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How Texas Changed, And Changed The Nation, Since JFK

The presidential motorcade travels down Main Street in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Cecil Stoughton
UPI /Landov
The presidential motorcade travels down Main Street in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.

Texas wasn't exactly a backwater in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, but it wasn't the economic and political powerhouse that it has become today.

Over the past 50 years, three of the nation's presidents have hailed from Texas.

"For the past few decades, Texas politicians have found a natural habitat on the national political stage in the way Dominican shortstops have found a natural habitat in baseball," the humorist Calvin Trillin wrote a couple of years ago.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry holds a sign promoting business in Texas, in San Antonio, on Nov. 8, 2004. Nearly a decade later, Perry is still touting the state's pro-business bent, including a <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/us/texas-governors-trips-to-lure-jobs-stir-skepticism-over-motive.html">tour this summer</a> to several states.
Eric Gay / AP
Texas Gov. Rick Perry holds a sign promoting business in Texas, in San Antonio, on Nov. 8, 2004. Nearly a decade later, Perry is still touting the state's pro-business bent, including a tour this summer to several states.

Throughout the 20th century, Texas played an outsized role in American politics, with several Texans serving in top leadership roles such as speaker of the House.

But Texas is now enjoying the type of influence wielded by Virginia after the nation's founding, or that Ohio had in the 19th century, or California in the 20th, as the birthplace of presidents.

There are new prospects seemingly every cycle. As the only megastate that reliably supports Republicans for president, it's no surprise figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry have found Texas to be a good launching pad, as the two Presidents Bush did before them.

Republicans dominate the state — holding all 27 statewide offices — in a way that was impossible to imagine when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president, in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. As with the rest of the South, conservatives who were Democrats for generations after the Civil War have found a home in the GOP.

The state has changed in other ways, as well. Its image is no longer that of oilmen and cowboys and other rural residents.

Instead, Texas is now home to some of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in the nation and is an integral and growing part of the national economy, the corporate home to 52 of the Fortune 500 companies.

In a cover package last month, Time magazine said the Lone Star State is now the country's "North Star."

"Texas is very successful for various reasons," says Michael Lind, a cofounder of the New America Foundation and author of Made in Texas. "Texas will probably become the dominant state at some point in the 21st century, just because of population growth."

Crafting A New Image

Texas, given its brief period as an independent republic, has always represented a place apart to most Americans.

"One of the fundamental truths about Texas is that, although the state is genuinely sui generis and self-consciously different from other states, it is in many ways the most American of all," Texas Monthly editor Erica Grieder writes in her new book about the state, Big, Hot, Cheap and Right.

But Lind points out that the image of Texas many Americans held back in 1963 was mostly made up. Real cowboys were not actually so important to Texas, because cattle was a less important part of the economy than cotton.

State boosters had begun promoting the idea that Texas was "where the West begins," as one slogan puts it, with the centennial celebrations of 1936, hoping to eradicate the state's segregationist image as part of the South.

Giant, an Edna Ferber novel, was made into a 1956 movie that gave the whole country the idea that everyone in Texas was a rancher like Rock Hudson, Lind says.

"Texas was very much part of the South and the Old Confederacy," says Bud Kennedy, a columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The governor and tourist leaders decided that people didn't want to have anything to do with the South but loved cowboys and they promoted this idea of the cowboys and the West."

Remember The Ranch

Lyndon Johnson was highly self-conscious about his state's cowboy image, says Nancy Beck Young, who chairs the history department at the University of Houston.

"He thinks there's this image of Texans as hicks, as cowboys, as not as well-educated as their Northeastern counterparts," she says. "Johnson tries to rein in his Texan-ness. He wants to be seen as presidential, as good or better than the Kennedy clan."

If Johnson envied the Kennedys their Ivy League panache, the exact opposite was true of the Bushes, scions of the Eastern establishment who found that defining themselves "in a hyper-Texan fashion" — as oilmen and ranchers — "had become a political asset," Young says.

The fact that neither Bush was native to the state (George H.W. was born in Massachusetts; George W. in Connecticut, but was a toddler when his family moved to West Texas) is significant in itself. Back in 1963, having multigenerational roots in the state was part of what being "Texan" meant, Young says.

Today, far fewer Texans are native. Like the Bush family, millions have come to the state in hopes of making a fortune, or at least a better living.

Drawn by jobs and cheap housing, more than 1 million Americans have moved to the state since 2000. Texas has gained more than 5 million people overall since then.

"For the past 22 years, Texas has outgrown the country [economically] by a factor of more than 2-to-1," Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said in an April speech about the state called, "Oil and Gas, Blondes and Over-Accessorized Brunettes, and Ruthless, Hard-Drinking Cowboys." 

The Texas Model

There's unending debate about what has made Texas more successful economically in recent years than the nation as a whole. Gov. Perry has barnstormed around the country touting the "Texas model" of low taxes and limited regulation.

Lind says the story has a lot more to do with government investment in areas such as highways and universities. Groups such as the Texas Legislative Study Group have noted that the state ranks among the worst according to such measures as poverty, access to health care and the percentage of the population in prison.

"We created a lot of low-paying jobs," Fisher said. "But we also created far more high-paying jobs."

Whether it's cheap land or energy reserves or governance that emphasizes individualism that has made Texas successful, it's clear that the state remains at the vanguard of the nation.

The state was deindustrializing by the time of the Kennedy assassination, diversifying into areas such as health care and services. "In some ways, you can see the roots of where we are today nationally in our economy in the shifts underway in Texas," Young says.

The state's demographics — it's bound to become majority-minority by 2030, if not sooner — also anticipate where the nation is heading.

Since the Kennedy assassination, Texas has enjoyed disproportionate influence over matters such as education, financial regulation and energy policy, whether through leaders it sent to Washington or its own example.

Given the state's growth and its central importance to politics, its influence seems likely only to enlarge.

"Without anyone much noticing it, Texas had taken a starring role in the 21st century discourse," New York Times columnist Gail Collins writes in her critical 2012 book As Texas Goes. "You have to figure that by 2050, the entire United States will have a distinctly Texas cast."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.