The Best of the Texas Century—Politics

December 1999By Comments


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 like the storm sways the slender pines, and voted them in droves and platoons,” wrote one observer. In office, his support for public schools was overshadowed by rumors of financial impropriety, including the sale of pardons to convicted felons, but nothing came of them until he vetoed state funding for the University of Texas in 1917, the culmination of what had become a bitter feud. University supporters, reformers, and prohibitionists united to demand his impeachment; among the charges were misusing state funds to buy personal items such as groceries, depositing state money in his own bank, and accepting a $156,000 “loan” from beer interests without making any effort to repay it. When the Senate voted to remove him from office, his lawyer warned, “Fergusonism will be an issue in the politics of Texas every year there is an election held until Jim Ferguson dies.”

And so it proved. After losing subsequent races for governor and U.S. senator, Ferguson had the inspiration to run his wife, Miriam Amanda Ferguson, in his stead. Her initials lent themselves to the nickname Ma, and he, inevitably, became Pa. She won the governorship in 1924, though Pa made all the speeches and devised the slogan—perhaps too apt in light of his past performance—“Two Governors for the Price of One.” Back in office, Ma and Pa resumed letting criminals out of prison (a joke of the times was that a man who accidentally jostled Ma on the street said, “Pardon me, ma’am,” to which she replied, “You’ll have to speak to my husband”) and delivered lucrative highway contracts to cronies. The controversies were enough to allow Dan Moody to defeat Ma in 1926, but in 1932 she won again. Her retirement in 1934 ended twenty remarkable years in which the most powerful force in Texas politics, pro or con, was the Ferguson name. Runner-up: Jerry Sadler began his political career in 1938 by getting involved in 58 fistfights during his successful campaign for railroad commissioner, moved to the House and became its leading segregationist in the late fifties, and ended up as land commissioner, an office he lost in 1970 following news reports that he had attempted to choke a legislator. Paul Burka


Cabinet Member of the Century

No nonelected Texan ever amassed more political power than Jesse Jones (or, as Franklin Roosevelt not so fondly referred to him, Jesus H. Jones). From 1932 to 1945, the Houston banker, newspaper publisher, and real estate magnate served as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and in 1940 added Secretary of Commerce to his portfolio. His job was to provide federal loans to private firms, first to rebuild American industry ravaged by the Depression and later to finance the miltary buildup in World War II. In all, Jones oversaw $50 billion in loans, with the authority to, in the words of a Senate critic, “lend any amount of money for any length of time at any rate of interest to anyone he chooses.” Jones’s loans helped jump-start the Texas defense industry; the state received $647 million for plants and projects, more than New York and twice as much as California. New York Times correspondent Allen Drury, who published a journal of the Senate during the war years, described Jones as “a tall old man with white hair, rosy chipmunk cheeks, dark eyes, a Texas drawl, and an air of serene power.” After quoting a Kansas senator who was “sick and tired of the way Jesse tries to run this Congress,” Drury added, “But Jesse doesn’t care. He goes right on running it just the same.” Runner-up: Oveta Culp Hobby of Houston, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Eisenhower administration—the first woman to head a Cabinet department. Paul Burka


Role Model of the century

She came into the world with obstacles that would have defeated a weaker person. She was black, poor, female, and plain. But an inner resilience directed Barbara Charline Jordan to cultivate and nurture her one divine gift and put it to use for the moral good of the nation: that voice. It was first coaxed into use in the choir at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. Well schooled by a strict father and a Texas Southern University debate coach, she could soar to extraordinary heights with her elocutionary power by the time she reached Boston University law school. Her words were steeped in the deep richness of Gospel music and preaching, with the distinct clipped finish of East Coast erudition. It was commonly said that if God were a woman, surely She would sound like Barbara Jordan.

In 1966 she became the first black woman to serve in the Texas Senate, a body where the most effective members worked behind the scenes. Shrewdly,  she set about developing personal friendships with even the most conservative white members—a style that frustrated her liberal supporters and often confused her new conservative friends. Years later, she gave insight to her personal philosophy of inclusiveness as the keynote speaker at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Quoting Lincoln, she said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

After her election to Congress in 1972, her service on the House Judiciary Committee catapulted her to the status of a national role model during hearings on the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. When she delivered her most famous address, the entire country knew she spoke not just as a member of a minority group or as a woman but as a defender of honest government: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

Sadly, that moment would be the pinnacle of her public life. Shortly afterward, the escalating effects of multiple sclerosis would force her to retire from politics to a teaching position at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin. Her subject was ethics—as indeed, it always had been. Runner-up: longtime Lubbock congressman (1934—1978) and House Appropriations Committee chairman George Mahon—a man of total integrity who shunned perks, read and wrote poetry, and got his way through respect instead of arm-twisting. Patricia Kilday Hart


Agitator of the Century

Long before harried modern women began carrying Day-Timers in their purses, Minnie Fisher Cunningham juggled the responsibilities of career, family, and community. At one time or another, she kept house, belonged to musical clubs, gardened, boated, fished, hunted (she once killed a six-foot alligator with a rifle), campaigned for her husband, ran for governor and U.S. senator herself, nursed a sick sister, worked for President Franklin Roosevelt, helped the League of Women Voters and the Texas Observer get started, and in her sixties, cut lumber to build a house on her farm. And that doesn’t even count what she is best known for—leading the fight for women’s suffrage in Texas.

Just the third woman to graduate from the University of Texas pharmacy school, Minnie Fish, as she was known to her friends, first encountered politics in 1904, when she helped her husband, B.J., get elected county attorney in Walker County. But it was getting paid half as much as male employees at a Huntsville drugstore that inspired her to join—and eventually lead—the suffrage movement, which resulted in the Texas Legislature’s ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. Under Cunningham’s tutelage, Texas suffragettes divided the state by senatorial districts and organized grassroots groups that bombarded lawmakers with a steady stream of pro-suffrage letters, sent delegations to lobby each senator, and mailed press releases to newspapers back home. On the night of the ratification vote, Minnie Fish and a colleague even staked out the trains departing Austin—opponents were trying to break a quorum by sneaking senators out of town—and escorted two recalcitrants back to the Capitol. After the success in Texas, she traveled to other states, with $1,500 pinned to her petticoat, to seek ratification. In 1920 she was one of the first women delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Subsequently she moved to Washington, D.C., to help the suffrage effort evolve into the League of Women Voters.

Like many overachievers, Mrs. Cunningham poured herself into her work to avoid unhappiness at home. Her marriage to B.J., which never produced children, disintegrated as he struggled with alcoholism. Though they were separated for many years, Minnie Fish always spoke well of him: “He was the best-hearted man; he was always helping people. He encouraged me in all my naughtinesses and financed me in much of it.” She was at her husband’s bedside when he died in 1927 from the effects of a life of excessive drink.

She spent the rest of her life fighting the good fight against long odds that never seemed to discourage her. If she took a strong dislike to a politician, she ran against him—taking on a U.S. senator who was openly supported by the Ku Klux Klan in 1928 and Governor Coke Stevenson, whom she accused of supporting a movement to deny President Roosevelt a fourth term, in 1944. Notwithstanding these quixotic battles, Minnie Fish remained a keen optimist who loved a good laugh with friends and delighted in skewering her opponents in political addresses. Her style—a tart tongue and country wisdom—would be employed with great success many years later by Ann Richards.

No matter how many disappointments Cunningham suffered, she never shied away from the next fight. In 1956, at the age of 75, she battled Governor Allan Shivers and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson for chairmanship of the delegation to the Democratic National Convention. When a reporter asked her if she really thought she could win, Minnie Fish was ready with her answer: “What do you call winning?” She didn’t often win, but she never really lost. Runner-up: Ernesto Cortes, community organizer, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and founder of San Antonio’s Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). Patricia Kilday Hart


Black Mark of the Century

The last words John F. Kennedy ever heard came from the first lady of Texas, Nellie Connally: “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” She was referring to the extremist political climate of Dallas, where a month before, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been struck and spat on, and where, on that very morning of November 22, 1963, the Dallas Morning News had printed a full-page advertisement that, among other things, said Kennedy had “scrapped the Monroe Doctrine in favor of the Spirit of Moscow.” Neither the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald nor the discovery that he had links to the Soviet Union and Cuba put an end to the belief that the atmosphere of Dallas was responsible for the Kennedy Assassination. Runner-up: the S&L scandal of the eighties, in which high-flying Texas institutions such as Vernon Savings and Loan played a too-prominent role, and which ultimately cost American taxpayers $300 billion. Paul Burka


Court Decision of the Century

Two hundred and six dollars and twenty-five cents: That’s all W. A. East of Denison wanted from the railroad that had dug a giant water well near his homestead and pumped 25,000 gallons a day for its steam engines until his own well no longer functioned. In 1904 the case of Houston & Texas Central Railroad Company v. East went to the Texas Supreme Court, which sided with the railroad after looking to English law for precedent: “[T]he person who owns the surface may dig therein, and apply all that is there found to his own purposes.” And so Texas, an arid state, adopted the water law of verdant England instead of the doctrine followed in other Western states—that underground water belongs to the public and its use should be apportioned for the benefit of all. The consequences of the East decision have been disastrous—the drying up of great springs because of unrestrained agricultural pumping, land subsidence in Houston because of unrestrained industrial pumping, and recently, a legal battle over a catfish farm that threatened San Antonio’s water supply. The rule of capture was a mistake, but it still rules. Runner-up: Roe v. Wade, the controversial case brought by Norma McCorvey of Garland that made abortion a constitutional right. Paul Burka


Kingmakers of the Century

“We always believed in good government and keeping good people in office,” George R. Brown used to say of himself and his brother, Herman. What Brown didn’t say, although it was clear to everyone, was that “good” meant good for George, Herman, and the giant construction and engineering company they co-founded, Brown and Root. “Good” meant good for the politicians they favored too, because the blessing of the Brown brothers brought lots of campaign cash—so much cash, in fact, that in 1942 the IRS began an investigation into the company’s donations to the Browns’ favorite politician, Lyndon Johnson, who had helped Brown and Root get contracts to build Mansfield Dam, west of Austin, and the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. It came to nothing, of course. The investigation, that is. Not the cash. From the thirties into the seventies, George Brown was Texas’ premier political kingmaker, backing everyone from presidents to governors to congressmen to local officials. Even in retirement, at age 77, he was a force to be reckoned with: His opposition to a proposed new Texas Constitution in 1975 was a major factor in its defeat. Runner-up: Colonel Edward M. House, who handpicked governors, advised President Woodrow Wilson, and according to one historian, “made politics his avocation and surpassed the professionals in it.” Paul Burka


Patrón of the Century

They called George Parr the Duke of Duval, because he ran his county as if he had the royal perogative to do whatever he wanted. The Box 13 scandal catapulted Parr into the national spotlight in the 1948 Democratic primary, when he produced 202 votes for Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. Senate race six days after the election—linking his own name with corruption and fraud and LBJ’s with the nickname of Landslide Lyndon. But Parr had been doing such things for years. Fine-tuning what his father, Archie, had started, he ran the banks, the county government, and the elections, staying in power by using the county treasury to dispense favors to poor Mexican Americans, who rewarded him with their votes. Frequently under investigation, he successfully thwarted the authorities until he was convicted of income tax evasion in 1974. When he lost his appeal the following year, he fatally shot himself at the age of 74. Runner-up: Cameron County boss Jim Wells, who invented the South Texas political machine and taught Archie Parr the business. Patricia Busa McConnico


Political Race of the Century

The pivot on which Texas politics turned was the 1961 special Senate election to fill the seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson when he became vice president. Governor Price Daniel wanted to appoint John Connally to the seat, but instead he named William Blakley of Dallas, a name that is obscure now and was hardly less obscure at the time. Blakley had been named interim senator once before, by Allan Shivers in 1957. Dubbed the “mystery millionaire” by the press, Blakley opted not to run in the special election that spring, then challenged the winner, Ralph Yarborough, in 1958, only to get drubbed. Daniel apparently made the rash promise that if another vacancy arose, Blakley would get it. Not only was Blakley a proven loser, he was out of fashion in both his politics (rural southern conservatism) and his dress (bow ties). Clearly vulnerable, he drew a record 71 challengers in the 1961 special election, including some of the best-known names in Texas politics. But none of the big names made the runoff (Congressman Jim Wright of Fort Worth narrowly missed), which matched Blakley against a Republican professor from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls named John Tower. Outraged by Blakley, the liberal wing of the Democratic party opted to support Tower, and the GOP won its first statewide election in modern times. Runner-up: the 1994 governor’s race. In a matchup of Texas’ two most glamorous politicians of the century, George W. Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards. Paul Burka


Riot of the Century

Who was to blame for the Camp Logan race riot of 1917? The U.S. War Department? It sent an all-black infantry battalion into segregated Houston to police the building of a training station for troops bound for the Great War. The city fathers? Worried more about the residents’ safety than the troops’, they required the soldiers to patrol city streets unarmed. The soldiers themselves? Having served in the Philippines and chased Pancho Villa through Mexico, they were in no mood to bow to local customs and take their seat in the back of streetcars when they arrived in late July. Or the Houston police, who never seemed to pass up a chance to harass the unarmed soldiers? In any case, something had to give. When word reached the camp on the night of August 23 that two black soldiers had been assaulted and arrested by the cops, a group of soldiers stormed the armory, grabbed their weapons, and marched on the town. Sixteen whites and four blacks died—still the only time in U.S. history that more whites than blacks were killed in a race riot—and the city was placed under martial law. In the aftermath, the 118 soldiers who rioted were court-martialed, of whom 19 were hanged. Runner-up: the longest prison siege ever in the United States, in which Fred Carrasco, a San Antonio drug dealer and murderer, holed up for eleven days in 1974 in a Huntsville prison library before being killed. John Spong


Television Spot of the Century

Texas was still a one-party state in 1954, and the Democratic party was split almost evenly between liberals and conservatives, when factional strife reached its peak in the gubernatorial primary between conservative incumbent Allan Shivers and labor-backed challenger Ralph Yarborough. Campaigning still depended upon speechmaking, newspaper endorsements, and word of mouth—until Shivers introduced a TV ad called “The Port Arthur Story” into the equation. The ad exploited strong anti-union feeling in the state by depicting the damage allegedly done by a long Port Arthur strike: deserted streets and idle smokestacks. But to make the point, film crews had to shoot the footage just after dawn on a Sunday morning. One of the filmmakers later recounted to the authors of a Shivers biography, “I had to take thirty minutes of film to get a few seconds when there was no smoke coming out of the smokestack at one plant.” The power of television, then in its infancy, was proved: Shivers came out ahead by 22,919 votes. Runner-up: Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 ad in his presidential race against Barry Goldwater, showing a little girl picking petals from a daisy while a nuclear missile countdown is heard in the background. Katy Vine


Crusader of the Century

In 1923 the Ku Klux Klan was something more than a gang of ignorant rednecks. Its Texas membership included respected rednecks—businessmen and elected officials at all levels of government—and its campaign of terror against African Americans, Catholics, and immigrants (“aliens” to the Klan) was waged without serious opposition from official quarters. Despite widespread knowledge of the group’s violent vigilantism, no Texan had ever successfully prosecuted a Klan-related crime. So the Easter Sunday kidnapping and flogging of a traveling salesman by hooded men near Taylor that year was less newsworthy than the decision of district attorney Dan Moody to prosecute the case. Though warned that he was risking his career and possibly his life, the idealistic young DA for Travis and Williamson counties secured the convictions of three men for assault and one for perjury in the case that, in his words, “broke the Klan’s back in Texas.” Moody’s principled defense of the rule of law would propel him to higher office as the youngest attorney general and the youngest governor (at 33) in the state’s history. Runner-up: Frances “Sissy” Farenthold of Corpus Christi, the reform-minded leader of the Dirty Thirty legislators of 1971, who turned Texas politics upside down by spotlighting the corrupt practices that had produced the Sharpstown scandal. John Ratliff


Lawmaker of the Century

The opening of the American West is often told as a story of community and the rule of law moving across the continent to replace the raw brutality of frontier life. But Sam Rayburn moved in the opposite direction. The son of poor Fannin County cotton farmers, he took frontier values—honesty, loyalty, and plain hard work—east with him to Washington. For almost fifty years “Mr. Sam” stood at the center of American politics, stolid, taciturn, and as tough and true as the elms that towered over his beloved Bonham home. First elected to the Texas Legislature in 1906, at the age of 24, the stocky, already balding Rayburn became the youngest House Speaker in the state’s history (a distinction he held until 1965), and by the time he was 30, he was a U.S. representative. In mid-career he mentored Lyndon Johnson; then, in 1940, he became Speaker of the House, an office he held at his death on November 16, 1961. He was instrumental in shaping the New Deal, the New Frontier, and a host of legislation in between, often defying powerful interests—railroads, utilities, and Wall Street were perennial foes—in his lifelong quest to “try to help the average man get a break.” He achieved this goal the old-fashioned way: He told the truth, stood by his friends, and refused to be bought or bullied. Runner-up: Lloyd Bentsen, whose influential career included a tour in the U.S. House, four terms in the Senate, a vice-presidential nomination, and a Cabinet office. John Ratliff


Governor of the Century

It’s not even close. John Connally had the broadest vision and the best record—and he was the last governor to leave office without being defeated. Most governors, including Ann Richards and George W. Bush, the stars of the nineties, have been content to pick out a few issues to advance, but Connally, upon taking office in 1963, set his sights on everything. He saw that the era when Texas could depend upon agriculture and oil to sustain its economy was drawing to a close. He warned that the state had to plug a “brain drain” of its best young minds to the East and West coasts. He knew that the state lacked the public services to attract new industries and new people. He set about to change it all by prevailing upon the business establishment to abandon its long-held resistance to increased state spending. His number one priority was higher education, and the flagship universities in Austin and College Station are his greatest legacy—but not a corner of state government, from parks to water to arts, went untouched. Had he had more of a common touch, he might have realized his dream of following his friend Lyndon Johnson into the White House. Runner-up: Bill Clements, whose lasting accomplishment was more political than substantive; in 1979 he became Texas’ first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Paul Burka

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