(This article also appears on the Texas Monthly home page.)
Dolph Briscoe, governor of Texas from 1973 to 1979, and the first governor to serve a four-year term, died Sunday at the age of 87. Briscoe was a good and decent man whose years in office brought few accomplishments. He was a rural politician—the largest individual landowner in the state—who came along at precisely the wrong time: the moment when political power was passing to the big cities and their suburbs.
No one wants to speak ill of the departed, and in truth there is nothing bad to say about Briscoe except that his governorship left no mark on Texas. His greatest achievement in public life occurred when he was a legislator, in 1949, when he passed the bill creating farm-to-market roads. His father’s deathbed wish was that his son would seek the state’s highest office, and Briscoe dutifully sought his opportunity. In 1968 he hosted retiring governor John Connally and a group of ambitious pols who came together to handpick Connally’s successor at Briscoe’s Catarina ranch near Uvalde. That was the way Texas politics worked in those days. Briscoe hoped to get Connally’s imprimatur, but it went instead to Eugene Locke, a wartime ambassador to South Viet Nam, who had been Connally’s campaign manager. Briscoe ran anyway and finished fourth in the Democratic primary, which was won by Lieutenant Governor Preston Smith. Locke finished a dismal fifth.
It seemed that Briscoe had missed his chance, but as the 1971 legislative session began, a major scandal broke in which the governor, the speaker, and other state officials were found to have accepted gifts of bank stock from Houston developer Frank Sharp, who had sought and won passage of two bills that would help his financial empire. The Sharpstown Scandal turned Texas politics upside down. It destroyed the conservative Democratic machinery that Connally had built and opened the door for Briscoe. The 1972 Democratic primary was a battle of reformers: Briscoe, representing the conservative wing of the party, and Sissy Farenthold, representing the liberal wing. Briscoe prevailed, but he ran into trouble in the general election; at a time when the Democrat party dominated Texas politics, he was barely able to eke out a victory over Hank Grover, a little-known Republican.
There was no reason why Briscoe should not have been a popular and successful governor. He certainly had the resume—president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, president of the Texas Chamber of Commerce, Mr. South Texas. He had the right politics; one his first acts was to proclaim “no new taxes.” And he did the thing he was elected to do, which was restore integrity to state government after Sharpstown. But from the moment he took office, he underwent a personality change that left anyone who tried to work with him baffled. A Texas Monthly cover story in February 1976 asked the question, “Why does Dolph Briscoe want to be governor?”
“The picture of Dolph Briscoe that emerges after three years in office is of an inaccessible, ill-informed, and largely inactive man, guided by the strong hand of his wife and sheltered from all but ceremonial contact with the outside world by an apprehensive, amateurish palace guard,” wrote author Griffin Smith. Briscoe became almost a recluse. Smith quoted an aide to Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby as saying, “He really is something of a ghost.” Reporters tallied the governor’s absence from Austin; airplane logs showed that he had gone to Uvalde, his family base since 1914, for 135 days during the first ten months of 1975. Was he doing state business? A caretaker at the ranch told the Dallas Times Herald that Briscoe sometimes disconnects the telephone when he was there.
From the moment that he first took office, Briscoe’s attitude toward the Capitol infrastructure—the Legislature, the media, even his own department heads—was one of indifference. He had come to office as a reformer, and he had a reformer’s mistrust of everything institutional. He wanted to be seen as an outsider. In his first State of the State address, he told the Legislature, “Politics is not a game, and I will not play it.” And he was as good as his word. His administration was remarkable for its lack of initiatives. (The exceptions were school finance reform and importing water to the Panhandle, neither of which he followed up on.) “At times,” wrote Smith, “it seems that not only does he not want to do anything himself, he does not want anyone else to do anything.”
That is my personal memory of the Briscoe years: Nothing happened. The governor was irrelevant. The political life of the state went on without him. But of course things did happen. One of the things that happened is that the Legislature passed a revision of the Texas Constitution. Three weeks before it was to be voted on by the public, Briscoe came out against it. The public voted it down. Another thing that happened was that the conservative Democratic party machinery began to break down. Briscoe was so inaccessible, so remote from the public, that he didn’t have the contacts in urban Texas to grow his political base. Too many of his appointments to important boards and commissions were people who weren’t the kind of folks who could help him politically. He appointed his personal physician to the UT Board of Regents, and on another occasion he appointed a dead man to an agency board. That seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the Briscoe governorship.
In 1978, Briscoe sought a second four-year term as governor. He found himself in a primary battle against attorney general John Hill, who, like Briscoe, had once hoped to be Connally’s choice for governor. Hill’s primary challenge split the Democratic party. The urban liberals were drawn to Hill, the rural conservatives and the business establishment to Briscoe. The outcome wasn’t close. Briscoe had stayed too long and had done too little to endear himself to the Democratic electorate. Hill defeated him, 932,345 to 753,309. This was a pivotal race in Texas political history. Hill went on to lose the general election to Republican Bill Clements, who became the state’s first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction. Briscoe’s defeat caused a defection of conservatives to Clements, which helped swing the race to the Republican. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 accelerated the exodus of conservatives from the Democratic party, and both parties have gravitated toward their ideological extremes ever since. Maybe, if Briscoe had been a different kind of governor, he might have defeated Hill and gone on to defeat Clements. But it was not to be.
In his later years, Briscoe reengaged in Democratic politics. He supported Bill Clinton and Ann Richards; he contributed to Rick Noriega’s Senate campaign. Politics aside, he was a great Texan. But his strange governorship will always remain a mystery to those of us who were there.