Ben Barnes is Still Running

The heir to LBJ was groomed to be governor, then president. He’s still kissing babies, pressing the flesh, and barnstorming—but not for votes, for bucks.

The sun had not yet risen over the austere scrub-brush country around Lake Brownwood, but Ben Barnes, always a young man in a hurry, wasn’t about to wait for it. Outfitted in a baby-blue jogging suit, he chugged two miles beside a country road, carrying a flashlight and gulping cold winter air. He was accompanied by his Shih Tzu puppy, Charlie, a gift from Joe Christie, a friend from the old days when Barnes, as lieutenant governor, was the most powerful man in Texas and Christie was a state senator. Like Barnes, Christie unsuccessfully sought higher office, and so Charlie was a constant reminder, as if Barnes needed one, that timing is everything in politics, that voters can jump off a bandwagon as fast as they jump on. Even faithful Charlie was subject to such fickleness. An explosion of roadside quail sent him yelping home in the darkness, leaving Barnes to jog on alone.

Inside the $300,000 lake house with its ninety-foot living room and six-foot-wide fireplace Barnes’ second wife, Nancy, eight years Barnes’ senior and a political veteran in her own right, fixed her husband cereal, orange juice, and coffee. Nearby, the crumbs from four pecan pies she had made with Brownwood pecans and Louisiana molasses were the only evidence of the previous night’s working dinner for 25 Brownwood leaders and visiting Chicago industrialists.

What ever happened to Ben Barnes? Having worked for Barnes during much of the eight years he was at the pinnacle of the Texas power structure—first as Speaker of the Texas House from 1965 to 1969, then as lieutenant governor from 1969 to 1973—I sometimes find it hard to imagine Barnes existing outside of politics. Does he now pout in self-exile, cursing Frank Sharp, the Houston financier whose manipulations led to Barnes’ downfall? Is he secretly planning campaigns for future political wars? Or has he settled for the life of a prosperous West Texan, desiring only peace and quiet and money?

Money Barnes has. Otherwise there is very little difference between this 41-year-old millionaire businessman and the political wunderkind who ran the House at 26, the Senate at only 30. The day that began with jogging would be a typical Ben Barnes day, indistinguishable from those of his political campaigns. He began by presiding over a breakfast at the Holiday Inn to persuade the businessmen from Chicago’s FMC—a corporation that is 97th on the 1979 Fortune 500 list—to choose Brownwood over nearby Stephenville for their new oil-field equipment plant site. (The pitch was eventually successful.) After the breakfast Barnes stopped at his office, working the telephone like a politician touching the obligatory bases; then he mounted a campaign-style blitz in his company’s $750,000 Beechcraft King Air to announce new shopping centers—the company’s eighth and ninth—in Taylor and Harker Heights. Barnes met the local press, shook hands, temporarily mesmerized local citizens, gave speeches, complimented women on their looks and men on their suits, and dropped in to exchange small talk with old friends like Temple Daily Telegram publisher Frank Mayborn.

Even in the air, Barnes didn’t rest. He berated aides in a mock-serious indignant tone, ingeniously and expertly pointing out obvious bungles (“Why didn’t we have nametags—and not just the kind with tiny letters; might as well not have any if you can’t read them”); argued over anything for the hell of it; gulped down a Coke; studied a carefully prepared time table for the remaining daylight hours; planned the next day from can to can’t; memorized names for the next stop; and cussed the head winds. His entourage finally came to rest at Austin’s Driskill Hotel, after dark but in time for him to make a few calls and have dinner and drinks with old friends at the favorite lair of state politicians, the Quorum Club, owned and presided over by his former aide, Nick Kralj. Barnes’ broad and expansive political style makes today’s media-slick politicians seem like tailors’ dummies. He remains what pre—Civil War journalists called Stephen Douglas: “a steam engine in britches.”

But we will come back to this particular Ben Barnes day later. For now, to answer the most frequent question asked about Ben Barnes, yes, he is still running, but for bucks, not ballots. Certainly the two are not strangers to anyone who has held office in the upper echelon of Texas politics. Although just another businessman, Barnes remains Texas’ best politician, a man made for the public, born to run, who cannot stop pressing the flesh any more than he could exist without a telephone. He is adamant about never running for public office again. But he is only 41 and knows there is more than one route to high public office. U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen achieved early political success as a congressman, dropped out for fifteen years to increase his fortune, and reemerged to win even higher office. So did Dolph Briscoe. Others, like Governor Bill Clements, spent most of their lives making money, then ran for office and won at an age when most men are retiring to the front porch.

Barnes’ meteoric rise in Texas politics began in 1960, when he was elected state representative from Brownwood at the age of 21. He worked hard his first term, keeping quiet and learning legislative procedure. But word got around that the gangly freshman was a comer, and some of the old Capitol hands, like lobbyist Harry Whitworth of the Texas Chemical Council, helped polish this very rough diamond. After his reelection in 1963 he became House Speaker Byron Tunnell’s closest advisor. When Governor John Connally suddenly appointed Tunnell to the Texas Railroad Commission in January 1965, four days before the opening of the 59th Legislature, Barnes and friends conducted a 36-hour nonstop telephone campaign from a Driskill Hotel suite to secure pledges from fellow members. By the time the Legislature convened, the issue was settled; Barnes was elected unanimously. He was 26. His reelection in 1967 made him the only man in Texas political history to be unanimously

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