25 Stories About Bob Bullock

He’s gone but not forgotten——particularly now, when leadership is in such short supply. Friends and colleagues recall why the late lieutenant governor was one of a kind.

July 2003By Comments

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.

Tight Ship

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 Bullock said, “There’s that damn whiskey dealer down in San Antonio, and they told me that son of a bitch owes over $200,000. Here’s what I’ll do: I’m gonna padlock that son of a bitch. I can sell that stuff and get my money, right? We’re gonna haul all that shit off. Get me a trailer to haul all that whiskey away in. Get a guy to change the locks. Buck, you get me whatever legal documents I need to walk in the door and tell the son of a bitch I’m taking over.” We said, “When do you want to do this?” He said, “When the hell do you think I want to do this? Tomorrow.” The next morning, Bullock saddled up and went down there and walked into this liquor dealer’s and said, “I’m Bob Bullock. You owe me $236,000.” The guy said, “Say again?” And Bullock said, “I’m the state comptroller, and you owe the people of Texas $236,000 in sales taxes you haven’t paid and I’m here to collect it.” The guy just laughed and said he didn’t have that kind of money. Bullock said, “I think you’ve got that kind of whiskey.” And he turned around to someone and said, “Start hauling this shit out of here.” In the end, it took two eighteen-wheelers. The media called us Bullock’s Raiders.

Bruce Gibson: I’ve worked with a lot of people who worked as hard as Bullock did. I have never worked with anyone who worked as efficiently as Bullock did. It was a tight ship. Bullock’s typical workday, in session or out, we would hit the ground running before seven-thirty. We’d be in meetings, staff meetings or strategy meetings, till lunch. Then he’d have a working lunch with somebody. The afternoons were his reflective time. He would talk to staff members about some far-removed project, or he would make phone calls, and by three he was worn out. So between two-thirty and three-thirty, we would pack a box. The box went home with him at the end of every day, and it was very meticulously put together. It would have every report filed in the past 24 hours in state government, with a summary of that report in the front, and it would have anything of significance from the paper flow that had gone through the office. He would go home and take a nap. And during his nap period, I had to read everything in that box. When he got up, he would go through the box and pull out things that interested him. He’d read all the executive summaries so he would have familiarity with them. And then he would read the reports he thought were important until midnight. He’d read and read and read. He’d call me at nine at night and ask me about one of these reports, and I was supposed to know any detail he’d ask about.

A Very Complex Personality

Bresnen: I sort of quit for three days. We were working on his lieutenant governor’s campaign. He started giving me a hard time about something, and I told him, “Hey, I’m not going to take an ass-chewing for something I didn’t do.” He got really mad. Bullock was only about five feet eight or five feet nine, and I probably outweighed him by sixty pounds. He got right up in my face and it was “Damn you. Get the f— out of here.” And I said, “Okay, I will.” I thought, “This man’s gonna hit me and I’m gonna have to hit him back to prove my manhood.” I have not been that mad in my adult life. About three days later the phone rings and he says, “Bresnen, I’m fixin’ to say x and y in this campaign. Can I say that and be honest about it?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Bring your stuff down here and prove it.” And I documented what he was about to say. He never said another word. He never apologized. He was not one to apologize. He was one to just go on down the road.

Chuck Bailey: I spent about four hours on Palm Sunday one time in a royal ass-chewing. I got paged to come to the Capitol as I was going into church with my family. The Department of Public Safety was doing an investigation of the money coming into TCADA [Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse], and he didn’t think I was keeping a close enough eye on it. I was, but because it involved alcohol abuse, it was real important to him. That was the surface issue. The real issue was that it was probably time for me to go. And in fact, I quit about two weeks later. With Mr. Bullock, you knew when it was time to go. You just knew. One time I had to let a guy go who had been with him for 25 years, and when he came in, I said, “You know better than I do that there just comes a time, and your time has come. My time will come next year.”

Jack Roberts:
Once I got a call from Senator Rodney Ellis, and he said to me, “I know that you are friends with Mr. Bullock. I respect him, I admire him, but I just got a terrible scolding from him that I couldn’t believe I deserved.” I told Senator Ellis that the people that got scolded the hardest were those he was closest to and related to the most. No one likes to be scolded. No one likes to be fussed at. But you had to realize it was an integral part of a very complex personality.

Ratliff: When I was in my second session, we were working on the conference committee for the ethics bill. It was the most hectic, bizarre time I have ever witnessed. Bruce Gibson was on the House conference committee, and Bullock started building one of his rages in his direction. It got louder and fiercer, and literally their noses were this far apart, and they were screaming at each other. And then three months later, he hires Bruce as his executive assistant. If Bullock could absolutely bully somebody, he had no respect for them.

Power Plays

Ronnie Earle: Soon after I became the DA, we investigated Bullock for using a state airplane for personal purposes and using office stuff for personal and political business. It took awhile, and sometime later, the grand jury decided not to indict him. He called me after that at my secret, double-secret, unlisted home telephone number. I don’t know how he got it, but he said, “I just want to thank you for that no-bill.” I had been trying to get our public integrity unit funded by the Legislature, but Bullock had been blocking it. As soon as the investigation was over, we got funding. It was kind of like, “Since you didn’t indict me, I’m going to remove my opposition.” The only other time we were in jeopardy of losing that funding is when we investigated Speaker Gib Lewis. The House was raising all kinds of hell. Bullock was lieutenant governor, so I went to see him. We sat down at his kitchen table, and he was smoking a cigarette and looking at me through the smoke with that heavy-lidded stare, and he said, “You know that investigation you did on me years ago?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I was guilty as hell.”

John Whitmire: The first time he made an impression on me was on closing night [of the Legislature] in 1989. [Former senator John] Leedom wanted to do audits of state government, but it had a huge cost. Unless they got the audits, Leedom and others were not going to vote for the budget. Bullock comes into the members’ lounge and says, “You give me more auditors, and I’ll find money for Leedom’s bill.” He just saved the day.

Wayne: His fundraisers were mob scenes. If you didn’t go, you got somebody to pick up your name tag, because he would have an aide gather up the unused ones so he could see who didn’t come, and he’d call you the next day. One trade association sent him a $1,000 contribution, and he sent it back with a letter that said, “Here’s your check back, and I’m sending you a $500 check from myself. I didn’t know your association was in such bad shape. I hope this $500 will help you.” Boy, they came back with a $10,000 check right quick. That was just the way he did it.

Ratliff: After the ’93 session, I had to go home and run for reelection. Bullock campaigned for me, which was extraordinary for a Democrat, and he got letters from two plaintiffs lawyers really jumping on him about supporting me. Bullock wrote both of them letters that said, “I am sorry you’re disappointed in me. I supported Bill Ratliff because I thought he was good for Texas, but I would never allow you to believe that I’d misled you, and rather than have that happen, I’ve looked over my records, and over the years you’ve given me $10,450”—it was some amount like that. “Enclosed is a check for $10,450. And so we are square.” Did that to both of them. A few days later, one guy sent back the check marked “void” and enclosed another contribution. Bullock called me in and he says, “You think I don’t know how to raise money?”

Bailey: Once I got a call that the governor had appointed this former senator to chair a large state agency. The next morning, Bullock called me in and told his secretary to get the man on the phone. He told him, “I want you to know that I remember you were one of the senators who voted to bust my appointment to the insurance board back in ’72, and I haven’t forgotten it, and I also want you to know that that was one of the very worst things that ever happened to me in my life—to be busted by the Senate of Texas. I went home and cried like a baby. It upset my children. It upset my wife. No man should have to go through what I went through. And because of that, I will support your nomination.” And I thought, “Here is somebody who has the power and let this man know he has the power, but he did the right thing.” It sort of epitomized what Bullock could do when he wanted to.

Ratliff: He was an information freak. I saw him eat staffers alive if he felt they weren’t telling him everything they knew. He’d pick up the phone or call one in and say, “Why didn’t you tell me that Senator So-and-so was dating that little ol’ girl that clerks for such and such committee? I’m the last one to learn anything around this building. Why in the world have y’all been keeping me in the dark?” He wanted to know everything, because he figured that would be a pressure point that he could use sometime down the road.

Claudia Stravato: He always kept people on guard. He knew things about them that he hung over their heads. He always had us report everything. I couldn’t go out to eat, I couldn’t go to a bar, if I didn’t come back and give a full report: who I saw, who they were with, what was said. So that when he got lobbyists together, or legislators together, he knew something on them. And he’d get them all in a room, and he wouldn’t let them leave until they compromised. He would make them talk and talk and talk until they found some common ground. He leveraged people and issues and sought consensus—where everybody left the room with something. He had been a lobbyist himself. He knew you had to have something. Everybody had to win, some way.

The Blood of Travis

Roberts: All of us who were close to him realized that in spite of our pleading, in spite of our prayers, in spite of all the news stories about his drinking, he marched to his own drummer. We believed that, number one, he would address it at some point, and number two, he would address it effectively on his own terms. Which he did. When he came back, there was renewed energy, increased focus—truly a rededication to Texas. He made up his mind that he was going to devote his life to the betterment of the state of Texas.

Stravato: Certainly there were days when he wouldn’t speak to me or he might throw a hamburger at me. There was no telling what he might do. I stayed because I thought I was helping Texas. He made each person who worked for him believe that. The state would collapse if you left him. If you didn’t do what he wanted you to do, the state would collapse. Well, you couldn’t have that on your conscience.

Gibson: The worst chewing-out I ever heard him give anybody was to a communications director who wanted to quit after one week. The way you quit was that you turned in your pager. You turned in your leash. And I said, “You are not giving it to me. You are giving it to him. Let’s go see him right now.” We walked in, and the guy said he was quitting, and Bullock said, “What?” and just roared at him for thirty minutes. It was so bad, it was like a car wreck—you can’t remember it. Except the last line: Bullock said, “You’re not from Texas, are you?” The guy didn’t even offer an answer. Bullock said, “I can tell the blood of William Barret Travis is not in your body. If you’d been at the Alamo, you’d have been over the back wall.”

Soft as Mud

Whitmire: Once I hired a guy with a drinking problem. I told him there was one condition: He had to stop drinking. And so one day during the session, another staff member called me and told me that this guy had come back from lunch with liquor on his breath. I didn’t know what to do, so I called Bullock. He said, “Bring him over here. Don’t tell him why.” We waited in the conference room, and Bullock came in and said, “I understand you have a drinking problem.” The guy said, No, I have it under control.” And Bullock said, “When did you have your last drink?” The guy said, “A few months ago.” And Bullock said, “Well, you are a goddam liar.” Then he proceeded to tear this guy apart for the next forty-five minutes. It was just relentless. It was the meanest thing I have ever heard, and I will never forget it. The guy was devastated. And then Bullock got real quiet and said, “But you don’t have to be that way. I have been sitting where you are sitting and I am the lieutenant governor of Texas. You can change. And if you want to change, I will be the best friend you ever had.” And he got up and arranged for an airplane to take this guy to drunk school.

Stravato: Because of my experience with alcoholism—I’ve been in Al-Anon for years—I assisted with all of his interventions. It could be somebody working for him; it could be anybody somebody called him about. And he would get them in his office and he would just lambaste them. By the time he’d get them crying, he’d have called me in and flipped open his briefcase and he would hand them one of his pistols and say, “You know, it just seems to me you ought to go ahead and end your life right now, because what you are doing is committing suicide.” And he’d say, “Claudia, don’t you agree?” I always knew we were both going to get shot in one of those deals, but we never did. We saved lots of people.

Earle: My dad worked at General Dynamics for forty years on the assembly line and ranched in his off time. When he retired, he and my mother moved down here. He got a little bored and was looking for something to do and decided he wanted to be a Capitol parking guard. It was the happiest thing he’d ever done in his life. He got to know all the people in the Senate and the lobbyists, and he and Bullock got to be friends. He and Bullock would eat lunch nearly every Friday. Bullock would have him come up to the [lieutenant governor’s] apartment, and they would have lunch. Bullock told him, “You’re a pretty good guy, Charles, but you did a piss-poor job of raising that boy of yours.”

Wayne: When I was working for Bullock, my daughter was killed in a car wreck. Fourteen years old. And when I came home, there was a big Sony television set with a note in there from Bullock: “I know you won’t be sleeping much, so I thought this might help.” One time right after my daughter died, I got in my plane and went down to South Padre Island and rented a condo there. I carried about twenty books with me to read. It was raining, and I’d been out on the jetty, just enjoying the solace of being there. And I stayed up all night—went to bed around six in the morning. About ten-thirty there’s somebody banging on the door. I open the door and it’s Bullock. He said, “You all right? Family’s looking for you. Hell, everybody’s looking for you.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m all right.” And he got up and left. He knew the numbers on my airplane and tracked me down. Found it at the Cameron County airport. Called everywhere he thought I might be. That’s just the kind of guy he was.

Stravatoo: I was the one who helped him do his twelve steps. He never could get past the fourth step. He worked so hard, and he would jump and do the twelfth step all the time, which is saving people. But when he got to the fourth step—make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself—he couldn’t think of anything good. You’re supposed to think of your good points and your bad points, and it used to break my heart that he never could think of anything good about himself. And a lot of people didn’t know he was that way. He always had this serious problem with self-confidence, and you would never think that, because he had to put on such a brusque exterior, but he was soft as mud inside. He could cry at the drop of a hat.

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