Politicking stateside

As today is mid-term election day in the US, it feels appropriate to share some political gems from my recent travels. If you’re American and reading this, please tell me you’ve voted?? I was very proud that the American travelling with us made the most of our time in her voter registered district and acquired one of these in early voting:

Voting 2014Incidentally, PLEASE could the UK get voting stickers?? They’re such a good idea! 

I love a bit of American political geekery. It’s potentially an odd fascination for a Brit to have (especially as it was fostered pre-West Wing), but it’s largely thanks to lessons on the War of Independence during a summer in Boston aged 10, and half the syllabus of my Government & Politics A-level. [And the fact that aforementioned syllabus was taught by a young and – in a girls’ school context – attractive male teacher who was passionate about the subject.] As that A-level was studied during a period of time that saw Clinton’s near impeachment, it easily became the most exciting subject I studied in school.

To be honest, I hadn’t anticipated that politics would become such a significant theme on this trip. Yes, I expected a certain amount of political discussion and cross-cultural engagement between the politics of Texans versus a tribe of leftie Londoners – that’s one of the joys of building relationships there. Yes, I knew that I’d definitely be visiting the site of JFK’s assassination – because Matryoshka Haus’ new Dallas workspace looks out over it. But did I expect a full on geek out at Presidential libraries and government buildings? No! 

IMG_7797King George leaves the stage…

Looking back, it seems the tone for the trip was set on my very first day in Houston. Saturday morning saw me sitting in a cool church building watching an educational theatre troupe perform an account of the founding of the USA. Because nothing says “welcome to America” like an hour of hearing just how terrible the British were!! Hours later, I attended a dinner party in honour of the Brits, featuring a menu designed to honour the War of Independence. In retaliation to one British jibe, I shared the conclusion of an essay I’d written for my Imperial History MA in which I’d argued that if we hadn’t got rid of the 13 colonies, the British Empire wouldn’t have been the force it was… Never mess with an Imperial Historian!

Texas CapitolThe Texas Capitol looks a little similar to the Federal one, but is shiny & pink.

Somehow, upon arriving in Austin, a trip to the capitol building was placed on our itinerary.  [Didn’t know Austin was the capital of Texas? Clearly you need these educational cookies!] We had a slightly more cynical tour guide than the official ones (God bless our wonderful Austin friends who make us Brits feel at home with their irony and sarcasm), who nonetheless covered a decent amount of Texan history and put it into the context of the current election. For example, did you know that there have only been two previous female governors of Texas? [Miriam A. Ferguson, 1925-27 & 1933-35 and Ann Richards, 1991-95 – both were Democrats.] Today, Wendy Davis (the epic Wendy Davis who taught a new generation the meaning of the word ‘filibuster’) is in the running to be the third. Happily, we were able to explore most of the building at leisure, including the House of Representatives – election season meant that little state business was on the agenda.

Governor balconiesGubernatorial balconies [I love that word!] – we worked out that there’s only space for another 7 or 8 governor portraits…

Press RoomThe press room, where I may have had a bit of a CJ moment behind the mic.

To be honest, I’d have been happy if the political geekery had ended there! I’m not one to impose my political geekery upon others and I’m sure there are lots of things we could have done the following morning, left to our own devices in Austin. But when one of my travelling companions suggested the LBJ library, it seemed churlish not to approve this idea enthusiastically!

LBJ Library

The Presidential Library concept is a curious (and comparatively recent) one. Since Hoover, a presidential archive has been established for each president, often at an academic institution, and usually in their state of origin. In fact, Texas boasts more of these institutions than any other state (thanks to two Bush administrations and Johnson’s) – three out of thirteen. LBJ’s happens to be on the University of Texas, Austin campus and also happens to be quite the excellent museum. Well, if you discount the rather perturbing animatronic LBJ…

A video posted by Liz Clutterbuck (@lizclutterbuck) on

Given that our next destination was Dallas, it felt appropriate to experience the LBJ Presidency knowing that we’d soon visit the point it at which it had begun. All three of us left the museum with a new level of respect for him, and a lot of questions about other Presidential libraries. Presumably they all did a propaganda job on that presidency? Was there a library for William Henry Harrison (who died a month after catching pneumonia at his inauguration)? [Answer: no, because the system only began with Hoover and only ‘significant’ previous presidents have been added.] And, what on earth was the George W. Bush library like??

George W Bush library

The last question was, in theory, easy to answer given as it stands on the Southern Methodist University (SMU to locals – and daughters of theological college principals who have spent a month there…) campus in Dallas. The rest of the British contingent had left Texas by the time I got a chance to visit it and unfortunately, I still can’t really answer our question. I came, I saw the outside of the building and I browsed the gift shop. I didn’t choose to go past the airport style security (including liquid restrictions!) that preceded the ticket office. To be honest, I felt incredibly uncomfortably the entire time I was there.

I have friends – good friends – who voted for Bush at least once. I meet many people on my travels in Texas who think he was a great president and who decry the Obama administration that most of the rest of the world rejoiced in. It’s a difficult conflict to navigate, except by agreeing to disagree. While in the museum’s gift shop, I was very conscious of being surrounded by retired WASPs who were enthusiastically stocking up on Bush memorabilia. I, on the other hand, couldn’t find anything I’d want to buy – not even ironically. By all accounts, the dominant theme in the museum is the war on terror and honestly, I couldn’t face a glorification of military endeavours. You can take the pacifist left-winger out of Britain, but you can’t take pacifism & left-leaning thoughts out of the Brit…

Go Wendy Davis

Travelling in election season brings these differences to the fore. While having a pedicure one afternoon, I watched a number of political ads on the local news channel. Party Political Broadcasts they were not! No careful unpicking of the opposition’s manifesto, just straight out attacks on the other candidates – like a Republican ad arguing that electing Davis would be tantamount to electing Obama (and that that would be a bad thing). On my final evening, we went out for tacos at a place that happened to have political themed tacos (I know!!). I went for the Democrat, owing to its inclusion of beef & cilantro, and observed it happened to be 20c pricier than any of the others. “Of course!” my host replied, “everything’s more expensive under a Democratic administration!” We laughed.

This is why I love travelling the way I do. I don’t hide in sterile hotels that are the same the world over, I experience life the way locals live it. I ask lots of questions along the way, and get lots in return too. Life would be very dull if we were all the same – it’s the differences that makes things interesting!