The Dominator

Remembering the real Bob Bullock.

August 1999By Comments

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 voted against him, and Bullock was back in those days again, accusing my former boss and me of corruption (totally without foundation)—right in front of Bush. I found myself being hustled out of the room again. That afternoon, I hand-delivered a letter to Bullock asking him to recant his accusation. The next day, Bullock called me at seven in the morning, full of good cheer, to say that some people just can’t take joshing. Later, I related this bizarre episode to then-state comptroller John Sharp, who had had his own celebrated run-in with Bullock. He interrupted me about halfway through. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Are you telling me that this is the first time this has ever happened to you?”

I tell these stories not because they are so abnormal, but because they are so normal. This is what dealing with Bob Bullock was like—not just for reporters, but for governors, senators, lobbyists, and staffers. (“His tongue should have been registered as a concealed weapon,” Bush said during his eulogy.) One of Bullock’s top lieutenants told me once, “It’s part of my job description to take a world-class ass-chewing every day.” And yet, we all were mesmerized by the man. How could anyone so good be so awful? How could anyone so awful be so good?

And he was good. Bullock changed state government when he became comptroller in 1975. He turned an agency that was stuck in the green-eyeshade era into the nerve center of the Capitol. He was not the first statewide elected official to upgrade an agency—land commissioner Bob Armstrong and Attorney General John Hill preceded him in the early seventies—but he was the first to invent an entirely new power base. As comptroller, he had access to vast amounts of information about the state’s economy and tax system. He also had by far the best staff at the Capitol. Pretty soon Bullock was an indispensable player in issues that previously had been the province of the Legislature alone, such as taxes and school finance. In self-defense, the Legislature had to build up its own staff to compete. No one had a greater role in the professionalization of state government.

His second contribution to Texas was a determination to solve problems. It sounds ordinary enough, but the history of the Texas Legislature (and the nature of legislative bodies) is one of avoiding problems until a crisis occurs. Bullock anticipated them. Following his election as lieutenant governor in 1990, he was almost frantic about it: so much to do, so little time. Once he latched on to an issue, he would force opposing sides to negotiate a solution; if they failed, he warned, he would write his own bill. Some of the issues he tackled were highly visible, such as tort reform and water conservation. Others offered little opportunity for political gain. In either case, he knew everything there was to know. I was in his office once when a senator came in to talk about the shortcomings of the state’s technical education system. The conversation ended with the senator volunteering to close a tech campus in his district. Politicians are not by nature an unselfish lot; that the offer was made was a reflection of Bullock’s insistence that senators do what is right for Texas.

To this list of achievements one more thing may yet be added: If George W. Bush becomes president, Bullock deserves a lot of the credit. Many Bullock-watchers expected that the two men would not get along after Bush was elected governor in 1994—they were from different generations, different parties, and different backgrounds (Bullock couldn’t stand people with privileged roots) and had different political styles—but what no one knew was that the two men had already developed a bond. A few weeks before the election, Bush had the inspired idea to call on Bullock at home, alone. He told the older man that he thought he was going to win and wanted to work with him when the time came. Bush remembers that Bullock loaded him down with reports to read and that the driver whom Bush had told to come back in thirty minutes had to wait another hour after returning. “We had good chemistry from the start,” he says.

Early in Bush’s first term, Bullock began praising the new governor. “I’m really impressed with that young man,” he told me. “He’s a fine fella.” These comments came at a time when Bush was still regarded by most Capitol veterans as a neophyte who had yet to prove himself. Bullock gave the new governor credibility when he needed it most. Bush earned more of Bullock’s respect by agreeing to a tort-reform compromise over the objections of his own supporters. It was a move worthy of Bullock: better a deal today than a fight tomorrow. Later, of course, Democrat Bullock endorsed Republican Bush for reelection in 1998. The relationship with Bullock was the foundation of Bush’s national image as a politician who values consensus and goodwill over partisanship.

The good side of Bullock was only part of the story, however. The bad side was always there. The one constant about him was that he was the most feared person in Texas politics. To receive a summons to his office was enough to make the most powerful senators and the most influential lobbyists shudder. The worse the experience, the more the victim was driven to go out and tell everyone what had happened; confession was part of the ritual. Machiavelli counseled that it was better to be feared than loved, but Bullock did something that Machiavelli never anticipated (though Orwell did). He achieved love through fear.

Those who knew him best say that he was aware of his faults, that he was hardest of all on himself, that he was ashamed of the mess he had made of his family life (four marriages ended in divorce, but at the time of his death, he had been married to his fifth wife since 1985). Even if he had wanted to control his faults, he may have lacked the physical resources to do so. He had been through so many medical problems—the removal of part of a lung, depression, his conquest of alcoholism, back surgery, hemorrhoid surgery, gall bladder surgery, a heart attack, a heart bypass operation, bouts with pneumonia, lung cancer—that his body chemistry required constant medication. His medical state was as frequent a subject of conversation among senators as weather is among farmers.

In death, he was compared with Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. Like them, he loved Texas, he wanted to do good, and he could make the political system work as few have been able to do, before or since. But the comparison will not, alas, stand the test of time. They persuaded; Bullock demanded. He was rougher, more irrational, more threatening, less democratic; a supreme operator, but not a visionary. He brooked no dissent. He wanted every vote to be unanimous. He had to dominate. It is going too far to say that Bullock was the largest Texan of our time; that honor belongs to his predecessor, Bill Hobby, who led the Senate for eighteen years and did more for social services and higher education than anyone in Texas history. But Bullock was the most fascinating—and the greatest legend.

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