This article appears in the July/August issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, please click here.
SHAKING HANDS at the Christmas party for the White House press corps a few years back, President Bush smiled and asked a reporter: “You coming to Crawford with me for Christmas?” His head was cocked at an imploring angle, as if to say I’m count’n on ya! but his eyes gleamed with that familiar tinge of impish mischief, so the reporter figured he could afford a little glibness. “No,” he said, “I managed to escape that duty this year.” The president’s face turned serious, almost wounded: Whaddaya mean, escape?
It was a reminder there are people who actually like Crawford, Texas (pop. 631), people who go there not because smirking assignment editors force them, but because they are entranced by the swarming crickets and brick-in-the-face humidity, the sight, for miles and miles, of nothing in particular, or the pulse-quickening electricity of the tchotchke shacks on the town’s one dusty commercial street, which looks like the crumbling Western movie sets seen on the Spahn Ranch (last known home of the Manson family), or that one episode of The Brady Bunch where the Bradys visit Hollywood.
The town consists of a single intersection, book-ended by the Yellow Rose — a post-Dubya addition that peddles essential Texarcana like ten-gallon hats, chaps, and authentic rawhide whips — and the Coffee Station, a surprisingly serviceable eatery that enjoys a virtual monopoly on in-town dining despite doubling as a gas station. President Bush customarily drops by the Coffee Station every New Year’s Day, usually dragging by the elbow some outwardly smiling but inwardly repulsed sophisticado like Colin Powell or John Snow.
Working conditions in Crawford are harsh, as severe as the sun on a steer’s back on the Fourth of July. The gymnasium in the Crawford Middle School is home of the beloved Pirates. But in holiday season it serves for an irascible rabble of mostly pot-bellied snots from Washington, D.C. as the “filing center” from which reporters send stories and do live shots for TV news. On a hot day, when it’s literally 104 in the shade, the TV correspondents despair of making the three-minute walk from the school to the camera tents, where the cameramen spend the 58-minute intervals holed up in SUVs, the motor idling and the air conditioning blasting away, watching on portable DVD players the kind of leering adolescent fare their wives wouldn’t let them watch at home (Mean Girls, Bring It On, etc.).
Since the school is located eight miles from the Bushes’ Prairie Chapel Ranch, the correspondents stand in front of a private farm featuring a rickety tractor and some authentic bales of hay. The man who owns it is only seen fleetingly, and shows, thankfully, no desire at all to get himself or his family on television. The network anchors, blessed with enviable cheekbones and the luxury of never leaving their companies’ temperature-controlled headquarters in New York or Atlanta, have been tossing back and forth with the same correspondents for years now, but still can’t seem to grasp the small, simple fact that the correspondents are not actually standing in front of the president’s ranch (“outside the Western White House!”). They just say, “All right, thanks,” when the correspondents toss back with the same muttered, but audible, tag line: “Reporting live from Crawford, Texas, near the president’s ranch…”
A strange form of dementia, a mad desire to do harm to oneself or one’s producer, has been known to overcome some of the TV correspondents after relatively short stints in Crawford. The malady is borne of the fact that in holiday season there is no actual news, and the President himself, the McGuffin around which the media’s Hitchcockian intrigues revolve, has not been seen for four or five days; and yet the beleaguered correspondent finds himself rising at 5 a.m. local time, every day, to do repetitive 90-second live shots, every hour on the hour, for 12 hours in a row, using the same fakokta footage, from four or five days earlier, of Mr. Bush bounding down the steps of Air Force One — holding a dog.
IN THE YEARS SINCE GEORGE W. BUSH WON election in 2000, a few Crawfordians have sought to exploit the town’s newfound fame for financial profit. “No, I’m doing this full-time now,” said Val, a cheerful TV news groupie and former caterer who thrust forward the lapel of her jean jacket, the better to show off the shiny pins she was now merchandizing, which sported such inspired texts as “W.,” “Bush-Cheney 2004,” “Crawford: Home of President Bush,” and so on. The whole Online Thing kind of spoils it, but anyone who ever needs a hat, watch, plate, broach, magnet, mouse pad, bumper-sticker, beer mug, or other inanimate object with the image or name of President Bush on it simply must come!
Crawford has no hotels; the only place to stay is the Bush ranch, where whatever vacancies exist have not been publicized to the press. Even Dick Cheney has been forced to find lodging elsewhere. Thus the traveling circus at night rumbles along a circuitous dog-leg of state roads and Interstate highways 25 miles due east to that dazzling metropolis, that shining beacon of urban futurism and cosmopolitan sinfulness, Waco. Two years ago, at a get-acquainted barbecue the Crawford Chamber of Commerce sponsored so local residents could interact with the down-to-earth-when-you-get-to-know-’em reporters (NBC’s David Gregory didn’t show), a woman recently relocated from Waco described her fear that local children might pick on her son, “his bein’ a city kid and all.”
Approaching Waco from any angle, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the ALICO building, a singularly statuesque blonde brick building that dwarfs all others in town, the company name emblazoned atop its roof in red neon, except for when one of the bulbs has blown, and the town is accordingly dwarfed by the A ICO building, or the ALI O building, or the — you get the point. Longtime residents snicker at newcomers who inquire if Muhammad Ali owns the building, or the town.
They like things fried in Texas: chicken-fried steak, fried jalapeno balls, fried bacon-wrapped bacon balls with bacon-fried stuffing. Despite this, there are actually some fine restaurants in Waco. Just outside the city proper, nestled far back in the woods like the gathering site for a Mafia summit, is the North Wood Inn, a genuinely exceptional restaurant where jackets are required and the waiters stir-fry the walnuts for avocado salads right at the diners’ tables.
Closer to home — or at least to the invariably dreadful clutch of Marriott and Hilton hotels where reporters stay when Mr. Bush is in the area — a single strip mall offers the readiest options for food, a series of contiguous restaurants with niche specialties. Crickets delivers the fried food, burgers, and billiards; Diamondbacks the pricy steaks; Slow-Poke’s the pulled pork sandwiches and 10,000 football screens; for Eye-talian food, it’s Graziano’s, and, for Mexican, Ninfa’s, where one might espy Condoleezza Rice and savor the most unapologetic dish in all of Mexican food-dom: The Queso Flameado, an oblong dish filled with melted Monterrey Jack cheese, chorizo sausage, and unbridled grease. No flour tortillas, rice, or other misguided distractions; just the good stuff. Finally, just across from the strip mall is Buzzard Billy’s, where the specialties include fried alligator, jambalaya, and a local variation of crawfish that Andy Schwartz, a former Fox News producer and Bethesda resident with a taste for All Things Cajun, faulted as inauthentic.
Those willing to venture beyond the hotels and strip mall, to explore Waco’s own exotic stretches, along Valley Mills Road and other grand-rues, will find the usual exurban landmarks (Outback, Best Buy, and so on), but also one final eatery worthy of mention: the Health Camp. The name itself, reminiscent of the evil, mocking slogans the Germans would have put atop one of their camps, should be enough to signal the dangerousness of the fare available inside this ancient (circa 1947) glass hut, designed like a miniature Howard Johnson’s, complete with arched roof, perched along one of Waco’s charming traffic circles. Cheeseburgers, chili dogs, French fries, fried tater tots (which are also served — who knew? — at the China Grill Buffet, back near the hotels)… these are the stuff of the Health Camp. And it’s damn good food, too, for those with the intestinal fortitude for it.
The earthy Tater Wench who pushes it across the counter sometimes expresses frustration with the computer into which she punches the orders, before announcing them into a microphone that pipes her voice into the kitchen. As she curses the infernal machine, one imagines the sadness that must have accompanied its installation, sometime in the go-go 1990s. The New York Times should have done one of its trademark the-times-they-are-a-changin’-at-the-Health-Camp-type pieces; it would have been perfect. But no big-time reporters came around these parts back then.