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Four befuddling weeks into the Bush administration, Americans seem entirely uncertain who the president is. “What gives?” Slate columnist Jacob Weisberg asked in apparent confusion about whether the Great Reconciler is really the same person who decided to turn the Justice Department over to John Ashcroft. But the president’s identity has never been separable from the place he was born and spent his adult life. No one can understand George W. Bush without understanding modern Texas, and no one can genuinely understand Texas without being a Texan. For the rest of America, there’s “Giant.” Wags have called George Stevens’ 1956 spectacular “the national movie of Texas.” The assessment means all that it implies: first, that Texans — who loathed Stevens’ source material, a best-seller by Edna Ferber — embraced his film as finally offering the epic sweep appropriate to their state; second, that Stevens’ “Giant” perfectly captures the staggering sense of sovereignty — the abiding certainty of natural superiority, the unshakable assurance of rightful dominion — that distinguishes Texans from people anywhere else on earth. Indeed, “Giant” remains one of filmmaking’s great expos�s of cultural egotism, a masterwork that uses mid-century Hollywood’s most grandiose practices � wide-screen panorama, deep-focus color, unendurable running time — to critique Texas grandiosity. But the film’s real question is how those who don’t understand the origin or extent of that hubris can coexist with it. Stevens explores the question through the marriage of a Maryland beauty, Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor) and Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), the heir to a Lone Star dynasty. Today, “Giant’s” first scene, depicting an oncoming train that brings a proud West Texan to the Beltway — Stevens’ tricky reversal of the opening shots of a hundred Westerns — seems less like social commentary than clairvoyance. Leslie is one of the most unabashedly intelligent women mainstream Hollywood has ever produced, but she is never quite prepared for the scope of her husband’s self-satisfaction. “You’re a Texan now,” Bick admonishes her moments after they arrive at his Reata — a ranch that is, pointedly, the size of a small country. “Is that a state of mind?” she retorts. But the reminder refers less to attitude than to affirmation, a statement of faith that identifies the Chosen. What others consider the luck of the draw, Texans view as divine ordination. “I’m an American by birth and a Texan by the grace of God,” cattle baron Charles Goodnight wrote more than a century ago; that sentiment continues to define the state. Bick never questions that he is destined to lead. “Honey, I want you to understand this. I run Reata. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been, too … . My grandfather kept this outfit together for his son, and my father kept it together for his. And I’m keepin’ it together for mine.” Consequently, the Great State’s singular interpretation of natural selection dictates that Texans aren’t in charge only when they haven’t yet gotten around to taking command, or in cases of blatant encroachment — as with Bill Clinton’s perceived usurpation of the first Bush presidency, a grievance that has fueled an unreasoning statewide hatred. These days, nothing tickles Texans more than press speculation that George Bush’s recent assertiveness is a strategy to convey his belief in the legitimacy of his administration: A Texan needs no tactics to justify a leadership position that is dictated, after all, by personal destiny. Indeed, in a long history of Texan “entitlement” and its effects — displacement (“I might just as well give it back to the dirty Comanches!” Bick rails), disenfranchisement (“They got a way of doin’ things by themselves,” Leslie is told when she questions why Mexican-American laborers lack decent living conditions) and deadly violence (“Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago,” a friend cautions. “Now he’s too rich to kill.”) — Florida’s voting irregularities are unlikely to merit even a footnote. In scenes that suggest Bush’s meetings with his father’s friends, Bick accepts the advice of an inner circle that Leslie calls the “six evil old men.” But Democrats who earnestly believe that confirmation-week posturing has “sent the president a message” about future appointments may learn that Texans feel compelled by history — or their version of it — to meet unwelcome warnings with intransigence. Nor is it likely that the lessons of history, seen from the president’s Texas perspective, compel exactly the result that reconciliation advocates are hoping for. Certainly, the president fondly recalls having found “allies across the aisle” in Austin. But Texans have never considered alliances relevant to, or even particularly desirable for, action. “One riot, one Ranger,” old-timers say in the phrase that evokes both the Texans’ long-standing contempt for backup and the president’s baseball franchise. “Paul Revere?” a Benedict crony sneers during “Giant’s” climactic political dinner, “Wasn’t he the one that had to ride for help?” Political commentators have expressed surprise at the president’s amiable relationship with the religious right. But “Giant” makes it clear that, while sharing certain objectives with fundamentalism, the faith to which the president adheres is Consumer Christianity — the Texas-based belief that wealth is the direct proof of God’s approval, and that buying power is the true measure of blessedness. It’s a theology that begins, at least, to explain the appalling materialism that is the state’s defining characteristic. “We’ll show him who the top people are,” Bick boasts, jumping into the orgy of consumption that dominates the second half of the film — a bizarre celebration honoring the state’s wealthiest, therefore worthiest, citizen. But Stevens’ commentary is never entirely incredible: a Dallas development corporation is “dedicated to the glory of God”; a group of North Texas businessmen begin meetings with the prayer, “Oh, God, give me a million dollars, and I’ll know what to do with it”; and the Rev. Kirbyjon H. Caldwell, whose book “The Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional, and Financial Wholeness” outlines his Houston ministry, offered the invocation that ended last month’s Inaugural ceremonies. Texans’ literal reverence for the rich also explains the state’s famous hostility toward welfare, affirmative action and other social programs that are directed toward those who, quite obviously, have offended God. But it’s also a belief system that justifies indifference to need (“I’m not the Red Cross,” Bick snaps when Leslie asks why three generations of Benedicts have ignored the substandard living conditions of their workers); that institutionalizes exploitation as moral education (“They’d sit on their honkers all day if I didn’t keep after ‘em,” Bick’s sister offers as to her Mexican-American housekeepers); and that categorizes hardship, not as injustice, but as the inevitable lot of those who have rejected the values of the Chosen. (“There’s ways of livin’ and there’s ways of doin’ things that people abide by when they wanna live right and happy in comfort with their own people,” Bick lectures his son.) Today, the results of that theology are evident in the state’s medieval corrections department and in death penalty policy that — at least in the president’s denial of Karla Faye Tucker’s petition for clemency — treats an execution as the private settling of an individual’s spiritual account. The lesson of the last four weeks is that Bush’s critics — like the theorists who condemn his state without comprehending it — underestimate the power of Texas to divert and disarm. In the end, it is only Jett Rink (James Dean) — an antagonist who is desperately enamored of Texas’ theology — who cannot stop himself from exposing it. “Who gets hold of this much land unless they took it off somebody else?” Jett offers in the film’s first challenge to the notion of rightful dominion. And money isn’t everything, “not when you got it,” Jett agrees in a scene that counters everything Leslie has been told about the state’s inevitably rewarding ambition with opportunity. But Rink’s overnight success as an oil man — and the ready adulation that he enjoys — offer “Giant’s” ultimate attack on a system in which entitlement has always hidden exploitation. In the end, Jett can’t subscribe to the theory of Texas exceptionalism, and he won’t try. “Didn’t never get nothin’ from Texas, had to dig it out of the ground,” he mumbles from the stupor that ensues when the myth collapses. Stevens’ final Texas is a state without self-criticism. “You’re all through,” Bick says to Jett in their last encounter. And Bick is right. Texas passes into uncritiqued comfort and unlimited commodities, into self-satisfied piety and soaring pollution rates. The flatness of Stevens’ ending suggests his apprehension of a two-dimensional finish for the rest of us — a recreation of Stevens’ Texas in which we have bartered everything that matters for solvency and self-delusion and neat stuff. “You know, Leslie, if I live to be 90, I’m never going to be able to figure you out,” Bick says in the last words of the film. But it is Leslie’s comprehension that counts — her understanding of how a Texan’s sense of exceptionalism and entitlement, his will to dominate and develop will affect her world. Leslie’s education in coexistence has consumed a “breath-taking quarter of a century,” she says. And we have nothing like that kind of time. Terry Diggs is a San Francisco appellate attorney who teaches courses on law and film at Hastings College of the Law and Golden Gate University School of Law.

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