Far from the bustle of the Capitol, the ex-governors of Texas are just like you and me (except they don't know where to park).
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Like a mildly successful game show contestant, George W. Bush will leave the White House a few Januaries from now with some lovely taxpayer-funded parting gifts: an annual stipend of $157,000, Secret Service protection, secretarial help, even free postage for life—all courtesy of the 1958 Former Presidents Act. By contrast, when he left the statehouse earlier this year, he received … next to nothing. Other than health insurance and a modest pension based on the salary of a state district judge, he got not so much as a gold watch from his constituents. Without the equivalent of a Former Governors Act on our books, he was left to fend for himself (or would have, had it not been for his new gig). No bodyguards. No steno pool. No stamps!
You might think that life as a former governor of Texas would be pampered and glamorous. But except for “43,” the previous occupants of 1010 Colorado Street have found the joy of ex to be elusive, at least at first. For one thing, there’s the mental transition from ruler to ruled. “It’s a shock to have everything that comes with the office and then immediately go back to being an ordinary citizen,” says Dolph Briscoe (1973-1979). For another, there are the physical realities, such as getting around on your own. “More and more I miss the fact that I had someone to do the parking for me,” says Mark White (1983-1987). Still, the five surviving exes who aren’t the leader of the free world have managed to make lives for themselves that are as interesting, if perkless, as their personalities.
Take Preston Smith (1969-1973). After his second term was up—until 1974, governors served for two years rather than four—the feisty veteran pol returned to Lubbock with his wife, Ima, and got into the money business: He signed on as a fundraiser at his alma mater, Texas Tech, and joined the boards of two banks. The former went better than the latter. Smith was able to help Tech raise $600,000 right off the bat to complete construction of the university’s Ranching Heritage Center, but the banks got walloped by the economy of the late seventies. “Interest rates got so dadgum high that people couldn’t pay off their loans,” he recalls. In the years that followed, Smith dabbled in public relations and real estate and tried unsuccessfully to recapture the governor’s office, but Tech remained his great passion. Nearly three decades later, he maintains a busy schedule as the administrative assistant to the chancellor—at age 89. (Ima Smith died in 1999.) “I’m in better shape than I’ve been in years,” he says. His secret? Plenty of sleep, clean living, and rigorous exercise three to five times a week. What he misses most about being governor is “the association with so many friends all over the state,” though he’s making new ones every day. “Lordy, mercy, it’s hard sometimes for me to walk down the street,” he says. “People recognize me, and they want to visit. I like that.”
Briscoe, Smith’s successor, misses the Governor’s Mansion most of all. He first spent the night there when he was nine, at the invitation of then-governor Ross Sterling, his father’s business partner. “He let me sleep in Sam Houston’s bed,” Briscoe remembers. “I liked it, and I always wanted to go back.” The longtime rancher got his chance, and he describes being governor as “the greatest opportunity a Texan can have.” When his second term was over, he and his wife, Janey (who died last year), rented a friend’s house in San Antonio, where they remained for nineteen years. Like Smith, Briscoe turned to banking, serving as a director of Alamo National Bank until the great shakeout of the eighties. Today he is the chairman of three “country” banks, in Uvalde, Pearsall, and Crystal City. “It has been a very rewarding experience,” he says with a chuckle, “but it’s really an opportunity to make a difference in a rural community.” Ranching, however, continues to be his main calling. As of August 1998, he was the state’s largest individual landowner. Three years later, he’s not sure where he ranks, but he estimates his holdings at 600,000 acres. “I’m seventy-eight. It would stretch my credibility to say I’m a working rancher,” Briscoe admits. “I watch my son work, and I offer him advice when I can.”
If Briscoe immersed himself in the business world, Bill Clements (1979-1983 and 1987-1991) did the opposite, divesting himself of some of his considerable holdings. In 1985, for instance, after his first stint in office, he sold his oil services company, Sedco, to Schlumberger for $1.2 billion. More recently, in July of this year, he agreed to sell his 2,400-acre ranch in Forney. In between those transactions, the 84-year-old Dallasite and his wife, Rita, have done a lot of traveling. They’ve been to Europe, Russia, Australia, the Far East, and Africa, where he hunted Cape buffalo with his son and grandson. They’ve also spent a few months each summer at their house near Taos, New Mexico. About the only place Clements won’t go, it seems, is Austin. While he professes to miss the interaction with the Legislature most of all—“As governor, the most important thing you can do is maintain good relationships with the leadership”—he is openly contemptuous of the Capital City, which he has rarely visited in the past ten years. “I haven’t lost anything,” he growls.
Mark White has no such problem with Austin. His various lines of work these days keep him out and about there and in Houston, and he’s happy to be the most accessible of the exes. After leaving office, the onetime attorney general practiced law, then unsuccessfully ran again for governor. In the years since, he has been in the security business (he’s the president of a company that licenses the technology developed by the Department of Energy to keep terrorists out of nuclear weapons storage facilities), the utility business (he co-founded Power Choice, which helps upstart electric companies offer service at competitive prices), and the e-commerce business (he’s a part owner of an Internet company that makes it possible for people to pay taxes and government fees online). Although White, 61, and his wife, Linda Gale, have noisy memories of the Mansion (“Good God, the buses on Congress were so loud that we couldn’t sleep”), he’d love to have his old job back—if he didn’t have to run. “When they start appointing governors,” he says, “put me at the top of the list.”
Ann Richards (1991-1995) wouldn’t want to be governor again if her life depended on it. Financially, at least, it no longer does. At the end of her term, she was quite clear about her need to make money, and she did, in two ways: by lobbying elected officials two weeks out of the month as a senior adviser of the Washington, D.C., law firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson, and Hand and by making thirty to forty speeches a year to various groups around the country. This summer, the 68-year-old quit lobbying and joined up with the Austin public affairs firm Public Strategies, which will have her work out of its New York office two weeks a month, serving old clients and soliciting new ones. “I’ll be taking what I know, which is politics and how campaigns work, and applying it in the corporate world,” she says. She’ll continue to take her turn as a pundit on talk shows like Larry King Live, but mostly she’ll spend her free time with her four children and seven grandchildren. And she won’t look back. “Living in the Mansion was fun in the sense that it’s historic,” she says, “but it was always filled with people having parties or meetings; there’s nothing very private about living in a public house. And the security detail was like having fifteen husbands. Then again, Bud Shrake [Richards’ companion] loved the fact that we could park out front of every place we went. And you know what? We still do.”