Politics as Usual – A Texas Legacy

exas State Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks to her supporters. Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune.

Patrick Cox, Ph.D., is the author or co-editor of five UT Press books, including most recently Writing the Story of Texas, and former assistant director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the university. Sparked by last week’s events, here he takes a look at the recent history of Texas politics. 

'Politics as Usual – A Texas Legacy'

By Patrick Cox

Photograph: Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks to her supporters. Photo by Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune.

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth rose to national attention last week with her eleven-hour filibuster of an anti-abortion bill and Governor Rick Perry's subsequent personal attack. Texas politics and politicians have always been a source of amazement, entertainment, disbelief (they really said that?), and provocation. Sam Rayburn once said that all politics is local, but Texans often seem to find their way onto a larger stage and into political lore in memorable fashion.

One old saying compares the practice of the art of public speaking in Texas to a Longhorn: there should be two good points, but far apart, with a lot of bull in between. Noah Smithwick, a critical observer of Texas during the years of the Republic and early statehood, described the attributes and shortcomings of Sam Houston in his memoir, The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days: “Though his peculiar bent did not incline toward the founding of a nation, every instinct of his nature prompted him to resistance when the life and liberties of the nation were threatened.”

One may wonder about the theory of evolution when we move from Sam Houston to Texas in the twentieth century. In retrospect, it is somewhat incomprehensible that we would have had the theatrics the entire nation witnessed in the Senate with either lieutenant governor Bob Bullock or Bill Hobby presiding. As for the governor and other elected officials making ill-advised and misguided statements, we do have many examples in our history.

When it comes to women, Texas governors have demonstrated a proclivity for inserting the proverbial foot in the mouth; consult The Power of the Texas Governor for many illustrations. Governor Bill Clements made one such cardinal mistake in his 1982 reelection campaign against Attorney General Mark White. When asked about appointing a member of a minority or a woman to the Public Utility Commission, Governor Clements responded that he did not know of any housewife qualified for the regulatory board. To compound the governor’s problems, White’s campaign changed “housewife” to “woman.”

Another classic came in 1990 when wealthy rancher and oilman Clayton Williams ran against Treasurer Ann Richards for Texas governor. With a healthy lead in the polls, Williams's comments on women in general and his opponent in particular got him into hot water. He spoke about going to Mexico as a young man to get “serviced.” He called Richards an “honorary lesbian” for her position favoring gay rights. Furthermore, Williams said, “The weather is like rape. If it’s inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” Richards went on to handily defeat Williams and gain national attention as only the second female governor of Texas. More on Ann Richards can be found in Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards.

And speaking of controversies, the University of Texas and the office of the governor have a long love-hate relationship. When Governor James “Pa” Ferguson vetoed the University’s appropriation and appointed controversial regents who were ready to do his bidding in firing administrators and professors, he said, “I do not care a damn what happens to the University. The bats and owls can roost in it for all I care.” Controversial to be sure, but at least he spoke his mind. More on this can be found in Writing the Story of Texas and The Texas Book Two.

Lest we forget, money has also played a big role in our politics. As noted in Eckhardt: There Once Was a Congressman from Texas, Houston Congressman Bob Eckhardt predicted, in the early 1970s, that the obsession with raising money while holding office would result in more distractions and difficulties in making crucial policy decisions. He found a “Postscript” in an old edition of the Saturday Evening Post that summarized his views:

“Father, may I go out to stump?”
“Yes, and the Lord be with you.
Keep the partizans on the jump,
But never go near the issue.”

And then there is sex, always a feature of the political landscape. My friend, the late Governor Dolph Briscoe, loved Texas history and politics. Known for his business acumen, fairness, and integrity, Governor Briscoe also knew that one amazing incident would forever be part of his legacy. In 1973, Houston television personality Marvin Zindler called the governor’s office requesting an interview. Expecting to discuss education, taxes, and reforms in the wake of the Sharpstown scandal, Governor Briscoe was completely taken aback when Zindler turned on the cameras and asked, “Did you know there is a house of prostitution called the ‘Chicken Ranch’ operating in clear violation of the law over in La Grange?” Governor Briscoe gave his reply: “No.” The entire story, and more on Briscoe's life, can be found in Dolph Briscoe: My Life in Texas Ranching and Politics. In fact, the governor was probably one of the few men of age in Texas at this time who honestly did not know about the famous house of ill repute.

Since the beginning of Texas politics in the nineteenth century, alcohol has been a lubricant of public policy and private performance. Before he became a U.S. senator, Ralph Yarborough ran three unsuccessful campaigns in the 1950s for the governership of Texas, narrowly losing in the Democratic primary each time. He won the U.S. Senate seat in a special election in 1957, besting twenty-two other candidates. During this campaign, Yarborough made the trek to Uvalde to meet with the Sage of the Southwest, former vice president John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner. Viewed as the godfather of Texas politicians during this era, Garner’s blessing of a candidacy carried weight with many Texans. Garner, who had a reputation for strong words and “striking a blow for liberty,” asked Yarborough to join him in a toast of bourbon and branch. Yarborough, a teetotaler, met the challenge. He later said that, as he slowly closed his eyes and gulped down his bourbon, he harkened back to his childhood when his mother had made him drink castor oil. Fortunately, the drink sealed the endorsement. As related in Ralph W. Yarborough, the People’s Senator, Yarborough became the only U.S. senator from the South to support all the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s and initiated other social legislation as well as bills related to the environment, veterans affairs, and economics that forever changed the face of the nation.

For our benediction, we remember Molly Ivins and her recital of one East Texas politician’s prayer: “Teach us to utter words that are tender and gentle, for tomorrow we may have to eat them.” Bon appetit!


Article originally published at the University of Texas Press