AUSTIN, Texas -- My friend Linda Aaker recently visited Europe and came back talking, as Americans so often do, about the great public transportation in this country, the terrific child-care system in that country and the wonderful public housing in another. "Face it," said Aaker, "the United States is the Texas of the advanced countries."

The Texas. We all know what that means -- crude, backward and having miserable social services.

In this festive election year, our governor has put us once again in the national spotlight, and it's not flattering. Texas, where three white guys out looking for a good time decide to drag a black man to death behind a pickup. Where the retarded and the insane are executed to barbaric yowps from drunken frat boys in Huntsville. Where the guv's response to the dirtiest air in the nation is to politely ask polluters if they will please volunteer to quit polluting instead of making them do it.

There's no point in asking the national media to recognize that Texas is full of lovely people who attend the symphony, the opera and the ballet, and spend the rest of their time discussing birding and Indian literature. You know what draws national attention is the cheerleader's mom who paid someone to off her daughter's rival. The entire state now stands as proxy for Dubya Bush, under attack for political reasons.

The rest of the country likes to look down on Texas as a nest of yahoos, racists and rednecks. It makes them feel superior, especially since they think we're all rich -- they never got over "Giant."

It doesn't help that the governor claims that there are no hungry people in Texas (where has he been?) Or that our health commissioner is a nutball (a nice man, but a nutball).

And there's nothing any of us can do about the Lege -- except maybe point out that no Texas legislator has been convicted for cattle rustling since the 1980s. You know they're going to find Drew Nixon anyway (he being the sitting state senator who did felony time after being charged with soliciting a prostitute and carrying an illegal weapon).

So it's true -- our kids don't have health insurance, our air is filthy and we rank near the bottom in practically every public thing they keep score in. I once suggested that our State Ambition should be, "Up to average!" It's a low-tax, low-service state -- so shoot us. The only depressing part is that, unlike Mississippi, we can afford to do better. We just don't.

This is hard cheese when you were taught in school, as I was, that Texas ranks No. 1 in oil, No. 1 in cotton, No. 1 in cattle and No. 1 in football. And that Texas generally is the biggest (let's keep overlooking Alaska), brightest, best, most beautiful state in the whole union.

Texas warts-and-all is fair, but what we're getting is coverage only of our warts. Looking on the bright side (a very Texan thing to do), maybe this spell in the national spotlight will inspire us to fix some things. It's already inspired the governor to grant his first 30-day stay in 131 executions. Pleas from the pope, Pat Robertson and every human-rights organization on earth never impressed him before.

It is embarrassing (and unhealthy) not just that we have dirty air but that the guv and the Lege are so dumb that they broke the contract with the company that was supposed to help clean it up, which got us sued for a zillion dollars, and then we had to spend all our clean-air money for the next four years paying off the settlement. Stupid is as stupid does.

We could get our air and our water a lot cleaner -- other states have, and under Republican governors, too. We could change the criminal justice system so that poor people get some legal protection and stop stuffing the prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.