Honesty is the Best Politics

The lessons of Lena Guerrero’s fall from grace.

WHEN IN DOUBT TELL THE TRUTH,” Mark Twain advised. “It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” No one, not even Lena Guerrero herself, will ever fully understand why she did not follow that bit of wisdom, and confess that she had lied about her college degree. Instead, the entire state witnessed, with mixed feelings of fascination and revulsion, an extraordinary two-week run of political theater as Guerrero retreated from one unbelievable explanation to another. Each lie exposed more of her personal agony and desperate ambition, until at last she was stripped, layer by layer, down to her soul. Possibly the only honest explanation she gave in that entire period came at the conclusion of her announcement that she was resigning her seat on the Texas Railroad Commission: “Perhaps you want something to be so much that you begin to believe it is.”

But the strange saga did not end with her resignation. Guerrero remains the Democratic nominee for the seat she gave up. She is running hard against a little-known Republican named Barry Williamson. Suddenly an obscure race for an obscure job—Railroad Commission regulates energy and transportation with scant impact upon the average Texan—has become the centerpiece of Texas politics. When Ann Richards chose her to fill the vacancy created by John Sharp’s shift to state comptroller, Guerrero became the symbol of Richards’ “New Texas” campaign theme—a Hispanic woman regulating good ol’ boy industries. Guerrero’s lies put Richards’ entire political mythology at risk—her “New Texas” theme, her emphasis on ethics, her two-year run of popularity.

Quite apart from the fortunes of partisan politics, however, the long ordeal of Lena Guerrero had an unexpected effect. It made people stop and take a long, hard look at politics. As political scandals go, Guerrero’s downfall was pretty mild stuff—no money changed hands, no laws were broken, no substantive issues were affected. Yet there was something profoundly disturbing about it, something that invited soul-searching as well as condemnation. At issue was the importance of character in the political process. Were Guerrero’s sins conclusive evidence that she was unfit to serve? Or did she still deserve to be measured by her job performance? Were her lies more serious or less serious than those attributed to George Bush and Bill Clinton? Above all, why do politicians find it so easy to lie and so hard to tell the truth?

SHE WAS ALWAYS IN A HURRY. That is what everyone remembers about Lena Guerrero during her undergraduate days at the University of Texas at Austin. She plunged into politics soon after starting school in the fall of 1976, joining the Young Democrats and the fledgling Texas Women’s Political Caucus. Soon she was volunteering in campaigns and working as an aide to a local state legislator. She spend her time racing off to meetings and keeping company with people ten to twenty years her senior. She developed a knack for self-promotion; while other student campaign volunteers lick envelopes, Guerrero was statewide youth coordinator for John Hill’s 1978 gubernatorial campaign. By her junior year, she was the state president of the Young Democrats.

In the end she didn’t have enough time left for school. She made it through her fist year with a smattering of A’s, B’s, and C’s, and D’s, and then unwisely took an introductory government course with a heavy load of reading in the short summer semester. When Guerro fell behind, she couldn’t catch up. She flunked.

The pattern of her academic career was set. She took 21 courses over the next two and a half years, and in more than a third she received grades of X (incomplete) or F. An incomplete means that a student can still get credit for the course if she does the required work during the following semester. But three of Guerrero’s six X’s turned into F’s. She seemed to have the most trouble with courses that allowed students to complete assignments at their convenience. Twice she failed an undemanding radio- TV-film course that involved learning such basic technical skills as how to splice audiotape and edit videotape.

Yet Guerrero’s abilities were obvious to professors and class mates. Janice May, an associate professor of government, taught Guerrero in three courses (one B, two F’s) and remembered here has someone who could have done A/B work had she not been so involved in politics. Guerrero flunked May’s course called State Legislatures—Texas Legislature. Guerrero’s peers named her one of the ten best representatives, but she didn’t turn in two papers and received an X that eventually became an F. “She would have gotten a B, I’m sure, or maybe an A if she had turned in the papers.” May said. “She was an excellent student in class.” Guerrero also failed May’s course called Readings in Government. The entire course consisted of reading assignments and a research paper about a legislative committee—but Guerrero never turned in anything.

After the fall semester of 1979, Guerro had enrolled in 122 hours—two more than necessary to get her degree. But she had dropped one course and flunked six others, leaving herself 19 hours short of graduating. political opportunities beckoned. “I was in a hurry to get out,” Guerrero would later tell the press, “and I was in a hurry to start earning a living.” She never returned to school.

THE LIE FIRST APPEARED, FOR YEARS LATER. Guerrero, just 26 years old, was running for the Legislature. Her campaign biography—printed under the letterhead of the political-consulting company that she partly owned-said that “she was named to the honorary scholastic society Phi Beta Kappa” and that she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcasting in 1980.” The Phi Beta Kappa claim was false on its face—only students who major in science or liberal arts are eligible. But eight years would pass before the truth came out.

It was a powerful lie, one that would be repeated many times, not just by Guerrero but by her admirers. Combined with another line in her biography—”to help support the family, Lena,


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