NEW YORK—It's the beginning of the closing night of the Republican Convention, and I've nabbed a prime seat in the middle of the Texas delegation. To my right is Paul Stockard, a black IT manager who lives near Fort Worth. He's wearing a white Stetson and a button-down shirt decorated like the Texas flag. Stockard's cowboy duds look identical to those of every member of the Texas horde—the only judgment call was Levis or Wranglers. "If my daughter could see me now, she'd be slitting her wrists," Stockard says. "Look at these shirts and hats we're wearing. We look like the Village People."
There's more Village Peopling to come tonight. The Texas delegation's a cappella group, the Redistricters, has launched into a hastily composed ditty:
Kerry's always hugging John Edwards,
They're a cute couple, its true-ue-ue-ue,
They're also pushing gay marriage,
What does that say to you?
You must forgive Texans for bugging out in Manhattan. These are the final days of Lone Star decadence. No state would lose more cachet the minute President George W. Bush finished his acceptance speech Thursday night. As long as Bush sits atop the ticket, Texas receives daily blessings from the GOP. "Our ego is being stroked to the max here," crows Stockard. "We're so heady, it's a wonder our heads don't fall off." But when Bush exits—whether now or January 2009—Texas will likely fade into semiobscurity. The state has no national candidates on the horizon, and there's little chance Democrats will compete there anytime soon. Texans face a red-state gulag—their own private Idaho.
For now, though, life is sweet. "I need to get my SAG card," says Stockard, who has landed several TV interviews. Other swag includes rooms at the Hilton New York on Sixth Avenue, where delegates from crucial swing states like Florida and Michigan are staying; seats down front at Madison Square Garden, near the Ohioans; and a rollicking parade of luminaries at the Texans' daily breakfast meetings. "I am shocked at one thing," said Larry Phillips, a delegate from DeSoto. "We went to Sardi's at 11, and they kicked us out at 12:15. This town closes down at 12:15!"
I wandered into a Texas breakfast one morning to see the delegation in winter. A few hundred bleary-eyed Texans—sans the white hats—were munching on cantaloupe and muffins under a chandelier in the Hilton's Grand Ballroom. The man behind the podium was giving a lecture on Stetson etiquette. "Guys, leave your hats off during the prayers and the display of the colors," said Rene Diaz, a party counsel from San Antonio. "And wait to put them back on until the flags are back in their holders." Diaz's blast—"more of a reminder, not necessarily a correction"—was the group's second warning about hats this week.
"Stetson etiquette?" chuckled a delegate, Chuck Blair, when I asked him about it at the convention hall. "Well, I've made a point of tipping it at the ladies."
According to delegates, Stetson-wearing comes with a few hard-and-fast rules. Ladies may wear Stetsons at all times, men at any time other than prayers and flag ceremonies. During the Pledge of the Allegiance, men hold their Stetsons in their right hands and place them over their hearts. The Stetson may be removed during a moment of high emotion, as when the Ronald Reagan video Wednesday inspired a mass doffing. Celebrity Texans need not wear Stetsons. "It's there, you just can't see it," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, who arrived at Madison Square Garden hatless. "Luckily, I'm onstage tonight, and I have an excuse," said Michael Williams, a former member of the Texas Railroad Commission.
As I huddle with the Texans Thursday, the group is feeling rambunctious, even giddy. They arrived by bus hours before the program and are now waving at the alternate Texas delegates, who are seated across the Garden about a hundred yards away. One tall delegate motions fiercely for another and says, "Fox News interview—right now!" Other delegates are standing on chairs and dancing. Stockard and I, stuck in the middle, begin to feel the pinch. "This is a fire hazard," he says. "You may have to stay here. I might have to get you a hat."
When Laura Bush wanders into the presidential box, the Texans stand on their seats and scream, "Laura! Laura! Laura!" A few minutes later, Andre 3000, from OutKast, strolls up the aisle. The Texans ignore him. Andre is dressed in a fine checked dress shirt and navy blue vest. I ask him what he thinks of the cowboy outfits. "Well, for one thing, I love hats," he says. "And I love uniforms. So, it's about unity, and it's great. I'm from Atlanta—the South, but not Texas. I just love it." As soon as Andre walks off, a delegate grabs my arm and says, "Who was that?"
The Texans' pre-speech aerobics are so intense that by the time Bush takes the podium at 10 p.m., the delegation's energy is sapped. A delegate from Austin named Mike McNamara spends the speech sacked out in his chair, fanning himself with a sign that reads "A Nation of Courage." His bad leg is bothering him. Before half the speech has passed, McNamara taps me on the shoulder and says, "I'm getting restless." Then, limping up the aisle, he says "I'll be back—maybe." I never see him again.
As a native Texan—I belatedly choose to admit—I find the impending demise of national Texanness, or the beginning of its demise, a bit heartbreaking. My home state will likely vanish from the political screen for a while, much as it did after Lyndon Johnson skipped Washington, and perhaps with a similar mark of disgrace. Then again, a nation in which our foreign policy isn't routinely plumbed for signs of the "cowboy mentality," and in which presidential photo-ops may involve something other than brush clearing, is the kind of nation I want to live in.