March 6, 2020

Pigs And The Playwright

By Lawrence Wright






In 2000, I wrote a play that was set in the state’s House of Representatives. The protagonist, Sonny Lamb, was a rancher from West Texas who represented House District 74, which, in real life, stretches across thirty-seven thousand square miles. (That’s larger than Indiana.) While I was doing research for the play, I met in Austin with Pete Laney, a Democrat and a cotton farmer from Hale County, who, at the time, was the speaker of the House. Laney was known as a scrupulously fair and honest leader who inspired a bipartisan spirit among the members. The grateful representatives called him Dicknose.

We sat down in the Speaker’s office, at the capitol. I explained that I was having a plot problem: my hero had introduced an ethics-reform bill, which triggered a war with the biggest lobbyist in the state. How could the lobbyist retaliate? Laney rubbed his hands together. “Well, you could put a toxic-waste dump in Sonny’s district,” he observed. “That would mess him up, right and left.”

Laney’s suggestion was inspired by an actual law that the Texas House of Representatives had passed in 1991. It allowed sewage sludge from New York City to be shipped, by train, to a little desert town in District 74, Sierra Blanca, which is eighty miles southeast of El Paso. The train became known as the Poo-Poo Choo-Choo.

“Another thing,” I said. “I’d like my lobbyist to take some legislators on a hunting trip. What would they likely be hunting?”

“Pigs,” Laney said.


“Wild pigs—they’re taking over the whole state!” Laney said. Feral pigs are a remnant of the Spanish colonization, and now we’ve got as many as three million of them, tearing up fences and pastureland and mowing down crops, even eating the seed corn out of the ground before it sprouts. They can run twenty-five miles per hour. “You ever seen one?” Laney went on. “Huge. They got these tusks out to here.”

“How do you hunt them?”

“Well, I don’t hunt ’em myself, but I got a friend who does.” He punched an intercom button on his phone. “Honey, get Sharp on the line,” he said.

In a moment, John Sharp was on the loudspeaker. The former state comptroller of public accounts, he is now the chancellor of the Texas A. & M. system. “Sharp,” Laney said, “I got a young man here wants to know how you hunt pigs.”

“Oh!” Sharp cried. “Well, we do it at night, with pistols. Everybody wearing cutoffs and tennis shoes. We’ll set the dogs loose, and when they start baying we come running. Now, the dogs will go after the pig’s nuts, so the pig will back up against a tree to protect himself. So then you just take your pistol and pop him in the eye.”

And these were progressive Democrats. More or less.

Excerpted from the article, America’s Future Is Texas, By Lawrence Wright, in The New Yorker, July 10&17, 2017

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