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Gary Younge
The town that learned to love George Bush

"I thought I was coming for one year," she says. "That was the agreement. All the way through Texas I was fine. But when I came into town and saw all the oil tanks I just started crying. It was pretty ugly and you could smell the oil."

If you cannot find a way to love oil - the industry that produces it, the environment that it scars and the money that it makes - then you will probably never find a way to love Midland.

Rising from the West Texas desert like a small Gulf state, your entrance to the town is flanked by restless, bobbing, pumping jacks and vast shrubland pockmarked with derricks.

Along with Odessa, it's poorer, even uglier sister city 16 miles away, Midland sits in the heart of the Permian Basin - a 1000-mile platform of sediment and salt with a slab of rock on top that is home to one fifth of the country's oil reserves. Between them they boast more than 2,000 firms involved in the oil and gas industry.

And according to United States president, George Bush, if you don't find a way to appreciate Midland then you will struggle to find a way to appreciate him.

"I don't know what percentage of me is Midland," he once said in an interview, "but I would say people, if they want to understand me, need to understand Midland and the attitude of Midland."

The percentage matters. Mr Bush was not born here but in New Haven, Connecticut. Nor does he live here now. When he is not in Washington DC, his home is 330 miles away on a ranch in Crawford, also in Texas.

In fact, his relationship to Midland is quite episodic. He came here as a two-year-old, attended the Sam Houston elementary school and then San Jacinto junior high (both state schools). He returned 16 years later in 1975 and married a local woman, Laura Welch. In 1987 he left to help his father on his presidential campaign and has only returned to campaign and visit friends and in-laws.

"He was viewed as an outsider," says Jim Brown, a geologist who did business with Mr Bush in the 80s. "Midland has embraced him as a native son now because he was governor of Texas and now he's president. But back then, to the few people who knew who he was, he was just a rich Yankee kid."

His Democratic challenger, John Kerry, has a stronger claim to Boston, where he has lived and worked since he returned from the Vietnam war. But while Mr Kerry holds Boston at arms length, lamenting the fact that he "moved around a lot" as a child, Mr Bush holds Midland in a bear hug.

He has written the city into his personal story as though its mores were seared into his soul. "There's a West Texas populist streak in me and it irritates me when people come out to Midland and look at my friends with the utmost disdain," he told Texas Monthly. When he dies, he says, he wants to be buried in Midland.

To his critics these are just more examples of Mr Bush's bid to shed his blueblood background. In 1978 the Democrat Kent Hance inflicted the only electoral defeat Mr Bush has ever suffered, largely by portraying him as a carpet-bagging, Ivy League Yankee.

Mr Bush learned his lesson well. But Mr Bush certainly has an emotional claim to the place. Midland is where Mr Bush found a wife, God and gave up the bottle.

In 1969 the cultural geographer DW Meinig described Midland as "the purest example of white Anglo Saxon Protestant culture in Texas". One of the last cities in the country to desegregate its elementary schools, today it is almost 40% black and Hispanic.

But while the colour of the inhabitants may have changed, many of its customs have not. On Friday nights thousands pack the local Grande stadium for high school football. On Sunday mornings they go to church. It's a no-nonsense place where, during the 80s, business was often concluded on a handshake. "People here are generally friendly," says John Nute, who runs a cafe in Wall Street. "But there's an edge to that. One of the first questions you're asked when you come here is, what church do you go to? If you're answer is one they don't like then you never see them again."

Oil and money may dominate, but one in eight of the city lives in poverty, most of them quite literally on the wrong side of the rail tracks. "I doubt he even knew those places existed," says Midge Erskine, who knew Laura Bush's mother. "It's a very segregated town. Over the years the town's ambivalent self-regard has been reflected in its changing slogans. They have included: "Midland: In the Middle of Somewhere"; "Midland: Most Ambitious City Between the Oceans"; and recently, "The Sky's The Limit" - a slogan from the 70s when the oil prices were so high that loan officers needed permission to turn you down - has been revived after Mr Bush said it encapsulated the Midland he knew. It's not difficult to see why Mr Bush would want to mythologise both the town and himself in this way.

What is more baffling is that he has managed to get away with it, given that Midland was the site of his most conspicuous failures to date.

He set up an oil business, Arbusto, which failed. He ran to represent the area in Congress and lost. By all accounts he had plenty of chances, did not work hard and never succeeded at anything much. "He used to come into meetings still hung over and you'd see him fall asleep," says Mr Brown. "Then when it was over he'd kind of jolt up and walk out with his team."

But the nature of each setback and the manner in which he recovered are themselves revealing. Mr Bush is no self-made man. His father arrived in the early 50s and used the finance capital from his family to make millions.

When Mr Bush arrived as a young man, 20 years later, his father was a former Congressman and ambassador, soon to become the vice-president. And in Midland connections are everything. "If a Harvard MBA came to Midland without connections he wouldn't be able to raise the kind of money Bush did," says Mr Rosen.

But while connections could provide Mr Bush with the money he needed it was not enough to guarantee him success. His father's picture hangs in the Petroleum Museum's hall of fame, but his will not be there any time soon.

Mr Brown says Mr Bush's plans were flawed because they were based on "poor science". But the firm Mr Brown worked for invested in the projects anyway.

"It was a way of funnelling money to the Bushes without looking like it. His expertise was socialising."

What is most remarkable about Mr Bush's relationship with Midland is that, despite the fact the he achieved so little, drank so much, lost an election and a lot of other people's money, pretty much everybody liked him.

"You never walked away from George Bush thinking he was a rotten individual," says Mr Brown. "You thought he was your friend, your pal, your chum."

In other words Midlanders liked him, not because of what he had achieved, but regardless of what he had not achieved. On Tuesday we will see if America will feel the same way.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
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