This morning—September 11, 2001—I sat down to write about the decision by U.S. senator Phil Gramm to retire after serving out his term, and what his career and the end of it meant for Texas. The subject had mesmerized the political community for more than a week. But what seemed so important yesterday has receded from public consciousness today, to be replaced by images of airplanes flying into skyscrapers and buildings falling from the sky. Tragedy has but one benefit: It puts things in perspective. It reminds those of us who assign great importance to the Gramm retirement, or the Dow Jones average, or our favorite football team’s next game that what really matters is life, love, safety and the faith that the world we know will be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today.
And yet, in a crisis, politics in its largest sense—the art of public leadership—assumes its greatest importance. No other forum so enables a single individual to seize the reins of history. Not every leader has the knack. Herbert Hoover did not, but Franklin Roosevelt did; a pessimistic Jimmy Carter did not, but an optimistic Ronald Reagan did. In the days and weeks ahead, we will find out whether George W. Bush has that knack. Rhetoric and symbolic actions have never been his chosen methods of leadership, but now he has no choice. All of us should hope that our fellow Texan proves worthy of the task.
This test could not come at a more difficult time for the president. We are entering the closing stretch of the political season, a time when all of the issues that have been working their way through Congress must be resolved. Except for the tax cut that passed this spring, Bush’s agenda faces an uncertain future. His education package, energy plan, faith-based initiative, and military overhaul, including a missile shield, do not have the backing of large, organized constituencies. Had the terrorist attacks not occurred, the news in the upcoming weeks would be dominated by intense politicking, finger-pointing, and blame-placing.
But the attacks did occur, and the country is different now. This is not a time for politics as usual. The president could do the nation no greater service than to announce that he is suspending the battle for his legislative program until next year. In an effort to prevent the budget from becoming a divisive issue, he could propose to Congress that next year’s federal outlays replicate what is being spent this year. All available efforts and resources for the remainder of the congressional session should be directed toward punishing the perpetrators, strengthening America’s defenses against terrorism, and repairing the damage to the economy.
Perhaps in such overwhelmingly tragic circumstances, the retirement of Phil Gramm is not such a bad thing to consider after all. It affords the opportunity to take refuge in the benign past, and it offers some welcome certainty about the future: that there will be an election on the first Tuesday in November 2002, that in time we will come to care about it, and that life will go on.
Gramm’s election to the Senate in 1984 reshaped Texas politics, and it is possible that his retirement could do the same. He had run before, as a Democrat in 1976, winning only 28 percent of the vote in the primary against incumbent Lloyd Bentsen. It seemed likely that the quixotic race was the last anyone would hear of the Texas A&M economics professor with a fervent belief in the free market. But in 1978 the longtime incumbent congressman from College Station opted not to seek reelection, and Gramm, still a Democrat, had enough name identification from his Senate race to squeeze into second place in the primary by 115 votes and then overtake the front-runner in the runoff. No one (except possibly Gramm himself) detected a tremor in the bedrock of Texas politics. He was far too conservative to have any influence in the Democratic-controlled House.
Then two things changed. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, and Gramm persuaded majority leader Jim Wright, a fellow Texan, to appoint him to the Budget Committee. He was the right man in the right place; when the White House needed a Democrat to sponsor Reagan’s budget cuts, Gramm was perfect. The Democratic leadership viewed him as a traitor and eventually stripped him of his seat on the Budget Committee. All this did was throw him in the briar patch. Democrat Gramm switched parties and resigned his seat in Congress; Republican Gramm won it back in a 1983 special election that brought him statewide exposure. A year later, another timely retirement—this one by four-term senator John Tower—opened the door to higher office. Gramm breezed to victory in the GOP primary and won a landslide 59 percent of the vote against Democratic nominee Lloyd Doggett (now an Austin congressman) in the general election.
The ascendancy of Phil Gramm devastated the Democratic party. Rural Texas, previously a Democratic stronghold in state races, followed him into the Republican ranks. He was plain-looking and plain-talking, the antithesis of the city Republicans (including the elder George Bush), who could never establish a beachhead in the country. Not content to let the conservative Democrats die a natural death, Gramm became a proselytizer for party-switching. His biggest converts were Lubbock congressman Kent Hance, who went on to win a seat on the Railroad Commission, and a state legislator named Rick Perry, who would be farming in Haskell County today but for Phil Gramm.
Gramm does not have a political personality. He is all intellect, no soul. He doesn’t have an ounce of smarm, he doesn’t cut deals, and he doesn’t go along to get along. An oft-repeated joke is that even his friends don’t like him. (“I did not come to Washington to be loved, and I have not been disappointed,” he has said.) All politicians are out for themselves—it is the nature of the profession—but Gramm conceals his ambition less adeptly than most. He made a nominating speech for