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.

June 1979By Comments

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 elected House Speaker twice. In 1968, in his first statewide race, Barnes was elected lieutenant governor. He was the first candidate to carry every county in Texas (he did it again in 1970) and he garnered 1,967,021 votes—72 per cent—still the largest number of votes ever received by a candidate in Texas.

Barnes’ success as presiding officer of the House and Senate for seven years was even more amazing. He could pass any bill he wanted, kill any bill he opposed, but more important than his legislative power of life or death was the way he achieved it. In Barnes’ heyday as lieutenant governor the Senate was almost evenly split between liberals and conservatives—yet Barnes operated virtually without opposition. Like Lyndon Johnson, he had a genius for the legislative process, for knowing what buttons to push to activate any legislator on his behalf. He gave long-suffering liberals like Babe Schwartz their first taste of power; he used his extensive contacts in Texas’ financial and business community to get $400-a-month senators bank loans for choice business deals he helped arrange. Barnes turned making—and keeping—friends into a political crusade. No one who wanted that friendship was excluded. When he had to make a choice, Barnes went with the prevailing conservative ideology—his sole legislative defeat came when the House rejected a Barnes-backed sales tax on food and drugs that had passed his Senate—but in fact Barnes had no personal philosophy beyond a sort of League of Women Voters commitment to strong, active government. His pragmatic approach insured that everyone—Baptist or boozer, labor or management, bigot or black—got an audience: he wanted to please all of them.

Barnes was anointed the heir apparent in a remarkable Texas political dynasty that began in the thirties: Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, Ben Barnes. At a Barnes fundraising bash in August 1970, Johnson, mixing gospel lyrics with a World War II slogan, told the 3000 cheering guests, “Where you lead us, we will follow,” and “We have enlisted for the duration,” ending the paean with a prediction that “Ben Barnes will someday be the next president of the United States from Texas.” Other important Texas politicos agreed. At Ben Barnes Day at San Antonio’s HemisFair, U.S. Ambassador to Australia Ed Clark said, “I would not be surprised if history records that between now and 1980 the U.S. would have two presidents from Texas and I have you in mind, Mr. Barnes.” Robert Strauss, while treasurer of the national Democratic party, said, “He is the best politician I have seen in my career. There is nothing to keep Lieutenant Governor Barnes from any elected post he wishes.” Nothing, it turned out, but Sharpstown.

Inauguration Day, January 1971, presented the consummate political irony. While Governor Preston Smith and Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes were taking oaths of office on the Capitol steps, newspaper headlines trumpeted the first news of the Sharpstown scandals that would end their political careers. Smith, House Speaker Gus Mutscher, two state legislators, State Democratic party chairman Elmer Baum, and two Mutscher aides were all implicated. Allegations and innuendos mentioning Barnes came three days later. Although nothing was ever proved against Barnes, he too was doomed.

The civil suit, filed 24 hours before Inauguration Day, charged that Sharp manipulated National Bankers Life Insurance Company stock prices to benefit the pocketbooks of Austin political leaders Smith, Mutscher, House Appropriations Committee Chairman W.S. Heatly, and State Representative Tommy Shannon. In return, Mutscher had guided banking legislation favorable to Sharp through the House. The suit never mentioned Barnes. Neither Barnes, nor any of his aides, nor any of his records were ever subpoenaed. From 1971 to 1974, he underwent a four-year audit by the IRS and investigations by two U.S. grand juries, the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, a state grand jury, and investigative reporters. The net result: the U.S. government owed him $3900.

Although he emerged legally clean, Barnes was tarred with the brush of incumbency. The legislation, after all, had passed his Senate as well as Mutscher’s House. He could not convince the man in the street that he wasn’t mixed up with “those crooks down in Austin.” One reason was that Barnes could not overcome his wheeler-dealer image. He inspired confidence more than credence—a tragic flaw he shared with Lyndon Johnson. Neither man could lift people’s spirits or sell causes to groups numbering more than ten. Johnson could not rally the country around his Viet Nam policies. Barnes could not convince Texans he was innocent of Sharpstown capers. Also, the voters were in a housecleaning, throw-the-bastards-out mood. Some resented the young lieutenant governor’s rocket-like rise and could not believe he had achieved it without taking a buck illegally.

Whatever the reasons, in May 1972, the champion Texas vote-getter placed third behind Dolph Briscoe and Frances (Sissy) Farenthold in the Democratic primary for governor. Suddenly, after spending all of his young adult life as a public figure, Barnes was a commoner. The next time Barnes would appear in the news would be in August 1976, when his staunchest media ally from his political days, the Dallas Morning News, ran a four-part investigative series linking Barnes with South Texas banking scandals. (Barnes has since sued the News for libel, a case that has not yet come to trial.) The comet of the season had fallen.

Now, seven years after his defeat, not long after the breakfast for the Chicago industrialists was over, Barnes talked in his Brownwood office about the last weeks of the 1972 campaign. “I really felt helpless and frustrated. I knew I was innocent but I could feel I wasn’t getting through. That’s the way things happen. I don’t regret all that work in politics but I haven’t missed it, either. I miss my friends, but not the speeches and not even being Speaker or presiding over the Senate. One of the reasons I haven’t been unhappy is because I knew nothing about business and had to work as hard as I did in politics to catch up. When you have to meet a big payroll every month, you get up early. Behind his desk is a handsome painting of his boyhood home in Comyn (population: 27), a company town near Brownwood founded by the Humble Pipeline Company, where his dad, B.F. Barnes, worked as a pipeliner. The picture is framed with wood from Grandfather Barnes’ house. Barnes’ father and grandfather were both named Benjamin Franklin Barnes, but the former lieutenant governor is simply Ben Frank.

Barnes swirled in his chair and picked up the phone. “Yessir, Brother Jackson,” he said to a construction foreman in Taylor. “Is the ground dry enough to walk around on? I’m going to announce a Safeway and a Revco Drug at a press conference out at the site this afternoon, so don’t let the equipment drivers get away. I want that stuff moving for the press. Find out about the charge on the power line and call me back.” Barnes’ redheaded secretary, Sidney Carlisle, popped in to answer his buzz. “Get me Bobby Stewart at First National in Dallas and Jim Berry at Republic and Walter Mischer down in Houston. He’s head of Allied Bank. Then get me Ted Kennedy’s appointments secretary in Washington and call Putter Jarvis and see if he wants to eat Chinese food with me at noon.” It is safe to say Barnes is the only businessman in Brownwood who can call three of the state’s most prestigious bankers and reach them immediately. He works hard maintaining his powerful good-old-boy network, calling political friends across the country, gleaning information through casual chats, gossiping at the right parties. He tries on conversational tones and gambits—mild insults, jokes, gossip, serious questions, flattery—like other men try on ties in the bedroom.

“Well, Mr. Stewart, I know what you’re doing. You are in your plush office on top of your bank, rich and handsome, looking down at your city, just enjoying being [First International Bancshares chairman] Bobby Stewart. Here I am out here in Brownwood just trying to make a buck. What do you think about Chase Manhattan going down a quarter in the prime rate yesterday? Not much, huh? You going to see Teng in Houston? Bob Strauss going? Well, I’m for that Chinaman and I like Chinese food but I ain’t going to tramp around a ranch in the rain with 800 people if you all aren’t going. All right, Stewart, I’ll be in Dallas next week. Let’s have lunch.”

As soon as one call ended, another began. “Morning, Mr. Berry. I was gonna give you a ride down to meet the Chinaman but I hear you’re off to a Federal Reserve meeting. What about Chase coming down a quarter? Now listen, Berry, if there’s a vote, you vote to lower the rate, understand? I’ll bet you and Strauss will eat at Paul Young’s. He likes it because everybody knows him, but the food’s terrible. How did your Lakeway deal go? Great. I’m coming to Dallas next week. Let’s have lunch and tell the great Strauss hello.”

And then another. “Morning, Mr. Mischer, you made money today? What’s the price of concrete in Houston? Really? Say, Walter, where can I find some dredging equipment in Brownsville? All right, I’ll check on it. Can you run a check on a fellow for me through your bank? I’ll be in Houston next week, so let’s have lunch. You’re a great American, Mischer. You going to see the Chinaman? I don’t think Strauss is going. See you soon.”

“Yes, ma’am, Mary Ann, I want to invite Senator Kennedy to speak before the Young Presidents’ Organization in late February down in Acapulco. We’re going to have the President of Mexico, Henry Kissinger, John Connally, and George Bush, and we would like the Senator to attend. I’ll drop you a mailgram with the details. Tell the Senator hello for me. Bye-bye.” He hung up the phone and turned to his secretary. ‘Sidney, you heard from Herman today?”

No one has meant more in Ben Barnes’ life than Herman Bennett, a quiet, self-made millionaire from Cowboy (a hamlet in McCulloch County), who started building houses 34 years ago in Brownwood. He met Barnes in 1960 as the young candidate stood in front of the Brownwood post office before sunup handing out campaign cards. Bennett was impressed, not only because of Barnes’ predawn energy but also because he seemed to have that kind of self-possession and ease about him that comes so naturally to born politicians. Bennett offered him a job if he lost. Barnes won, but he went to work for Bennett a few years later anyway, getting an option to acquire up to an 11 1/2 per cent interest in the firm under extremely beneficial terms. Barnes was named president of the Herman Bennett company in 1974.

In 1960 Bennett built his first Holiday Inn, appropriately in Brownwood. Apartments, shopping centers, banks, radio stations, a shipyard, land, housing developments, condominiums, and an advertising agency have followed. The 1200-employee, 31-entity company grossed $25 million last fiscal year, up 24 per cent over 1977. Barnes estimates his wealth at “a couple of million,” which is a couple million too low, according to other opinions. Either way, he and Bennett haven’t done badly for two good old boys from Cowboy and Comyn.

Barnes finished his telephone calls and, with three aides, raced to the Brownwood airport to begin his aerial blitz. Once airborne, the King Air pointed southeast toward Harker Heights, a small, mostly military settlement near Killeen, for the first shopping center site announcement. Barnes settled back in the cabin and asked Edgar Allen Scott, who once worked for U.S. senators Spessard Holland and George Smathers before becoming one of the best shopping center lease salesmen in the country, for the freshly typed press release. Barnes scanned the page, his eyes bulged, and when he spoke, it was in a soprano.

“By God, Scotty, what are we saying here? ‘Construction of the new center, which will serve a trade area population of 450,000 residents’? Don’t you mean 45,000? I know you’re new to Texas but this isn’t Austin or San Antonio. It’s tough to be made fools of by the Harker Heights press but we’re going to do it.” His bungle radar was working perfectly.

Exactly at high noon, Barnes bounded into the Heights Bank—the personification of the clarion of trumpets, the thunder of artillery, and the thwacking of drums. He shook hands with the local TV man, then moved over to a few gaped-mouthed soldiers in green fatigues, and then on to their wives—a bevy of Oriental women. The soldiers and spouses were mildly panicked, trying to decide if this man was going to rob the place or was the bank’s new owner.

“By God, bidness is good down here in Harker Heights,” Barnes boomed, fingering a young banker’s three-piece suit. “I’ll tell you what …” He trailed off and moved to greet a woman city council member. Later, he stood apart from the semicircle of local leaders and reporters, rolling the press release between huge, freckled hands.

“I’m delighted to have the opportunity to be in the great city of Harker Heights. I’ll say this, Harker Heights shows great vision electing these good-looking women to the city council. They’ll be a lot easier to work with on zoning and planning problems than those ugly old men,” Barnes said to laughter and applause.

He was uttering ridiculous political twaddle and nobody cared. Barnes learned years ago that it wasn’t what you said but how you said it.

Barnes continued: “I’m proud of this bank’s leadership and in the next three months—not that it isn’t already—we’re going to help put Harker Heights on the map.” He finished to more applause and invited everyone to eat lunch at the Killeen Holiday Inn (built by the Herman Bennett Company), which is next to the 440 Shopping Center (once owned by the Herman Bennett Company).

Barnes had been met earlier at the Killeen airport by Ted Connell, a longtime friend and business partner and the area’s most prominent businessman. A former Killeen mayor, owner of Connell Chevrolet, and a shopping center builder and land man himself, Connell also is one of the best political-campaign advance men in the country, having earned his spurs with Lyndon Johnson during the 1960 presidential race, and later, on the late president’s worldwide trip in 1967. He, along with other Johnson-Connally-Barnes friends, has volunteered his time this year and next to help John Connally become president.

Connell is among a handful of men—George Christian, Julian Read, Frank Erwin, Larry Temple, and Bob Stauss are others—who have served Johnson, Connally, and Barnes, the last three great politicians in the Texas conservative Democratic dynasty founded by Sam Rayburn. All three came from rural poor beginnings. All three worked hard for their college degrees. Johnson sold socks, Barnes peddled vacuum cleaners, Connally waited tables. All had a terror of poverty coupled with an almost superhuman drive to get rich. All possessed extraordinary presence—wherever they appeared, all eyes were drawn to them. Beside the megawatt auras of Johnson, Connally, and Barnes, Lloyd Bentsen is a dim light bulb, John Tower a weak candle.

All three men were born politicians, but there were important differences. Lyndon Johnson and Ben Barnes were soul mates. Both had an abundant, promiscuous affection for people. They were unhappiest when alone. Both learned from warm bodies rather than books. Once, on a cold winter morning during the 1948 Senate race, Johnson ordered a heavily clothed aide, Warren Woodward, into bed with him to warm him up. It is impossible imagining the same of Connally. Barnes and Johnson were master legislative leaders. Unlike Connally, who has a long memory for political enemies, and even more than LBJ, Barnes forgave and forgot the double crosses, lies, and broken promises—until it was time to cash in the chips. LBJ and Barnes both had such supreme self-confidence that they couldn’t imagine not being able to overcome and reconcile even the most bitter enemies.

John Connally, who looks like he belongs on a Roman coin, is a different sort. He is not a legislative tactician but a professional man, a lawyer used to running elbows with the big rich, an aristocrat who is well-read, world-traveled, and introspective, all traits that are alien to Johnson and Barnes.

Connally has a self-pollinating nature that doesn’t require constant contact with other beings.

The Barnes bungle radar zeroed in on the Heights Tribune’s lead story on his proposed shopping center. “Now, dammit, look here, Scotty. The only paragraph in the whole story I’m quoted in and it says, ‘The Harker Heights Plaza will employ approximately six hundred people when fully operational.’ Now that’s only four hundred more than planned, and I’m going to have all four hundred come to your office and you’re going to find these good Texans jobs, by God.” In his excitement, Barnes swallowed almost audibly between phrases, jutted his chin out aggressively, tugged at his shirt collar, and beat the offending quote with his four-inch-long finger—all suggesting that he was ready to get physical.

“Pull over, Keener. We have twenty miles to go and fifteen minutes to do it in.” Bill Keener, former aide to John Tower and Bill Clements and new Bennett-Barnes employee, gave Barnes the driver’s seat. None of the passengers drew an easy breath until the fifteen-minute flight down State Highway 95 was over.

The water truck, scraper, front-end loader, and dirt carriers were all crawling over the rich, black, cotton-growing dirt as Barnes addressed the small crowd. Mercifully, the bitter cold and gusting wind shortened the speech (although Barnes himself—dressed only in a suit—seemed impervious to the elements), and he invited the crowd to a reception at the Taylor Country Club. Barnes pointed out the absence of any television cameras to Keener and Edgar Allen Scott.

Five hours later, the Quorum in Austin was smoky, noisy, and crowded, the subterranean bar full of an electric energy. Coincidentally, Connally and Barnes were both there sharing the spotlight, the Roman Coin and the Orange Pumpkin. They were surrounded by old warriors: Erwin, Temple, Read, Connell, Christian, Wales Madden from Amarillo, Jim Wilson from Austin, Mike Myers from Dallas. Connally and Barnes worked the crowd, never missing a wife’s name, replying to gibes, slapping backs, politicking as naturally as a hawk flies. Together, they looked like a political scientist’s version of a dream political ticket. Is Barnes still gnawed by the political worm that never dies in ex-pols? Will he follow Lloyd Bentsen’s script and triumphantly reenter the city? Perhaps. In twenty years Barnes will be the same age Connally and Bill Clements are now. Meanwhile, there are a few calls to make, a meeting with the bank in the morning, and time’s a-wasting.

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