Tragedy teaches us who we are and what we really need. And what we need is leadership, in the White House and in the U.S. Senate.

October 2001By Comments

This morning—September 11, 2001—I sat down to write about the decision by U.S. senator Phil Gramm to retire after serving out his term, and what his career and the end of it meant for Texas. The subject had mesmerized the political community for more than a week. But what seemed so important yesterday has receded from public consciousness today, to be replaced by images of airplanes flying into skyscrapers and buildings falling from the sky. Tragedy has but one benefit: It puts things in perspective. It reminds those of us who assign great importance to the Gramm retirement, or the Dow Jones average, or our favorite football team’s next game that what really matters is life, love, safety and the faith that the world we know will be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today.

And yet, in a crisis, politics in its largest sense—the art of public leadership—assumes its greatest importance. No other forum so enables a single individual to seize the reins of history. Not every leader has the knack. Herbert Hoover did not, but Franklin Roosevelt did; a pessimistic Jimmy Carter did not, but an optimistic Ronald Reagan did. In the days and weeks ahead, we will find out whether George W. Bush has that knack. Rhetoric and symbolic actions have never been his chosen methods of leadership, but now he has no choice. All of us should hope that our fellow Texan proves worthy of the task.

This test could not come at a more difficult time for the president. We are entering the closing stretch of the political season, a time when all of the issues that have been working their way through Congress must be resolved. Except for the tax cut that passed this spring, Bush’s agenda faces an uncertain future. His education package, energy plan, faith-based initiative, and military overhaul, including a missile shield, do not have the backing of large, organized constituencies. Had the terrorist attacks not occurred, the news in the upcoming weeks would be dominated by intense politicking, finger-pointing, and blame-placing.

But the attacks did occur, and the country is different now. This is not a time for politics as usual. The president could do the nation no greater service than to announce that he is suspending the battle for his legislative program until next year. In an effort to prevent the budget from becoming a divisive issue, he could propose to Congress that next year’s federal outlays replicate what is being spent this year. All available efforts and resources for the remainder of the congressional session should be directed toward punishing the perpetrators, strengthening America’s defenses against terrorism, and repairing the damage to the economy.

Perhaps in such overwhelmingly tragic circumstances, the retirement of Phil Gramm is not such a bad thing to consider after all. It affords the opportunity to take refuge in the benign past, and it offers some welcome certainty about the future: that there will be an election on the first Tuesday in November 2002, that in time we will come to care about it, and that life will go on.

Gramm’s election to the Senate in 1984 reshaped Texas politics, and it is possible that his retirement could do the same. He had run before, as a Democrat in 1976, winning only 28 percent of the vote in the primary against incumbent Lloyd Bentsen. It seemed likely that the quixotic race was the last anyone would hear of the Texas A&M economics professor with a fervent belief in the free market. But in 1978 the longtime incumbent congressman from College Station opted not to seek reelection, and Gramm, still a Democrat, had enough name identification from his Senate race to squeeze into second place in the primary by 115 votes and then overtake the front-runner in the runoff. No one (except possibly Gramm himself) detected a tremor in the bedrock of Texas politics. He was far too conservative to have any influence in the Democratic-controlled House.

Then two things changed. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and Gramm persuaded majority leader Jim Wright, a fellow Texan, to appoint him to the Budget Committee. He was the right man in the right place; when the White House needed a Democrat to sponsor Reagan’s budget cuts, Gramm was perfect. The Democratic leadership viewed him as a traitor and eventually stripped him of his seat on the Budget Committee. All this did was throw him in the briar patch. Democrat Gramm switched parties and resigned his seat in Congress; Republican Gramm won it back in a 1983 special election that brought him statewide exposure. A year later, another timely retirement—this one by four-term senator John Tower—opened the door to higher office. Gramm breezed to victory in the GOP primary and won a landslide 59 percent of the vote against Democratic nominee Lloyd Doggett (now an Austin congressman) in the general election.

The ascendancy of Phil Gramm devastated the Democratic party. Rural Texas, previously a Democratic stronghold in state races, followed him into the Republican ranks. He was plain-looking and plain-talking, the antithesis of the city Republicans (including the elder George Bush), who could never establish a beachhead in the country. Not content to let the conservative Democrats die a natural death, Gramm became a proselytizer for party-switching. His biggest converts were Lubbock congressman Kent Hance, who went on to win a seat on the Railroad Commission, and a state legislator named Rick Perry, who would be farming in Haskell County today but for Phil Gramm.

Gramm does not have a political personality. He is all intellect, no soul. He doesn’t have an ounce of smarm, he doesn’t cut deals, and he doesn’t go along to get along. An oft-repeated joke is that even his friends don’t like him. (“I did not come to Washington to be loved, and I have not been disappointed,” he has said.) All politicians are out for themselves—it is the nature of the profession—but Gramm conceals his ambition less adeptly than most. He made a nominating speech for George Bush for president at the 1988 Republican convention in which, as the Almanac of American Politics noted, “It was not apparent from the first pages of text just which Texas Republican he was nominating.”

None of this kept him from being a powerhouse in the Senate, as he had been in the House. He upheld the tradition of Texas senators who are national figures, but not, in his later years, the tradition that Texas senators tend to Texas’ interests. He co-sponsored the Gramm-Rudman effort to reduce the budget deficit, he rewrote the nation’s financial services law, and he led the attack on the Clinton health care plan. But his legislative credits and legendary fundraising ability did not avail him in his short-lived 1996 bid for the White House. His constant attack mode fit the Reagan years but not the Clinton years. That his style had begun to wear thin even in Texas was apparent at a huge pre-announcement fundraiser in Dallas, when George W. Bush and Kay Bailey Hutchison received much louder ovations than Gramm at his own event.

Gramm’s departure has caused almost as much dysfunction in his home state as his arrival in the Senate did, only this time it is in his own party rather than in the opposition’s. Many Republicans wanted Gramm to step down early so that Governor Perry could fill the seat with a Hispanic who would help offset the appeal of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez. But Perry wanted railroad commissioner Tony Garza and Gramm wanted San Antonio congressman Henry Bonilla, and eventually the backroom politics spilled onto the front page, with open speculation about an inducement to Gramm for leaving early, such as the soon-to-be-vacant Texas A&M presidency. One can only wonder what made Perry think he could win a staring contest with Phil Gramm, who was born with his eyeballs set in concrete; in any event, the deal seems to be off for good. Meanwhile, the empty Senate seat has set off a game of musical chairs, with Republican officeholders debating which job they really want to hold.

Gramm’s decision to step down raises the stakes for the 2002 elections enormously. For the first time since 1992, the GOP will not have a previously elected governor or senator at the top of its ticket. The Democrats, who only two years ago offered Gene Kelly as their standard-bearer against Hutchison, are in the process of assembling a credible slate of candidates with the prospect of energizing Hispanic and black voters (see Politics: “Minority Report,” page 62). Two rival theories about the future of Texas politics will be tested next year: One is that the demographics are so much on the Republicans’ side at this moment that, barring a scandal, there just aren’t enough votes in Texas to elect any Democrat right now; the other is that Texas continues to be a state where personality matters more than party, so that a Democrat with a strong personality and message (and sufficient funding) can win. The era of undisputed Republican hegemony, which seemed so inevitable, is now less than certain.

What will voters be looking for in 2002? The horrific events of September 11 will have a lot to say about that. Maybe we will turn away from ideological zeal, having become all too familiar with the damage it can do. Maybe we will emerge from this crisis with a new appreciation of the importance of leadership. This elusive quality is what Phil Gramm ultimately lacked, and what all the millions of dollars he raised could not buy. And it is what George W. Bush has to demonstrate in abundance.

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