Behind the Lines
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TALK OF CHANGE AND REFORM has been in the air since the Sharpstown scandals more than perhaps at any time in our state’s history. Such talk is welcome, and, as most of us apparently felt in the last elections, mandatory. One imagines that talk of reform came as uncomfortably, but as necessarily, to the lips of some of our political candidates as did English to the lips of an elderly priest having to say his first Mass in a language other than Latin.
We voters installed this January a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and Speaker of the House, all of whom talked rather well of the reform of our antiquated and much-abused political processes. Well, that’s that, we thought, dusting off our hands and getting back to our own business, comforted that at last we had put in some people who would get down to cleaning up that mess in Austin which had been so disturbing and which had brought such bad publicity .
Corruption became such a way of life that some politicians and business operators apparently still fail to see just what was wrong in using our political institutions for private gains, so long as some rough connection could be made to helping Texas grow and prosper, a higher good oft-invoked in justifying the most venal of motives. That way of looking at the world doesn’t die easily, and men of energy and ambition had considered Texas government as one of the state’s supposedly boundless resources, like its air, its land, its waters and its trees. If you knew the levers had the oil, Texas government always worked just fine.
The performances of officials we elected to slay those particular dragons have been lackluster at best. Attorney General John Hill and House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr., have been performing creditably, but even their energetic work this winter has been cooled by the performances of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor.
We have a Governor who is apparently not going to do anything, whose energies seem more appropriate to the conduct of business from rocking chairs on the porches of West Texas banks than to governing the fourth largest state in the country. There is nothing wrong in principle with this easygoing approach; it is only inappropriate became it is entirely inadequate to the problems at hand.
A glacier moves more in an hour than Dolph Briscoe has in his first four months. The normal business of government is not getting done. Legislative sponsors of his own bills complain they cannot see him on matters vital to the passage of those bills.
Why aren’t letters being signed or important phone calls being returned, as some members of the Governor’s own staff complain? Certainly if the Governor wants to renege on his promises of reform he can. The bard landscape of government may merit a different course from the bright pathways of a political campaign. But can’t we at least get the business of governing done?
Governor Briscoe may indeed have the potential to be a good Governor, and to be a reform Governor as well. If so, it is high time for him to quit keeping it a secret.
Then there is Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby, Jr., elected, like Governor Briscoe, on a reform platform. With no previous experience in government, a well-meaning man like Hobby may feel a little like a good-hearted Woodrow Wilson among the hardened political masters of Europe. Not only does he keep getting, well, misunderstood, he keeps getting faked out.
Caught between a reform-minded House which has been joined whole-heartedly by his own Citizens Conference On Ethics in Government and a Senate largely unenthusiastic about reform; embarrassed by his own newspaper, The Houston Post, whose dedication to reform apparently exceeds Hobby’s own, the Lieutenant Governor has not been in an enviable position.
He is right in insisting that because a bill is a reform bill does not mean it is a good reform bill or that it will be workable. But his talk of moving slowly and with deliberation will soon echo in a legislature gone home yet again with its work undone.
Our hopes for Lt. Gov. Hobby and Gov. Briscoe have not been extinguished.
But are these the men we have waited a hundred years to give the stewardship of writing a new constitution? Are these the leaders who embody the strength and ideals of the fourth largest state in the nation? Are these the public officials whose insight, compassion, skills and courage can forge the instrument by which we all shall be governed, perhaps for another hundred years?
It is not too late for them to illustrate in words and in actions that they have at least some grasp of what it is like to live in Texas today, that they have sweated in traffic jams, breathed polluted air, suffered poor police protection, sent their children to inferior schools, paid outrageous insurance premiums, endured poor medical care, been unable to find a park or wilderness area or a clean lake or beach.
Let’s face it. We are an urban state with urban problems, the only state with three of the ten largest American cities. Our cities have a chance to avoid becoming Pittsburghs and Los Angeles—but only if our elected officials show some understanding and concern for what cities should be, how they should work, and why they are there in the first place.
We can watch for such hopeful signs in our highest officials through their performance in the current session of the legislature, in the Governor’s appointments to the many boards and agencies which carry on much of the important work of state government and, most important, in their role in the constitutional convention next year.
If our Governor and Lieutenant Governor are going to bring us any of the reform they promised so eloquently last fall, then they are going to have to quit warming up and get into the game. We have so little time, and so much to do.