It’s been four years since former lieutenant governor Bob Bullock drew his last breath at his home in West Austin at the age of 69, when the body he wrecked with cigarettes and alcohol finally succumbed to lung cancer and congestive heart failure. For those closest to him—lobbyists, lawmakers, state officials, and long-suffering employees—the silence has been deafening: no scorching tirades, no hair-trigger insults or profanity-laced firings, no three-in-the-morning phone calls or faxes demanding instant action. No devilish schemes hatched at midnight, no forced negotiations on legislative minutiae at dawn.
And, God, do they miss him. Old-timers at the Capitol, watching the new Republican leaders lurch clumsily through the seventy-eighth legislative session, often sighed, “If only Bullock were here.” He’d know what to do about the $9.9 billion deficit. He’d know how to replace the state’s collapsing school-finance system. He’d whip this place into shape in no time.
It would never have worked though. As his longtime aide Tony Proffitt remarked to me, “He was a politician of the twentieth century. He would not have survived in the twenty-first.” The observation was not a criticism, just an acknowledgment that Bullock burned too brightly for our pale, proper political world, where actions are determined by polls and staged for the media. Paralysis sets in lest someonevan interest group or a contributor—take offense. And Bullock? He was intemperate in love, liquor, and power. Married five times, a recovering alcoholic who lost part of a lung to his cigarette habit, a survivor of a grand-jury investigation, bypass surgery, and DWI arrests, he was a manic-depressive who routinely abused his employees and even his friends with scarring diatribes yet just as often surprised them with kindnesses. Lamentably, Proffitt is right: Bullock fits best in a long-gone era, though the correct century might be the sixteenth, when another student of politics, by the name of Machiavelli, first put into writing the rules of engagement Bullock mastered so well.
He began his career as a state representative from Hillsboro in 1957 and later served as Secretary of State under Governor Preston Smith. After his appointment to the State Board of Insurance was rejected by the Senate, in 1972, Bullock was elected comptroller in 1974 and lieutenant governor in 1990. He left an imprint on the most important public policy issues in Texas—from public education to taxes—and a state history museum that bears his name. Along the way, he made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies, all of whom have great stories about the great man. Spinning yarns about Bullock has become an endlessly entertaining Austin pastime. Here are some of our favorites:
Management by Fear
Ralph Wayne: When he was comptroller, the unrest in the office was unbelievable, because he was drinking. One of his drinking buddies would say something like, “How come Patti doesn’t like you?” and the next day Patti would be gone. He’d put all your things in a box and put it outside, but he might put some water in the box, so that when you picked it up, everything would fall out. He just loved things like that. Most people used MBO—management by objective. He used MBF—management by fear.
Bill Ratliff: He could use his temper as a technique so skillfully. I felt at times he was doing that for effect. In 1993 we were trying to come up with a school-finance plan, and it was pretty tense. We were in Bullock’s office, just the two of us, and he got into one of his tears with me. He jumped on me horribly, with really vicious profanity. I walked out and found [Senator Bob] Glasgow, and I said, “I want you to go in there and I want you to tell him this: I’m 57 years old. I will bust my butt to try to help him solve these problems, but if he ever raises his voice with me again, I’m out of here.” About 24 hours later he called me in and apologized, and he never raised his voice with me again. If he could avoid doing it for the rest of our relationship, then he could have avoided it in other cases. I think it was a tool. He knew who to use what tool with. He was a master.
Wayne: I was with two lobbyists one day when he was jumping on them, and he finally says, “Okay, I got to get to work.” And then he winked at me and grinned real big when they went out. It had all been an act. He gave them hell and made them nervous for a day or two. Then he’d call them and have them come over for coffee, acting like nothing ever happened. But he kept people’s attention.
Steve Bresnen: I was just out of law school when I was invited to work at the comptroller’s office. The very first thing I did was tear pages out of a report that was going to the Legislature, because Bullock had discovered there was some information that was inaccurate, but not a large amount. Instead of putting an errata sheet in the report, Bullock had the page torn out of every copy. It just wasn’t up to the level of accuracy and professionalism that he demanded. He was not letting that piece of paper off the eighth floor with an inaccuracy in it.
Glen Castlebury: He was in my office, and he said, “Do you know what Don Ray [a lawyer at the comptroller’s office] told me? He thinks we have authority to go seize inventory and padlock delinquent taxpayers.” He turned around to my secretary and said, “Get Don Ray on the phone. Goddammit, get Buck Wood [another staff attorney] on the phone.” And he tells them, “Me and Castlebury are going over to Scholz’s to eat lunch”—that meant drink beer—“but you get me a goddam answer by the time I get back.” Don and Buck showed us how we could do it. And