You Remember Dolph Briscoe, Don’t You?
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That was the subhead for Griffin Smith Jr.’s February 1976 sorta cover story on the Democratic governor from Uvalde. I say “sorta” because Briscoe was actually on the cover for that year’s Bum Steer awards in a corny but funny shot: the governor waving to the reader while surrounded by cattle with the line: “Find the Bum Steer in This Picture.”
The joke was not lost on Smith. In a biting story, he detailed Briscoe’s inaccessibility from the press, from the public, and from other legislators as well as the shortcomings of an amateur staff that prided itself on being outsiders to the political process. Smith writes:
Somewhere, no doubt, there are other officeholders as reclusive, as secretive as Dolph Briscoe—a comatose ward-captain in the Bronx, perhaps, or a furtive county clerk in the wilds of Idaho. But are there any equal in stature to the chief executive of the third largest state? It was not supposed to be that way. Briscoe, after all, once sought the governorship on a promise to throw open his doors to the public every two weeks, so that “anyone who wants to complain, make suggestions, or just talk to the governor will be welcome.” Try that today. For all practical purposes the Invisible Man of South Texas is unique among the country’s leading political figures. His low profile, and the lengths he has gone to protect it, have made him an enigma to many and a joke to others.
Smith’s evidence is overwhelming—he appears to have talked to everyone in the Capitol on background. Along the way, there are appearances by Price Daniel Jr., Ben Barnes, A.M. Aikin, and perhaps best of all, Orville Drall (one of my favorite anecdotes).
And so is his theory about why Briscoe ran the Governor’s Mansion the way he did. It wasn’t a question of apathy or weakness or personal issues. It was a question about power and how Briscoe chose to wield it. Smith views it as a confrontation between the old Texas that Briscoe represented and the new Texas that was rapidly gaining power:
Briscoe’s behavior ultimately reveals why he wanted to be governor. It is the behavior of a man who had everything which should have conferred the undisputed highest status—vast wealth, award after award, more land than perhaps any other Texan—but who still was not quite part of the inner circle of the Texas political and social establishment.
What has moved Briscoe as governor is, in some atavistic sense rooted deep in two centuries of Texas soil, a rancher’s rejection of this highrise aristocracy and all the other intruders on that cherished myth of the power of the land. By being governor he restores (as he sees it) the proper order to things, an order that without him is untuned; it is a holding action at best, but there is not much more that any governor could do to stop the changes remaking Texas. There are echoes in all this of Giant, reminders of the gulf between what mattered in the old Texas and what matters in the new. Among Briscoe’s potential successors, not one truly belongs to that old Texas where the central myth was constructed from the land.