Dustin’ Off The Stetson
It takes slant-heeled boots and a strong jaw to campaign in West Texas; a Ph.D. probably doesn’t help.
The candidate for Congress had forgotten his cowboy belt; his hair was a bit curly and he looked more like Ed Muskie than John Connally, but his legs were long enough, and slant-heeled boots didn’t appear to hurt his feet. Yet he seemed too introspective for an aspiring Texas politician, and his voice was all wrong: precise in its consonants, expansive in its vowels—the Eastern-educated kind of accent that used to curl Lyndon Johnson’s lip.
“I take it we’re all here,” he said. “Shall we go?”
We departed downtown San Antonio in typical fashion—the politician in a supporter’s Cadillac, the press following in a Volkswagen—and I wondered about Bob Krueger’s chances.
He was a small-town success story all right. His father in New Braunfels accumulated a shrewd fortune in the Forties by buying and storing all the used cars he could find when the war erupted in Europe, cashing in when Detroit converted from automobiles to tanks, then landing several new-car fleet sales to the military installations around San Antonio after the war. Krueger thought he wanted to be a stockbroker when he went to SMU in 1953, but his interests shifted toward literature. He studied at the graduate level at Duke, the University of Nottingham, and Oxford. At Oxford he lived in a room once occupied by T. S. Eliot, drank wine in goblets older than the United States, and wrote his dissertation on Sir John Davies, a 17th-century poet and the attorney general for Ireland who originally implemented the bright idea of settling Protestants in Ulster: his book on Davies will soon be published by Oxford University Press. After five years in Europe Krueger returned to Duke, where he taught Shakespeare, redesigned the undergraduate curriculum, and was appointed dean of arts and sciences by president Terry Sanford, the former North Carolina governor and presidential aspirant.
However, about 1960 Krueger decided he wanted to run for Congress. He said it had nothing to do with John Kennedy: “It was when I went to England that the immense importance of everything America does came home to me. I was, obviously, at a distance and starved for news from home. But everything America does is on the front page every day. And I found myself constantly in the position of having to defend or explain American policy to people because it had such impact on their lives, and they knew perfectly well what our government was doing.
“I recall one particular incident—it’s not significant but it’s illustrative. When the British Overseas Airlines Corporation was denied the opportunity B to fly from New York to Honolulu with a stop in Los Angeles because our Federal Aviation Administration set the rates, this was front-page news for a week in The Times of London and The Manchester Guardian. Of course, no one in New Braunfels or San Antonio or San Angelo—or probably New York—would have known or cared about this, but it was of major impact there. I was an American citizen, and I was in some way responsible for what happened to their lives. So one is much more conscious abroad of the importance of what America does than one could ever be at home.”
Krueger wasn’t sure where or when the political opportunity would present itself, though he doubted it would be in North Carolina. “I didn’t feel it there,” he says. “The towns were foreign to me. I was a resident of Duke University, not North Carolina.” He planned to wait until he had landed a college presidency and then make his move, but in early 1973 his father died in New Braunfels. Krueger told Sanford he was resigning to return home, become a businessman, and run for Congress, so Sanford gave Krueger his political blessings.
However, while Krueger’s academic credentials may be impressive in many parts of the country, there are miles of sea and pasture between Oxford, England, and Ozona, Texas. What Krueger is counting on, of course, is that 1974 will be the year for political newcomers.
The 21st Congressional District where Krueger is running is a monstrous godchild of one-man, one-vote democracy. It stretches from northwest San Antonio to Alpine, Del Rio to Winters, and encompasses more territory than Pennsylvania, Mississippi, or Great Britain. And standing in Krueger’s way was a sixteen-term Democratic incumbent, 0. C. Fisher of Junction. Fisher used to campaign as “the only man in the U.S. Congress with a zero rating by the ADA,” and he was an uncompromising hawk. At the beginning of the Watergate disclosures he came home to applaud Nixon’s mining of Haiphong and warn, “Even now there are those in Congress who would make of the American Eagle a sitting duck.” Not exactly a Shakespearian turn of phrase, but Fisher spoke the language of his constituency and the 21st District favored Nixon’s re-election by a three-to-one margin.
Krueger planned to campaign as a businessman untainted by previous political involvement, carry the affluent neighborhoods of San Antonio, and try to undermine Fisher’s strength in West Texas. But late last year the incumbent threw the challenger a curve; he said he was retiring because of poor health and intended to vote for Nelson Wolff, a young state senator from San Antonio. Wolff had the backing of some of the most influential men in San Antonio, and the day of his announcement a KTSA radio commentator, Logan Stewart, speculated that Wolff might be taking his first step toward the White House. Nobody said that when Krueger announced a couple of days later though San Antonio Express political analyst Kemper Diehl cracked that Krueger’s erudite speech had sewn up the Adlai Stevenson vote.
In the announcement speech Krueger touched on inflation, the energy crisis, law and order, agriculture, and care for the aged, but it was philosophical in tone. “Unlike the nations of Europe,” Krueger said, “we are a nation founded on a dream: a dream of a land of plenty, of a society in which all men are entitled to share in the opportunity to join that plenty, and in which men and women can walk with pride and self-respect because they are all equal as citizens. We cannot allow any events, any professional politicians, any new surprises out of Austin or Washington—from either party—to take that dream from us. The greatest theft in Washington has not been of documents or dollars, but of hope and trust: the foundations of our dream. That dream still lives, here and all across America. With patience, good will, and hard work it can be nurtured.”
Krueger writes his own speeches, and he frankly admired the late Stevenson’s rhetorical style, but he winced at the comparison. Stevenson was a liberal, and liberals don’t represent the 21st District.
The themes of Krueger’s speeches are conservative enough—the need for a return to a free-market economy, the dangers of a windfall profits tax, the importance of a strong national defense —but there is an element of paranoia in his organization: his staffers don’t send releases to the Texas Observer for fear that mention therein could plant the liberal kiss of death on Krueger’s cheek.
Krueger has done all he can to avoid getting tagged with the liberal label; he points out that his hometown of New Braunfels is hardly a hotbed of radical thought, and his arguments for fiscal conservatism are convincing. But in the 21st District there is both the urban conservatism of the wealthy, and the rural conservatism of the suspicious. Krueger’s background and manner suit him best for an urban campaign, but because of Wolff’s strength in San Antonio, the Oxford Ph.D. has found himself beating the brush of West Texas for pledges of support. If he can just get enough votes to make the run-off, the strategy goes, he can probably hold his rural support and then make his move in San Antonio. Our destination that day was the fat stock show and rodeo. Suburbia would have to wait.
It was a frustrating day for Krueger. No one was at home in the Appaloosa barn except Appaloosas; in the next barn a teen-age horse show was in progress. And you don’t interrupt a West Texas momma when her pride and joy is loping his steed. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that not all the exhibitors lived in the 21st District. Krueger seemed ill at ease; he would pass up one likely prospect to confront another, only to find this one was from north of Abilene. He had the good fortune that day of an impromptu interview on a San Antonio country-western station, but he spent the afternoon in silence at the rodeo, just another spectator. The best place to confront West Texans, it seemed, was on their home ground.
Larry McMurtry once wrote that only a rank degenerate would drive 1500 miles across Texas without eating a chicken-fried steak. I had covered only a sixth of McMurtry’s distance, but I was in no mood to flout Texas tradition. Accordingly, I ordered a slab and eavesdropped on a nearby conversation. “I was teachin’ the sixth grade then,” a woman was saying. “They was actin’ up so I told them I was outa snuff that day and they’d better straighten up and fly right. Well, lo and behold, here they come the next day with a can of Levi Garrett snuff.” No wonder Krueger came home to run for Congress. No student of the English language could resist West Texas.
A woman from the motel registration desk came in with the advice that I join the candidate at a place called Dr. John’s near the campus of Angelo State. The political pulse of West Texas was still eluding Krueger’s touch. That night he had been scheduled to address a group of black civic leaders at a cafeteria, but the cafeteria was closed, and Dr. John’s was a discotheque with loud Rolling Stones music and little else in its favor. Krueger had set up shop in the pool room, and he stopped handshaking long enough to introduce me to his western campaign manager, Tom Henderson, a young A&M graduate who got out the West Texas and youth vote for John Hill in 1972. Henderson seemed a fit man for the job; he is only a few hours short of his UT law degree, but he grew up in the country west of Kerrville, raised sheep and goats in the 4-H Club, and speaks with a permanent nasal drawl.
Most of the students seemed honored by Krueger’s attention, except for one young man whose father, a highway patrolman, had a few nights earlier written Henderson a speeding ticket. Finally Krueger shouted a few words into the ear of the disc jockey, who announced between numbers, “Hey, there’s this dude in a suit over by the bar that says he’s running for Congress. If you’re interested, go on over and rap with him.”
An uncynical lot, the students soon stood five-deep around Krueger. Tom Henderson shook his head. “If he tried that in Austin he’d get booed out of town.”
The country west of San Angelo is unrelenting in its bleakness, particularly when it’s February and it hasn’t rained since September. Dawn had overtaken us, and Tom Henderson was talking about the difficulties of administering a campaign. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Krueger quipped in classroom English. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”
“I hope you get that outa your system before we get to Mertzon,” Henderson grumbled.
“I like to startle Tom by quoting a little Shakespeah,” Krueger said. “Actually, that was Pope.”
Mertzon is the seat of a county with no newspaper or radio station, and there are windmills in every yard instead of the standard elevated water tower. Less than 600 people live there. Henderson pulled over at the Hillside Cafe, and at the counter inside a man practically snarled at Krueger, “I can’t vote for you. I’m outa Fort Worth.” The candidate had to either pursue the matter or beat a blushing retreat; he compromised by taking the next stool and ordering a cup of coffee. Krueger spoke softly for a minute, then the man said, “I saw on television where the average truck driver pays more taxes than the president of the United States. There’s no goddamn way that makes sense. I’m tired of these rich people gettin’ all the breaks; poor man’s been carryin’ the load all the way through. Hell, we’d a been better off with Wallace. Kennedy was the last good president we had.”
Krueger pondered the implications of that statement over his pancakes, then resumed his rounds, stopping at the table of a man who said he was a coyote-trapper. Coyote-trapping was probably once about as low an occupation as mule-skinning, but it is a valued service now in West Texas. Sheep ranchers claim they’re losing half their flocks to predators, and the Environmental Protection Agency has relented somewhat in its discouragement of cyanide poisoning. “A sheep rancher can’t make a living out here anymore,” the trapper said. “It’s an honest fact, but an honest fact isn’t gonna do us any good. We’re gonna hafta go to lyin’ like everybody else.”
At the courthouse a woman placed her hands on her hips, looked up at Krueger, and said, “This may be slappin’ you in the face, but I think what we need up there is people with some good old common horse sense, and not so much book learnin’.”
The woman in the crossroads cafe laughed sourly and said, “Well, at least you’re a Democrat, and you ain’t no professional politician. It’ll take you at least ten years to get corrupted.”
“What’re the qualifications for your office?” a dusty young man in a Hoss Cartwright hat wanted to know. “You gotta be a lawyer?”
“No,” Krueger said. “You just have to be an American citizen.”
“And crooked,” the woman interjected.
Krueger came back to the car shaken. Reflecting on the tumultuous events in Washington, a woman in the Pool Company office had said, “I never thought [ I’d say this, but I’m ready now to leave the United States.” He had sensed a certain alienation in the 21st District, but that was the first time anyone in West Texas had told him that.
The new high school has no windows, which makes a good deal of architectural sense, since the view is discouraging. Civilization at the high school site extends as far as the chain-link fence at the end of the football field; beyond that is some of the most inhospitable country east of the Mojave. Buzzards wheel overhead; the geometric forms of human construction stand out almost obscenely, for there is nothing to conceal them. If Fort Stockton was ever a fort, pity the trooper who drew the assignment.
Krueger had previously addressed the Fort Stockton Jaycees, who that afternoon were administering a high school track meet called the Comanche Relays, which was the reason we were at Fort Stockton High. The local coach grumbled that the energy crisis had pared the list of entries from 70 to 35, and, weatherwise, it was not a good day for a track meet. Several milers were blinded when a dust devil wandered out of the countryside into their path.
Krueger had the same problem he had had at San Antonio—not all the teams and spectators lived in the 21st District—but the Jaycees all came over to pay their respects. “You ain’t doin’ no good leanin’ against that fence,” one of them said. “You better get to shakin’ hands and rubbin’ boobies.”
After the final event the coaches and Jaycees retired to the Eagles Hall for beer and barbecue, and the candidate naturally tagged along. It was the giddiest reception of the day for Krueger. Coaches socked him on the shoulder, Jaycees revealed the town’s innermost political secrets. Krueger showed none of the indecision that restrained him in San Antonio; he plunged into the crowd, shook hands until his knuckles must have ached, and judging from the approving nods, apparently won a few votes. Personally, I’d had my fill of politicking; I found an Allman Brothers selection on the jukebox and sat back to enjoy the free beer, but Tommy, the Fort Stockton track coach, came over to chat.
“These people out here ain’t like nobody else in the world,” he said. “But I’ll say one thing for ’em—when they tell you they’re gonna do somethin’, ninety per cent of the time it gets done.”
Henderson caught the candidate’s attention and signaled him toward a pay phone. The most frequent complaint about federal government that day had concerned its meddling with predator control, and Henderson wanted a press release the next day counting his candidate in favor of sodium cyanide poisoning. Krueger hestitated; forty per cent of the voters lived in San Antonio, and some of them were more concerned with preserving wildlife than understanding the problems of the ranchers.
“Look, I’m not managing your San Antonio campaign,” Henderson said. “I’m telling you what you have to do to win out here.”
Krueger nodded, muttered something about condoms for coyotes, and placed the call to his press secretary. The name of the game is politics.
Krueger had found in his maiden political voyage that the real dichotomy in his district is urban-rural, not liberal-conservative. A candidate can always bridge the political philosophy gap by calling himself a moderate. But it’s a lot more difficult to straddle the fence which divides city from country.
So whether a man with an Oxford Ph.D. can win the support of sheep and goat ranchers in West Texas is still questionable, but it doesn’t seem any stranger than what’s been going on in Washington, D.C. It’s an unusual year in American politics.