The Best of the Texas Century—Politics

Fluke of the Century

Singing flour salesman W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel had never even cast a ballot when he entered the 1938 gubernatorial race, but he didn’t let his disinterest in—and downright ignorance of—the political process prevent him from becoming one of Texas’ most popular politicians. With his vaudevillian charm and populist appeal, O’Daniel was, in the words of former governor James “Pa” Ferguson, “a slickhaired banjo-picker…who crooned his way into the governor’s office [and] has been giving the people of Texas a song and dance ever since.” He rose to fame in the twenties, when he began dispensing homespun advice and urging housewives to buy flour on a noonday radio show, singing his trademark song, “Beautiful Texas,” to the accompaniment of the fiddle-playing Light Crust Doughboys. Politicians and journalists laughed outright when the radio star announced his candidacy, but O’Daniel toured Texas on the back of a flatbed truck with his band the Hillbilly Boys and won the governorship with a pledge that he would uphold the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Once elected, he accomplished little except to initiate a new era of gaucheness at the Governor’s Mansion, where a mountain goat grazed on the grounds. Runner-up: Andrew Jackson Houston, a son of Sam Houston, who was 87 years old and mentally infirm when O’Daniel appointed him to fill a Senate vacancy in 1941, knowing that he would not run in a special election. Houston appeared only three times on the Senate floor and died after attending his first committee meeting, clearing the way for O’Daniel himself to run and beat Lyndon Johnson. Pamela Colloff

Quote of the Century

The vice presidency isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” So said John Nance Garner of Uvalde, number two to Franklin Roosevelt’s number one from 1933 to 1941. Once, when Cactus Jack took issue with a Roosevelt decision, FDR cut him off with, “You tend to your office and I’ll tend to mine.” Runner-up: The campaign promise that won George Bush the presidency in 1988 and, when broken, contributed heavily to his loss of it in 1992: “Read my lips. No new taxes.” Paul Burka

Pork Barrel of the Century

The year is 1961, and Houston, we have a problem. Twenty sites are competing to be the home of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, scheduled to open in 1963, and Houston ranks poorly in such criteria as “temperate climate” and “attractive cultural and recreational resources.” Anybody got any ideas? Try political clout: Vice President Lyndon Johnson is chairman of the
National Aeronautics and Space Council, and hometown congressman Albert Thomas is a bigwig on the House Appropriations Committee. Also, the feds owe us one: The Air Force Academy was destined to be located at Randolph Field in San Antonio until President Eisenhower said he wanted it in Colorado Springs. Houston, we have a deal. In September the MSC is awarded to the Clear Lake area amid sour-grapes charges of influence peddling, which NASA denies. Today the MSC (now named for LBJ) employs 19,000 workers and adds more than $1 billion a year to the Houston economy. Runner-up: the supercollider—while it lasted. Paul Burka

Filibuster of the Century

In May 1957, at the height of the Southern resistance to school desegregation, the Texas House of Representatives passed several bills designed to maintain the color line in public schools. The bills had strong support in the Senate too, before Henry B. Gonzalez of San Antonio took the floor in opposition to a measure that allowed parents who objected to integration to withdraw their children from school. Dressed in a light-blue suit, white shoes, a yellow tie, and a matching yellow handkerchief, Gonzalez, who later served in Congress from 1961 to 1998, spoke for 22 hours and 2 minutes, then the longest filibuster in Texas history—even though passage of the bill was assured as soon as he gave up. “I seek to register the plaintive cry, the hurt feelings, the silent, the dumb protest of the inarticulate,“ said Gonzalez at the start of his lonely stand. To the argument of his proponents that the bill was a necessity, Gonzalez roared back, “Necessity is the creed of slaves and the argument of tyrants!” He spoke for a night, a day, a second night. Finally, at 1:45 a.m. on the second night, his opponents gave in, agreeing to give up four other bills if Gonzalez would just stop talking. Runner-up: State senator Chick Kazen of Laredo, who deserves partial credit for Gonzalez’s heroics. He offered a hostile amendment to the desegregation bill, then spoke well past midnight before yielding the floor to Gonzalez. Jan Jarboe Russell

Mayor of the Century

Most of the standout mayors of modern Texas have been business leaders, like Bob Lanier in Houston and Erik Jonsson in Dallas. Henry Cisneros took a different track: a college professor and a city councilman from the West Side of San Antonio. Elected mayor in 1981, he was the first Mexican American to lead a major U.S. city. His central message—that economic growth and consensus are the keys to prosperity—established that a minority politician can achieve enormous popularity by representing everyone. He served for eight years, passing more than $400 million in bonds,redeveloping downtown San Antonio, recruiting new businesses, building the still- controversial Alamodome (which has earned an average of around $1 million for the city every year since it opened, in 1993), and changed San Antonio’s image from a poor and somewhat sleepy town to a culturally and economically vibrant model for the future of urban America. Runner-up: Lanier, who proved that an old-style dealmaker could make a modern city work. Jan Jarboe Russell

Scoundrels of the Century

He was shrewd, ruthless, imaginative, opportunistic, and above all, utterly uninhibited by the rules—which is to say, a master politician. A lawyer and banker from Bell County who had never held political office, James E. Ferguson announced for governor in 1914, called himself Farmer Jim, and won the allegiance of beleaguered sharecroppers by promising to limit their landlord’s cut. “He swayed them

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