Laird: Partisan crowds at political rodeos love their cowboys

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

Published:

 

Give ol’ Don Benton credit. This is one persistent cowboy. Up in Olympia this year, Buckaroo Benton was dustin’ himself off and climbing back onto the English-only bronco. The state senator from Clark County follows this mangy cayuse from rodeo to rodeo, searching for that elusive eight-second ride that will allow Benton to declare English the official language of the state. His Senate Bill 6053 didn’t impress the judges enough to make it out of committee this year.

I know, some of you ask, “Isn’t English so widespread that it already is the de facto official language of the state?” Well, yes, but have you ever heard the roar of a rodeo crowd? Those folks love their cowboys! And Benton knows getting bucked off and eating a little dirt will drive die-hard Republicans into fits of delirious clapping.

So Buckaroo will keep ridin’ the circuit. Amarillo by mornin’ … up from San Antone.

Speaking of Texas, every time the English-only crowd gets rowdy, I like to trot out an old line from Ma Ferguson, the first woman governor of Texas. Back in the 1920s, when bilingual education was a hot debate, Gov. Ferguson huffed: “If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the schoolchildren of Texas!”

Ma was a Democrat, but times change, and today’s English-only crowd tends to lean Republican. Newt Gingrich in a 2007 speech boasted that English is “the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.” Whoa, buddy! Not exactly broadening the base there, Newt.

More recently, Mitt Romney defended the English-only crusade with this bold pronouncement just before the Florida primary: “English is the language of this nation.” No kidding? Then why do we need to make it official, Mitt? “People need to learn English to be able to be successful, to get great jobs.” Really? You honestly believe some people don’t know that, and they need a meddling government to remind ’em?

Sometimes, we find a Republican trying to break the shackles of unilingualism and embrace diversity. But this can backfire. Back in 1979, Texas Gov. Bill Clements became the first Republican governor of Texas in almost a century, and he revealed that he was actually trying to learn more Spanish. “Oh, good!” chirped Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. “Now he’ll be bi-ignorant.”

What makes this English-only crusade so silly is the simple fact that the argument defeats itself, as Romney demonstrated with his reminder that English is so widespread. The frightened crusaders seem to think English — actually more of a global language than an American language — somehow needs protecting. But the only way I see the English language withering is in the fractured way it is spoken by some of its most ardent defenders.

The language of music

Me? Well, I happen to be quadrilingual. I speak English and a smattering of Spanish, plus some Country, and a little Western. This enables me to sing diverse saloon songs, like, “I gave her my heart and a diamond, but she clubbed me with a spade.”

And as a musician, I can keep a steady beat with “Oye como va,” the Latin rock classic made popular by Santana. And when Patti LaBelle belts out “Lady Marmalade,” I can slap a pretty good drawl on “voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?”

But I’m a realist, and I know folks like Benton, Gingrich and Romney don’t share my desire to explore other languages. I just wish they’d stop trying to pass bills mandating that which already exists — trying to make English the official language. How is that even necessary?

To that end, my investigative aides report that Benton also wants to declare the NFL as the official football league of the nation, and to declare Major League Baseball the official league of baseball and to declare the FBI the official investigative bureau of the federal government.

Other legislative priorities? Like balancing budgets, creating jobs and improving schools? Hey, this ain’t Buckaroo’s first rodeo. He leaves that stuff to the rookies.

¡Ay, caramba!