now, a non-Texan purporting to explain Texas is “always a dangerous thing,” notes Evan Smith, editor of The Texas Tribune and one of Collins’s chief guides through this foreign land. “There is nothing in the world Texans hate more.”
Just wait until the book hits the shelves. As usual, Collins offers up a clear point of view, one that can largely be boiled down to: Texas is trouble with a capital T. Whether it’s the state’s enthusiasm for the death penalty, its love of high-stakes testing in schools, its passion for privatization, or its bare-bones approach to the social safety net, Texas is the antithesis of Collins’s idea of good government. As she observes in her opening chapter: “That’s the traditional Texas spirit, at its best when there’s an enemy to rise up against. Outsized and brave. And frequently somewhat lunatic.”
Collins acknowledges that she isn’t really writing for Texans, but for folks in far-flung places whose lives are being impacted in ways they likely don’t realize. Many of her readers will, of course, be among the top echelons of the Beltway crowd. After 40 years in the business, 17 at the Times (where she served as the first woman editor of the editorial page), Collins is read by Washington’s power players. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett praises her as “a phenomenal writer, thinker, innovator, and groundbreaker. Of course that’s not to say she always writes in our favor.” But even when Collins skewers the administration, “people take note,” says one former staffer, “because at the end of the day she’s right a lot more than she’s wrong.”
Collins is a big fan of partisanship and favors a strict to-the-victor-go-the-spoils approach to the game. “The bipartisanship stuff never seems to work.”
And she isn’t one to pull her punches. She has been particularly brutal this election cycle in gigging Mitt Romney over having once strapped the family dog, Seamus, to the roof of the car during a road trip to Canada. For months, Collins made a game of trying to mention the episode every time she wrote about Romney. Case in point: In a column in April listing possible political reality shows (Collins is a reality-TV junkie), she included: “Republican Swamp People—The Romneys move to the Everglades in an effort to woo the swing state of Florida. Excitement ensues when Mitt tries to drive to a rally with an alligator strapped to the roof of the car.”
In contrast to Collins’s sharp political pen, colleagues say that, around “the 13th floor” (where the paper’s editorial staff is housed in the Manhattan offices), she is a cross between a den mother and party planner. The columnist keeps her office mini-fridge stocked with wine for co-workers who want to stop by and chat, and she insists on throwing an office Valentine’s Day party every year. Conservative columnist David Brooks, who does a regular online chat with Collins, calls her the “dean of social capital.”
Despite her rough handling of Texas, Collins says she came away with a better appreciation of why it is like it is. Driving through the vast empty spaces of West Texas, she says, “you understand why people feel the need to go 80 miles per hour, why they need a gun in the house, why they think people should leave you alone.”