Why Does Dolph Briscoe Want To Be Governor?

You remember Dolph Briscoe, don't you?

It was a brisk cloudless Halloween afternoon, the kind of autumn day that redeems six months of unsparing Texas summer: football weather. Inside Austin’s suburban Hilton Inn, Governor Dolph Briscoe had chosen the Tenth Annual Texas Conference on Tourist Development as the occasion for a rare public appearance. To a round of applause led by his wife, Janey, he saluted the state’s Coca-Cola bottlers, whom he awarded a Special Citation of Merit for their distinctive contribution to tourism: giving away a package of discount vacation coupons with every case of Cokes. There were other prizes, a speech, handshakes all around.

Outside, the Hilton’s marquee announced in foot-high letters:


Another Briscoe anecdote was born.

The sign was not a prank, the Hilton’s management protested later with a hint of dudgeon: there really is a group called the Total Strangers, an easy-listening dance band performing nightly in the hotel’s pub. Just a coincidence.

But a provocative coincidence, nevertheless. Somewhere, no doubt, there are other officeholders as reclusive, as secretive as Dolph Briscoe—a comatose ward-captain in the Bronx, perhaps, or a furtive county clerk in the wilds of Idaho. But are there any equal in stature to the chief executive of the third largest state?

It was not supposed to be that way. Briscoe, after all, once sought the governorship on a promise to throw open his doors to the public every two weeks, so that “anyone who wants to complain, make suggestions, or just talk to the governor will be welcome.” Try that today. For all practical purposes the Invisible Man of South Texas is unique among the country’s leading political figures. His low profile, and the lengths he has gone to protect it, have made him an enigma to many and a joke to others.

A joke. Aggie jokes. Briscoe jokes. Who could have foreseen it? There was a time when ridicule would have ranked near the bottom of any list of problems Dolph Briscoe might reasonably have expected to encounter. Five or ten years ago he was the First Citizen of Uvalde: a respected banker, a civic leader, the largest individual landholder in all Texas, one of its largest bank stockholders. He was a millionaire ten, twenty, some said even forty times over. He had pioneered chain-clearing techniques that helped turn the family’s rough open brush country into extraordinary pastureland; he traded in livestock and land across a half-dozen South Texas counties. He was a gentleman, soft-spoken but possessed of a razor-sharp business sense; the only son of a two-fisted rough-and-tumble rancher (also named Dolph Briscoe) who had settled in Uvalde, with less fortune and no fame, in 1914. He was president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, president of the Texas State Chamber of Commerce, a Boy Scout leader, chairman or trustee of half a dozen livestock groups, Laredo’s Mr. South Texas, an Outstanding Young Texan, a Jaycee, a Lion. He was fondly remembered by his colleagues in the Legislature, where he had built a reputation during four terms in the 1950s as a leader—“a progressive, thoughtful, energetic man.” He had everything, or almost everything. And on the January day in 1968 when he announced for governor from the steps of John Nance Garner’s house, there were citywide celebrations: the stores closed and the schools let out. The Houston Chronicle’s senior political reporter observed that “many who follow politics closely praise him as the man”—in the crowded field of six major candidates—“who probably would make the best governor.” Though he finished a poor fourth in 1968, he projected a convincing image of ability; four years later he won the nomination comfortably. Uvaldeans turned out to cheer as he rode through downtown in a “Dolph and Janey Day” parade.

If the governorship was intended to be the capstone of this glittering career, things took an unexpected turn. His reputation in 1976 bears scant resemblance to the one which carried him into office. His performance has been increasingly marred by doubts: doubts of those who must work with him, doubts of those who watch his behavior month-to-month. Concludes one prominent West Texas conservative: “Briscoe had every opportunity to be a great governor. He blew it.”

How? And why?

The picture of Briscoe that emerges after three years in office is of an inaccessible, ill-informed, and largely inactive man, guided by the strong hand of his wife and sheltered from all but ceremonial contact with the outside world by an apprehensive, amateurish palace guard. It is a peculiar, and disturbing, portrait.

“He really is something of a ghost,” says an aide to Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby. No one outside Briscoe’s innermost circle of advisers is kept regularly informed of his whereabouts; his predecessors’ custom of issuing a travel itinerary has been discontinued, apparently because curious reporters might use it to intercept him for a few moments of impromptu questioning. Routine signings that other governors traditionally held in their formal public office adjacent to the Capitol newsroom are now held, unannounced and usually unreported, in his more secluded private chambers.

Most politicians want to be in the public eye as much as possible; Briscoe’s extreme inaccessibility is one of the most striking facts about him. He has gone as long as eight weeks without a speech or formal public appearance of any

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...