The American Spirit Is Alive in Texas
‘Hold the line,’ Jim Mattis exhorted soldiers. In the face of a disaster, civilians are doing just that.
Artist - Christopher Serra
By Peggy Noonan
Give Texas what it needs. It has endured a disaster without precedent. Washington must move quickly, generously. There should be no “The relief bill must be offset by cuts in federal spending.” There should be no larding it up or loading it down with extraneous measures. This is an emergency.
This is no time to threaten government shutdowns. It’s no time to be dilating on debt ceilings. This is the time to know as never before that everything that holds us together as a nation must be strengthened wherever possible, and whatever sinks us in rancor avoided and shunned.
Give Texas everything it needs, and do it right quick.
Most Americans, including Texans, don’t have more than a few hundred dollars in available savings. Most live close to the edge, paycheck to paycheck. Most homeowners in Houston don’t have flood insurance. When they’re lucky enough to get out of the shelter, they’ll return to houses that are half-ruined—wet, moldy, dank, with no usable furniture—and with kids coming down with colds and stomach ailments from stress or from standing water that holds bacteria and viruses. It will be misery for months. When the trauma is over, there’ll be plenty of time for debate. Do we need to hold more in reserve for national disasters? Do local zoning laws need rethinking? All worthy questions—for later.
There is such a thing as tact. It has to do with a sense of touch—an ability to apprehend another’s position or circumstances, and doing or saying the right thing. There is, believe it or not, such a thing as political tact. It too involves knowing the positions of others, and knowing what time it is.
Politicians, don’t use this disaster to score points or rub your ideology in somebody’s face or make your donors smile by being small, not big.
Give Texas what it needs. Keep the government up and running. Don’t even consider doing otherwise.
Now another subject, which ties back to Houston. A lot of people this week were saying, “You should see that Mattis speech.” A frequent answer was: “I did. I play it over and over.”
A week or so ago, probably in Jordan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had an impromptu meeting with what looked like a few dozen U.S. troops. Someone taped it. This is what Mr. Mattis said: “Hold the line.”
“For those of you I haven’t met, my name’s Mattis,” he began. “Thanks for being out here, OK? I know at times you wonder if any of us know . . . but believe me, I know you’re far from home every one of you, I know you could all be going to college you young people, or you could be back on the block. [We’re] just grateful. . . .
“The only way this great big experiment you and I call America is gonna survive is if we’ve got tough hombres like you. . . . We don’t frickin’ scare, that’s the bottom line.
“You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems—you know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, of being friendly to one another. That’s what Americans owe to one another—we’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.”
He ended: “I flunked retirement, OK? Only reason I came back was to serve alongside young people like you, who are so selfless and frankly so rambunctious.”
This was the voice of true moral authority, authority earned through personal sacrifice. Speeches like that come only from love.
But it was particularly poignant that Mattis’s speech, with its refrain—“Hold the line”—spread so far and fast this week.
And so, to selfless and frankly rambunctious Texas:
If you gave just a few minutes to the news, you saw it all—the generosity and courage, the sense of community, of people who really care about each other. You saw the pontoons and air mattresses and bass boats and rowboats and pool floats in which people were rescued. No one knows how many were saved or how many saved them. Every disaster at some point becomes a jumble, and people stopped counting. But surely tens of thousands were saved.
We all saw it, often live, on television and the internet because of excellent reporters and crews:
A mother with little children was marooned, the water in her home rising dangerously. “I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t know if it was going to be too late.” Suddenly, there were men outside the house coming for her. “It was just an angel,” she said as she wept from the back of their boat.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo honored Steve Perez, the 60-year-old cop who drowned in his patrol car. When Mr. Acevedo spoke to Perez’s widow, she told him she’d begged her husband not to go in but he’d told her, “We’ve got work to do.” The chief told her: You know who he was, if he had to die, he wouldn’t want it to be home in bed, he would have wanted it to be on the job and trying to help. “Because he has that in his DNA,” said Mr. Acevedo.
On one channel they were looking for what they’d heard was a group of abandoned horses being led through the streets by a guy in a jet ski. In Columbia Lakes a local man showed a reporter the homemade barrier he’d built to protect his neighbors in case the levee broke. He wasn’t afraid: “We don’t do drama.”
On Facebook there was the story of the woman who went into labor while the waters quickly rose. Word spread through the apartment complex. Soon a huge, heavy truck made its way to her door. Neighbors formed a human chain to help her out. She got to the hospital and gave birth to a girl.
There were a lot of human chains. And often when they showed people being pulled from houses the families were all ethnicities and races, the whole American mix—black mamas, white papas, mixed kids, an Asian child. On the national level America always sounds like a constant argument over race. On the local level, meantime, everybody has been happily integrating in the most personal possible ways.
The local ABC station caught a young Catholic priest, a French Canadian assigned to a Houston parish, out in a kayak in heavy rain looking for people who could use a Mass. “I guess this is how the Americas were evangelized as well with a canoe,” he said, “and this is a kayak. I hope that can bring a smile to a few people.” Noticing the TV cameras, he said: “I guess we’re live. The Lord is alive, and the Lord is always with us as well.”
And of course there was the Cajun Navy, from Louisiana, performing its own spontaneous Dunkirk. Texas had taken them in after Katrina. Now it was “Sam Houston, we are here.”
The Cajun Navy
We are a great nation. We forget. But what happened in Texas reminded us. It said: My beloved America you’re not a mirage, you’re still here.
If they’d done only that, they’d deserve whatever they need.
They held the line.