What Makes Sissy Run?

It’s kamikaze time again for Texas liberals as Farenthold takes on an entrenched Governor Briscoe.

April 1974By Comments

One Farenthold doth not a year of revolution make.

Sissy is back, running for governor, giving speeches in her usual populist rhetoric with low-key appeals to turn around a century of Texas politics. The woman, the rhetoric and the formula for change are still there, but that’s about all there is to connect 1974 with the now-nostalgic and historic year of 1972.

How exciting it was even to be brushed by Texas politics that year! Incensed by the Sharpstown disclosures, the whole state seemed to rise up, and in the Democratic primary and runoff defeated a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, two speakers of the House, half the Legislature, and uncounted numbers of county commissioners and sheriffs. It was a time when the “new politics” acquired a real meaning for Texans, giving them a feeling they controlled their state government after all—the voters, not the lobbyists, the board room moguls or their brush country friends occupying committee chairmanships in the Capitol at Austin.

Farenthold symbolized that spring-time of Texas political purgation. The reformists honored her not only because she had led the Dirty Thirty in the state House of Representatives against Speaker Gus Mutscher and his men but also because she had been the one to come forward and run for governor and give the reform cause an insistent voice when the only nonestablishmentarian then in the running was Dolph Briscoe.

She lost, of course, but it was chiefly because the basically conservative Texas voter felt he could get a safer version of reform from Briscoe than from someone who was liberal, female, Catholic and associated with all those freaky kids, blacks and Chicanos. And many did not consider her loss of the gubernatorial nomination to be a defeat at all since she had helped to end the hitherto meteoric career of Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the conservative establishment’s hope for the next generation of political control.

Precisely because 1972 was such a year of political catharsis in Texas, 1974 stands as a year of political calm. It is as if the state’s voters, having had their fling at sending the pols to Dame Guillotine, are content this year to let the new crowd linger a little longer?and maybe a lot longer. The all-important Zeitgeist of 1972 that bred political overturn is missing this year, and without it there is little that anyone—even a Farenthold—can do to create an outcry for change.

The state’s highest officeholders fed this mood themselves by preferring to stay put politically this year rather than disturb the peace by opposing each other. At first this seemed unlikely, for the offices to be filled in 1974 would be for new four-year terms, presumably irresistible to Mansion-hungry politicos. Throughout 1973, Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby, Attorney General John Hill and House Speaker Price Daniel, Jr., watched nervously to see if Governor Briscoe would run again in 1974 or would be content just to serve out the two-year term he won in 1972, afterward retiring back to Uvalde, having satisfied his ambition to be The Governor. If Briscoe retired, then (as Navy admirals phrase it) the daisy chain would really begin to move, with Hill and Hobby probably fighting for the gubernatorial nomination, Daniel going for either lieutenant governor or attorney general, and perhaps a whole legislatureful of others springing up to contest the remains.

But Briscoe decided to seek reelection (making the unsurprising announcement at his mammoth appreciation dinner last October 19), and Hill and Hobby rather unhappily decided to do the same, delaying their confrontation until 1978. With Daniel content to serve as president of the constitutional convention and with Comptroller Robert Calvert’s decision to retire (leaving that race to onetime state secretary of state and full-time funnyman Bob Bullock), 1974 settled into being one of the dullest years in recent Texas experience—exactly as the mutually-de-escalatory politicians willed it.

Then along came Sissy and Crusade II. In the ho-hum atmosphere of Texas politics last fall and winter, her intentions were the only thing that titillated the state’s political observers. Sissy for state treasurer? Sissy for railroad commissioner? Sissy for Congress? Ms. Farenthold herself was interested in only one thing all along, the job with the visible power, the governorship. When she did speculate on what she might do in 1974, she spoke with her trademark despair about how we can’t let ourselves forget that we’re electing a governor for four years this time. Or: the message needs to be put across, but you know it takes so much money to run for governor.

When she finally did announce for the top job February 4 in the closing hours before the filing deadline, the reaction from even her 1972 adherents tended to be more one of astonishment than jubilation. They said, yes, it’s wonderful we have a choice after all this year, but my God does she know what she’s getting into? Many of the same people who welcomed her into the race two years ago, knowing from the outset she would lose but not caring about that, now worried aloud that a loss to Briscoe in 1974 would be a merciless blow to her long-range political hopes and to the short-range liberal effort in Texas. (A few weeks earlier, state liberal Democratic leaders had gotten Briscoe to back a plan for guaranteed election of minority—meaning mostly liberal—delegates to this year’s various state conventions and to the national party’s “miniconvention” at Kansas City in December. What reportedly convinced the governor was a liberal threat to run a strong candidate against him in the primary. These same liberals feared the conservatives would accuse them of doublecrossing Briscoe even though they maintain they have no control over what Sissy Farenthold does.)

Few Texas politico-watchers credit her with much of a chance to pull the rabbit out of Briscoe’s Stetson. Again, the mood of the times is not right for it. In 1972 she had going for her some identifiable villains, some clear-cut (and inexpensive) reform issues to expound, and the fresh memory of an appalling scandal to fuel the broadbased political movement which flocked to Farenthold. The absence of a credible bogeyman is perhaps her worst problem. Unlike Preston Smith or Ben Barnes, Briscoe does not easily conform to the outlines of villainhood. Sissy seems trapped by her own famous 1972 rhetoric: It would take Dr. Frankenstein years of extra study to find a way of making a monster out of a bowl of pabulum.

Dolph Briscoe may hardly be anyone’s paint-by-numbers ideal of a model statesman, but he unquestionably has given Texans the Eisenhower-like breather from past bad times they apparently wanted. And then there is the notion “he hasn’t made any mistakes.” That sentence wraps up the current popular wisdom about the governor and wouldn’t make a half-bad campaign slogan. The people of Texas didn’t want political revolution in 1972. They wanted decency, honesty, and no mistakes.

Perhaps Farenthold misread this message of 1972, even while she was actively proclaiming the message herself. When voters (45 percent at her peak) responded to her, it was principally because she offered a palpable alternative to the good-ole-boy way of running state government. She seemed honest, intelligent, warm and (perhaps largely because she is a woman) sincere. That was her basic appeal, and this sincerity, not the unreconstructed McGovernisms about “giving the powerless their spokespeople,” continues to be the root of her appeal.

Briscoe worked quietly to consolidate his mandate in 1973, making several well-received appointments (most notably those of former state senator Joe Christie for insurance commissioner and Athens attorney Mack Wallace for railroad commissioner), signing the reform package Speaker Daniel disgorged from the Legislature, and giving visible if not vigorous leadership during last summer’s child care uproar.

Farenthold is thus hard-pressed to find the emotional issues she needs to stir the Lone Star electorate out of its traditional lethargy. Hitting at Briscoe (and Hill) for appealing a federal court decision on single-member legislative districts just doesn’t have the requisite sex appeal. Once she gets into the bread-and-butter issues like school finance and Texans are reminded that Sissy Farenthold is not just a citizen-housewife but a liberal (as Briscoe’s people made sure they knew in the 1972 runoff), they likely will react in the time-honored way. Texas liberals, no one need mention, just do not have the votes by themselves to elect her or anyone else.

Something else working against Farenthold, ironically enough, is Watergate. The great long-playing scandal-upon-the-Potomac began to divert Texas eyes from state issues almost simultaneously with the start of the Briscoe administration. Even if Dolph has made some mistakes, they may well have been ignored while the press was focusing attention on what Richard Nixon was doing, not doing, or saying he would do, or not do, about magnetic tapes. Sharpstown was significant in that it did briefly draw attention to state politics and troubles, keeping it there long enough for the electoral process to do its job. It probably is not an oversimplication to say that for the average Texas voter, state scandals are a thing of the past-an attitude which Farenthold has to change by 180 degrees if she can at all.

Almost as if to demonstrate that politicians as well as voters are looking more to Washington this year than to Austin is the unusually high number of major congressional races in this year’s primaries and general election. The seats now held by Wright Patman, Jake Pickle, Alan Steelman, Bob Price and the retiring 0. C. Fisher are particularly bitter battlegrounds. Some liberals in these and other races feel Farenthold’s suicidal attack on Briscoe may siphon needed campaign funds from races they stand a chance of winning.

Not, of course, that any of this serves to discourage Sissy, to keep her from making the old speeches and from trooping around the state with her curious crowd of aides and groupies. Frances Tarlton Farenthold, it seems, will always do what she thinks is right and must be done. Not even her critics can fault her for dedication.

The Farenthold forces also hope that a favorable ruling by a state judge on her $3.5 million lawsuit against Briscoe will break just in time to yank around the gubernatorial campaign in her direction. At the same time she announced for governor she filed the suit, alleging that Briscoe had collected money for his campaign on October 19?before designating a campaign manager, as required by a new state law which Briscoe signed. It remains to be seen, though, how voters would react even to her victory in the courts: whether they would begin to shift toward her or against her for appearing like a troublemaker bothering good ole Dolph. That reaction may depend on the kind of image she puts across to Texans before the case goes to trial.

Some liberals see a shuddering parallel between Farenthold and Don Yarborough. Yarborough rose from obscurity ten years ago to challenge John Connally for governor, losing by only a few percentage points and giving the liberals a rare thrill?only to charge back in two years later against a post-assassination Connally and be decimated.

Sissy Farenthold may already have been Yarboroughized in another way: Like Senator Ralph, she has made politics a personal crusade for justice, and in her zeal to fight the old battles just once more she may not have noticed that her friends are following her out of loyalty for great times of long ago rather than in hope of victories to come.

 

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