The Dominator

Remembering the real Bob Bullock.

BOB BULLOCK COULD HAVE WISHED FOR NOTHING MORE. Every living former governor attended his funeral. George W. Bush eulogized the former lieutenant governor as “the largest Texan of our time.” The officiating minister praised him as “one of the giant oaks of Texas.” Newspaper headlines called him “a leader as mighty as Texas” and “a grand master of Texas politics.” No one who made a living at the state capitol during the past three decades—elected officials, lobbyists, staffers, reporters—would dispute his dominance of the period.

And yet, it is important for us, the living, to remember that dominance is not necessarily the same as greatness. Of all the skills that contribute to political success—among them leadership, vision, and compromise—the one that Bullock excelled at is the most difficult and the most dangerous: the exercise of power. In no other human endeavor is the potential for good and evil so great, nor the dividing line between them so difficult to identify. Was Bob Bullock really “the largest Texan of our time”—or just the most fascinating?

He was someone many people around the Capitol wanted above all to avoid: moody, unpredictable, explosive, unrestrained by normal courtesies. You never knew what might happen when you were around him. Once, at least fifteen years ago, he didn’t like a question I had asked during an interview for an article that wasn’t about him. “That’s a chickenshit question,” he growled, and suddenly he reached across the table and snatched away my notebook, which was full of confidential interviews. Every politician must have wished he could do such a thing to a member of the press, but only Bullock had the nerve to do it. An aide rushed up to escort me out of the room, saying she would get the notebook back to me later, which she did.

More recently, Bullock walked into the governor’s office while I was winding up an interview with Bush. I was not thrilled to see him. In the banter that followed, something touched him off, and the next thing I knew he seemed to undergo a chemical change. His eyes sunk deep into their sockets and stared out into space. He began talking about the biggest disappointment of his political life—his rejection by the Texas Senate in 1972 for an appointment to the State Board of Insurance. I had worked for one of the senators who

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