“I don’t know what percentage of me is Midland,” George W. Bush said four years ago, “but I would say people, if they want to understand me, need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland.” In Bush’s rhetoric, the West Texas town is populated by people just like him–hard-workin’, straight-shootin’ entrepreneurs tempered by the Protestant work ethic and evangelical Christianity. We know what Midland symbolizes in Bush-speak, but how is the town faring four years later?
At first glance, Bush seems as popular as ever in the “Tall City”–an allusion to the cluster of downtown skyscrapers rising off the featureless Texas plains. Signs on I-20 welcome visitors to the “Hometown of George and Laura Bush: Where the Sky’s the Limit.” The tourist office at the Chamber of Commerce proudly displays Bush paraphernalia behind glass cases, as if the hats and T-shirts proclaiming “Midland Is Bush Country” and “Bush/Cheney ’04” were precious artifacts, not campaign propaganda.
Yet down the quiet cul-de-sacs as wide as landing strips, there is a rumble of discontent. “I’ve seen the very character of the Republican Party change in Texas,” a retired schoolteacher named Marianne told me. Marianne is, in many ways, a typical white-collar Midlander: a lifelong Republican and member of the country club, she refers to domestic workers as “the help.” Although she won’t denounce Bush publicly (“It would be social suicide, honey,” she says about her refusal to divulge her last name), she decries the Tom DeLay-led takeover of the GOP. “Texas Republicans used to be upstanding people. You could count on their word. Not anymore.”
The fracture between “country club” Republicans like Marianne and the religious right goes back decades here, and George W. Bush used to represent the compromise between the two factions. But four years into a Bush presidency, Marianne now questions some basic assumptions about Bush’s “compassionate conservative” doctrine. “I support our troops, but the people dying in the war are the blue-collar people around West Texas who worked in the oilfields, not the white-collar people of Midland. The war’s been a mess from the beginning.”
While Bush received around 75 percent of the Midland County vote in 2000, public enthusiasm for his 2004 campaign is not readily apparent this time around. On a recent visit in September, the only Bush yard signs or bumper stickers I saw were those kept safely locked away behind glass cases at the Chamber of Commerce. Midlanders, perhaps like Americans everywhere, are much more likely to identify themselves as “nonpolitical” than avid Bush supporters.
Unease with Midland’s hometown boy has even been expressed by some oil industry players–the very people who should be his biggest supporters. David Rosen, a native New Yorker and former petroleum geologist who came to Midland during the 1970s boom years, remembered Bush as a “likable guy who always remembered your name.” When he first arrived in Texas, Rosen considered himself “apolitical,” but he is now one of Midland’s most visible Democrats and director of John Kerry’s Midland County campaign. “I’m known as someone who’s not afraid to be anti-Bush in Midland,” he says. He senses a sea change in Midland’s attitude toward Bush since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. “People have been telling me at the supermarket, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t what America stands for.'” Rosen believes the war will lead to decreased support for Bush in Midland in November.