Onward, Christian

The wisest, kindest man in Texas politics has cancer, and he has rejected chemotherapy. But the fight hasn't left George Christian yet.

February 2002By Comments

IN THE SUMMER OF 1987, the state’s two most prominent Democrats announced their departure from electoral politics. I used the occasion to write a short article that I soon wished I hadn’t. The headline was “Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death,” and just below it a question was posed: “Is the Texas Democratic party facing its apocalypse now that Bill Hobby and Henry Cisneros have bowed out of the governor’s race?” The remaining four Democrats who might run for governor or senator, I wrote, were too liberal and had too much political or personal baggage—scandal, alcoholism, divorce—to win higher office. (Even now, I cringe when I read it.) When the story came out, I heard nothing from readers about three of the four Democrats. The fourth was state treasurer Ann Richards, and I heard plenty, all of it mad. In such circumstances, there was only one thing to do: go see George Christian.

At 75, George is the wisest person in Texas politics—and the kindest. The former White House press secretary for Lyndon Johnson, he heads a small political shop that lobbies for tort reform and other business issues and advises clients about Texas political trends. He also gives advice to anyone who asks for it, a large collection of people that has included presidents, governors, legislators, lobbyists, corporate executives, university presidents, reporters, fellow consultants—anyone in need of a gold standard for straight-shooting. As I was. “I think I missed something,” I told him. “Ann is different from the others.”

He nodded: “You ought to think about going to see her.”

“I guess I should apologize,” I said.

He nodded again. “She’ll be hard on you,” he said, “but it’ll do you good.” (She was, and it did.)

We talked for a while longer, and I got up to leave. “By the way,” he said, “I thought that was a pretty good article.”

George, I regret to report, is sick now. I went to see him in the hospital in early December, and he looked gaunt and tired as a blissfully perky health-care adviser explained all the wonderful options that were available to him since he’d decided, after a miserable initial encounter with chemotherapy, to stop the treatment and go home. When she left, he got up and sat on the side of the bed, ready to talk. “You ought to go see that cancer-treatment center,” he said. “Row after row of chairs, every one of them full of people waiting for treatment. Half of them must have been over eighty-five.” He was earnest. “What’s the point? You got to croak sometime. Might as well do it on your own terms.”

Everybody in politics knows George Christian and everybody loves him. I do not use the word loosely. “I’ve told him many times that I love him,” says Bill Miller, a consultant who has worked with George on many occasions. “He’s the only man other than my father I’ve ever told that.” One day while George was in the hospital, the telephone rang. His son George Scott picked it up and immediately heard a voice that sounded familiar:


“No, this is little George.”

“This is little George too. Can I talk to your dad?” It was the president. The White House was getting daily reports on George’s health.

Which is pretty good at the moment, all things considered. I interviewed him at home just before Christmas, and he was very much his old self, which means that the interludes between laughter were brief. George can’t help but chuckle at his own stories, and if he likes yours, he’ll shake from head to foot.

His institutional memory about Texas politics is unequaled. He remembers going to the Governor’s Mansion with his father and meeting Governor Dan Moody, who served two terms from 1927 to 1931: “He had on a red bathrobe.” His career took him from the Temple Telegram (he was a sports editor) to the Capitol, where he covered the Legislature for International News Service beginning in the spring of 1949. “We had a two-man bureau with a telegrapher,” George recalled. “Our motto was get it fast, get it first, correct it later.”

In 1956 he went to work for the gubernatorial campaign of Price Daniel. If you think Texas politics is mean today, you should hear some of the stories George tells about that era, when Republicans weren’t a factor and all the battles took place within the Democratic party. Daniel, a conservative, had defeated liberal Ralph Yarborough to win the nomination, but he had to be certified as the nominee by the State Democratic Executive Committee, which liberals appeared to control. The only way the Daniel forces could be sure of getting certification was for Daniel to veto some of the liberal nominees to the SDEC. “Talk about unpleasant,” George said. “That was about the most unpleasant thing I ever saw. That was when there was true-life bloodletting in Texas politics.”

Eventually George became chief of staff for Daniel and then, after Daniel lost his fourth-term bid to John Connally, Connally’s press secretary. Connally is generally regarded as one of Texas’ best governors, but the job wasn’t demanding enough to keep him focused; what he really wanted, of course, was to be president. “He was unfulfilled,” George said. “He could do more on two cylinders than most people could do full blast, and he only worked on two cylinders a lot of the time. He’d be down at his ranch and call the staff to come down there. ‘Bring all the appointment files,’ he’d say. We knew we’d never touch them, and we didn’t. All he wanted to talk about was what he was doing down there.” By this time George is chuckling every other sentence or so. “We’re out in the cattle pens shoving calves, and I’m saying to myself, ‘I work for the governor of Texas. What am I doing down here punching cattle?'”

Early in 1966 George got a call from the White House offering him a staff position. Connally told him, “You have to do it; it’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” but a Johnson staffer named Jake Jacobsen called with different advice. “You don’t want to come up here,” Jacobsen said. “You’re too sweet. They’re cutting each other up.”

“Sweet” is a good word for George. I’ve never heard him be mean-spirited about a politician. Politics is a world in which stakes are high, cunning runs deep, and tempers are short, creating a climate in which epithets like “sumbitch” drop off the tongue without a second thought, but never from George. I think he has too much love and respect for politics—”I love the devil out of it,” he says—to besmirch it. “Sorry” is about the strongest adjective I’ve ever heard him use; usually, it’s something like “disappointing.” “I try not to be judgmental,” he told me. “I’ve known some sorry people in my time, but there’s usually a reason why people do things.” Another laugh. “Every once in a while, though, I have to admit, you find a real scoundrel without redeeming virtue.” I mentioned the name of a state senator who I thought met the qualifications. “Oh, he’s grown on me” came the reply.

This quality of George’s—call it sweetness, call it gentleness, call it generosity of spirit—is what makes him so valuable to the rest of us in Texas politics. He reminds us that we are participants in a noble calling. He keeps us from getting too cynical, from being sure that one side is totally right and the other is totally wrong. And because he has been around so long and has seen so much, he connects us with our past and helps us realize that, yes, things really do get better. “I’ve never been much of a pessimist about anything,” he told me. “The country gets better and better.”

His hardest time in politics, he said, was late in the Johnson administration, when Vietnam overwhelmed everything else. “That was the only time I had heartburn. I kept thinking, ‘Why can’t we get out of this thing?’ He [LBJ] was tired; he’d been sick; he was fearful he was going to have a stroke or a heart attack. He wanted to negotiate himself out of that war, and it was beyond his understanding why Ho Chi Minh would not sit down and negotiate. He didn’t see that North Vietnam had no incentive to negotiate. They knew we were locked in a strategy that was going to be unsuccessful.”

When Johnson thought about not running again, George and Lady Bird were about the only ones in the White House who thought he should quit. “I encouraged it,” he said. “I lobbied very seldom, but I told him I thought it was the right decision. I said I thought he could get reelected, but I wasn’t sure the country was governable. Where would we go? Four more years of this?”

Children and grandchildren began arriving for dinner, and I knew it was time to go. “Don’t you say that I’m dying,” he told me as I made my way to the door. “Watching the Republicans, now that they have their teeth on the tire, is going to be fun. I’ve got to get to the next legislative session and see if the tire rolls over them.”

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