Ben Barnes

So what if he never got to be governor or president? Thirty years after Sharpstown, Barnes is more powerful than ever.

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

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