On a steamy summer afternoon in Washington, the kind of day when your clothes absorb the humidity from the sodden air, Ben Barnes is exactly where everybody in Texas politics knew he would be someday: in the private Senate dining room at the U.S. Capitol. The tall redhead is instantly recognizable, and even in this inner sanctum of power, he seems to know someone at every table. Here comes Thomas Carper of Delaware across the floor to shake hands. There goes Barnes to press the flesh with John Edwards of North Carolina. On the way out, he exchanges greetings with Dianne Feinstein of California and Charles Schumer of New York. The moment is exactly as it should be, except for two things: It is three decades late, and Barnes is not a senator but a guest.
Life has landed some nasty punches on the onetime golden boy of Texas politics. In the sixties he became Speaker of the House at 26 and lieutenant governor at 30; in 1970 he was touted by Lyndon Johnson as a future president of the United States. But even as LBJ lavished praise on Barnes, forces were already at work that would sweep the prodigy out of office in a matter of months and stamp an indelible taint on his reputation. He turned to real estate development, but in the mid-eighties, the speculative empire that he had built with his onetime mentor, John Connally, came crashing down, throwing both men into personal bankruptcy. In the nineties the revelation of his sensationally lucrative dealings with GTech, the company that won, with Barnes’s help, the right to operate the Texas lottery, set off the shaking of heads and clucking of tongues once again. Yet here he is in the rarefied atmosphere of big power and big-time politics—one of the chief financial and strategic architects of the Democratic resurgence to parity (and subsequently control) in the Senate. Majority leader Tom Daschle has called him “the fifty-first Democratic senator.” At 62 and four times a grandparent, Ben Frank Barnes has fought destiny to a draw.
But the résumé does not even begin to hint at what he is really like. In person he has an overwhelming presence, partly because of his height (six foot three); partly because of his hair, which today is more orange than red; but most of all, because of the immense energy that bursts forth in his body language and his speech.
He is always hurrying somewhere, and he is always selling something—and that something is himself. Not directly; he doesn’t boast. Rather, he believes. Sometimes the words come so fast that you can almost see them tumble over each other as they leave his mouth. Whatever he is trying to tell you—it could be something as simple as who we are going to see today in Washington or as complex as what the Democratic message should be in Texas—he is so forceful, so enthusiastic, so optimistic that you cannot help but believe too that it is totally, obviously, the right thing to do. You go into a conversation with him remembering how controversial he has been, vowing to be on guard, but it doesn’t matter. You come out thinking, “Wow!”
On the day that Barnes had lunch in the Senate dining room, hosted by the chief of staff for Joe Biden of Delaware, I accompanied him as he went from one office to the next. “I’m not really a lobbyist,” he told me. “I don’t represent clients day to day on legislation. I’m more of a crisis manager. I get called when people have a big problem in Washington that they can’t solve by passing a bill.” His client was a Houston company that had been the successful low bidder for a $31 million contract from the Army. That was the good news. The bad news was that two women who were former employees had previously filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, and they were represented by the politically connected Beaumont firm headed by the redoubtable Walter Umphrey, one of the lawyers who had represented Texas in the megabucks tobacco case. So far, the company was holding its own in the courtroom, but the action had shifted to Washington. Nick Lampson, the Democratic congressman from Beaumont, had written a letter to various committee chairmen asking them to hold hearings about the company’s record of discrimination—which put the contract at risk.
A car appeared at the hotel’s main entrance and took our group—Barnes, me, and two lawyers for the company—to a Senate office building. Our first stop was the office of Carl Levin of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Services committee. “The president of this company arrived in Houston in 1984 with nothing more than a U-Haul truck,” Barnes told one of Levin’s staffers. “He has done a remarkable job of building this company. He has never been involved in politics, never even made a political contribution.” This, I thought, was Barnes’s way of signaling that his client was not a big Republican. “We don’t want a public hearing in the middle of a contract,” he continued.
“We just want to get back to the merits of the lawsuit,” said one of the lawyers.
“It’s just a single contract,” the staffer said. “Typically we don’t investigate something like that.” This was followed by a moment of silence. “I don’t think I’ve helped you very much,” the staffer said.
It was time to close the deal. “Just tell us that letter is going to stay on your desk,” said Barnes.
“All we would do is get a third party to look at it, and since Lampson wrote the Secretary of the Army, that’s already been done,” said the staffer.
Barnes stood up. “We’re delighted you’re in the majority,” he said. “It’s good for the country.”
It is also very good for Ben Barnes.
He grew up on a peanut farm near De Leon in Comanche County, north of the Hill Country. He played high school