Honesty is the Best Politics

The lessons of Lena Guerrero’s fall from grace.

November 1992By Comments

“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, her brothers, and her sisters migrated as farm workers during summers”—the lie created a striking persona: The Latino version of the log cabin syndrome, from the fields to Phi Beta Kappa.

The need to elevate themselves above the crowd is one reason politicians lie. Pick up a political newsletter: Every politician is the center of his universe, the hero of his own tales. The difference between embellishment and invention is one of degree, not kind. In both cases, the intention is to mislead.

Lying is one of the two constant temptations of politics. (The other is money.) We even have a lexicon of political lying: spin, disinformation, misspeak. Politicians have an unwritten code that sanctions deceit under certain circumstances. If you are asked a potentially embarrassing question, for example, you don’t have to tell everything you know. A few years back, a state legislator was asked by a reporter if he had received a gold watch as a gift. The answer was no. Later the reporter called back—what about a gold colored watch? “Yea,” was the reply. “I got that one.”

Politicians expect each other to know who lies and who tells the truth. The maxim “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” always applies. If you ask a known liar for help and he agrees, you are equally at fault if he reneges. Every lobbyist knows that if you ask a legislator to vote for a bill and the response is “I’ll try to help you,” that does not mean yes. In fact, it probably means no.

In her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok excuses from her general condemnation of falsehood the category of mutually agreed upon deceits. She cites the example of a poker game, in which players agree that sending misleading signals is permitted. Most politicians see their professions in this light. The best politicians know instinctively what the limits are, and the worst ones never learn.

The trouble with this notion of mutual deceit, as Box would be the first to point out, is that not all the players have agreed to the terms. The public isn’t part of the deal. What’s more, if they knew the terms, they wouldn’t agree.

This gulf between politicians, and the public is the most common reason why politicians lie. Politicians don’t trust the public any more than the public trust politicians. The mistrust starts with the nature of politics: compromise. Gun owners, environmentalists, taxpayers, abortion activists all want their side to win. But no politician can be successful if he tries to win every battle. To win one, you have to compromise on dozens of others. In time, a politician can convince himself that the public doesn’t deserve the truth.

Perhaps this is what happened to Lena Guerrero. Perhaps she was too young and in too much of a hurry to appreciate the nuances of the intoxicating culture in which she immersed herself. Even the mutual deceit theory doesn’t sanction lying about objective facts. For Guerrero, there was plenty of evidence that lying is endemic in politics. Only later would she learn the risks.

THERE ARE FEW SECRETS IN AUSTIN, AND LENA Guerro’s lie was not destined to be one of them. (“They’re going to pick through your innards,” Ann Richards had warned Guerrero about the perils of a statewide race.) Acting on a tip from the Williamson campaign—which had learned Guerrero’s secret through a Republican primary opponent who had heard it from friends in the UT Ex-Student’s Association—a reporter from the Dallas Morning News called Guerrero on Thursday, September 10. Guerrero said that the discrepancies were “weird” and promised to look into them. Instead, she made a pre-emptive strike, releasing a statement on Friday and making her confession.

“I was devastated to learn that I have not received a degree,” she said. “I never, at any time, intended to misrepresent my record.…You learn many things during a political campaign, and I told myself I was prepared for anything. But I must tell you that this came as a complete shock.” She had enrolled in 116 hours, 4 short of what was needed. Privately, she told the same story to Ann Richards. Speaking for the governor, Bill Cryer said, “We absolutely believe Lena’s version of the story.”

But the story would not hold. On Sunday Guerrero held a press conference “to set the record straight.” When the Morning News reporter had called, she said, “I couldn’t have been more surprised if she had information that little Leo [Guerrero’s four-year-old son] had been switched at birth.” Now there was more information about her past to clear up. “The second thing that has come up in the last few hours,” she said, “is frankly even more disturbing—that information that I was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. This is wrong. I do not believe that I ever said that.” The final exchange was memorable:

Q. Do you know what subject matter you’re short in?

A. No. I never took PE. That could be it.

No one believed her. She had apologized for the errors about her past but denied any personal responsibility for creating them. It didn’t take reporters long to demolish her credibility. They discovered the Guerrero had known for several months that her degree status was in question. The Ex-Student’s Association had informed her staff and her husband back in 1991 that she had no degree. Reporters also knew that the Phi Beta Kappa claim had appeared on her own press releases.

On Wednesday she gave in to the pressure to release her UT Transcript, handing reporters “the last shred of my life that I have to offer you.” Among the many bombshells in the transcript was the revelation that Guerrero had failed a course called Mexican Americans in the Southwest. That same day reporters learned that in a speech to Texas A&M graduates this year, she had said, “Now, I remember well my own commencement, and I think I can guess what you’re feeling about right now.” Pressed for an explanation, Guerrero lamely said, “The Commencement I recall is high school.”

Ann Richards was feeling the heat too. For the first time since her election the Republicans had an issue to use against her. “If this individual were the president of the University of Texas, he or she would lose their job,” said GOP state chairman Fred Meyer. But Richards couldn’t just dump Guerrero. She saw in her protégé something of herself—hair up, voice twangy, female underdog. Guerrero alluded to their mutual history so frequently in Richards’ presence that some of the governor’s aides saw it as a tactic.

By the time the transcript was made public, Richards’ staff was ready to cut Guerro loose. Many of them had never really been close to her. They weren’t even very surprised at what had happened; Lena had always been in too much of a hurry. “Good politics starts with being honest with yourself,” said one Richards confidant. “You’ve got to put a spotlight on your soul every once in a while. Lena never stopped to do that.” When Lena blamed campaign aides for the Phi Beta Kappa reference, veterans of Richards’ 1990 gubernatorial race recalled how Guerrero, then the campaign field director, had blamed Richards’ male advisers for shortcomings in the campaign. “She whipped up a frenzy,” said a campaign hand. After Richards’ election, the problem of what to do with Lena had been a major issue. She was too divisive to be in the governor’s office and too combative to be Richards’ floor leader in the Legislature. The Railroad Commission job was the ideal solution. She could rise or fall on her own.

Now she was falling. By Friday, two days after the transcripts were released, Guerrero had suffered the Dan Quayle fate. She was a joke. The Austin American-Statesman began its page-one-story with: “What’s the temperature in Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerrero’s office? Minus one degree.” Fax machines around the state hummed with a satiric biography of the Texas Railroad Commission, Lena had successfully pushed oil companies to drop the price of gas by 75 cents a gallon”). An army of emissaries, from consultants to politicians, shuttled between Guerrero and Richards with advice. Richards sent word to Guerrero’s campaign: “This isn’t politics anymore. This is a personal problem for Lena.” That was as close as Richards came to saying that Guerrero had to resign. All through the weekend, the emissaries laid out Guerrero’s unhappy options: Stay and run for reelection (but Williamson and newspaper editorials would continue to call for her resignation), resign and not run (but that would deny Guerrero a chance for redemption and cede a statewide office to a Republican), or resign and run. On Thursday, September 24, the woman Ann Richards had praised as “an outstanding public servant” gave up her seat and began the race to reclaim it.

IT IS HARD TO SAY WHAT CONSTITUTES an outstanding public servant at the Railroad Commission, because the historical standard has been so low. For years most commissioners did not distinguish between serving the oil and gas industry and serving the public. The agency’s fabled power to set the world price of oil before the seventies was achieved primarily by giving the force of law to oil company recommendations for limits on production. Most of its decisions involve technical oil and gas disputes. With few exceptions, commissioners have bored to death or have yearned for higher office or both. Buddy Temple in 1982 and Kent Hance in 1990 tried to move up to governor and failed.

Lena Guerrero certainly wasn’t bored. She came to her job knowing less about the business of the agency than any commissioner in recent history. So she visited oil fields and truck loading docks and far-flung Railroad Commission offices around the state. “She has a quick mind, understands the issues, and reads the briefs,” said a staff aide for another commissioner.

But she wasn’t out to change the world either. Like the great majority of commissioners who preceded her, Guerrero sided with the interest groups who have always dominated commission politics and are the surest source of campaign contributions—independent oilmen and regulated truckers. She cast a decisive vote to reduce pumping in the East Texas oil field to the advantage of some independents, but the ruling was promptly set aside by a judge who found no evidence to justify the outcome. And although the Texas Department of Commerce had come out for deregulated trucking rates as an aid to economic development, Guerrero consistently voted against enlarging deregulated zones in big cities.

Where Guerrero starred was—where else?—as a politician. She surprised people who said she would never be able to get along with Jim Nugent, an irascible veteran commissioner who has made a career of making enemies and freezing them out. Guerrero made getting along with Nugent a top priority and soft-pedaled her consumer and environmental agenda. Then she went about the essential business of building a constituency of her own. Since Washington didn’t have an energy policy, she said, the state should devise its own. That was the origin of STEPP—the State of Texas Energy Policy Plan. Soon she was networking furiously, bringing together utility companies, pipelines, producers, consumer and environmental groups, anybody with a state in energy. It is hard not to be skeptical about something like STEPP—committees come and go but problems remain, especially global problems beyond the reach of one state. But for Guerrero, STEPP was a politician’s dream: a constituency built out of thin air.

She had shut the door on Barry Williamson. She had the money. She had a campaign issue—his possible conflict of interest because of his wife’s oil and gas holdings. She had the image: He was the old-style commissioner with a broad-based constituency. The only thing she didn’t have was the truth.

LENA GUERRERO’S FUNDRAISER five days after her resignation resembled a reluctant encounter group. The speakers and guests couldn’t very well ignore what had happened, but they weren’t very comfortable talking about it either. Bob Krueger, Guerrero’s colleague on the Railroad Commission, led with Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” John Sharp said that he knew how a person could want to believe something so badly that he could convince himself it was true: “I used to wake up every morning and convince myself that Jim Nugent really did like me.” Nugent turned to the Scripture: “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” Ann Richards said she was waiting for the day when she was so perfect that she would be assumed bodily into heaven. The theme for the evening was, “We all make mistakes.” I’m okay, she’s okay.

But will she be forgiven on election day? The problem is not just that Guerrero lied but that she lied about who she was—the basic link between a politician and a voter. Then, when everyone in politics knew that only the whole truth could save her, she lied about lying. Her only hope now, aside from an improbable Democratic landslide, is that the gruesome episode has changed her—and that she can make people believe it.

When she got up to speak, she did seem a little different. Her makeup was toned down; she looked younger and more subdued. She quoted a country song: “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here, so make the most of today.” She hammered on Williamson, touted her record, praised Richards. Then she closed by saying that after winning the elections, “I will remember who my real friends are,” and people left the room wondering whether the remark was gracious or chilling, the new Lena or the same old politician.

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