In the remote and exotic land that is Texas in the early nineties, a Democrat sits in the governor’s mansion; it’s illegal to carry handguns; and George W. Bush runs the Texas Rangers—the baseball team, not the law enforcement organization. Few could imagine the way the state would radically and irrevocably change in the span of just a decade. Paul Burka was one of those few.
The legendary Texas Monthly staff writer’s gift for prognostication is on display in a short essay he wrote after Bush’s upset of then-governor Ann Richards in 1994. Burka’s vision was clear as a spring: while others were calling Bush’s win a fluke, a result of Richards’s poor campaigning, Burka understood that W had ushered in a new era of Texas politics. In “George W. Bush and the New Political Landscape,” Burka wrote that Bush had the chance to cement Republicans’ hold in a state that, until that year, had been dominated by Democrats for generations. “He is in a position to be a pivotal figure in Texas history,” Burka concluded. He was right. No Democrat has even come close to winning the governor’s office in Texas since that year.
In those days, Greg Curtis was the editor in chief of the magazine, which was still less than 25 years old. Burka had been a senior at Rice University when Curtis and Bill Broyles, the founder of the magazine, were freshman. Curtis remembers reading Burka’s sportswriting for the school newspaper before he read his work on politics. He says that Burka’s encyclopedic memory was remarkable: “He knew all these sports statistics,” Curtis said. “And [when it came to history], all these names and dates—he knew them all.”
Burka’s command of Texas politics earned him a reputation in the state. Broyles can’t remember the year, but he has a vivid recollection of Bush himself visiting the Texas Monthly office early in his political career. When Burka asked Bush a question, the soon-to-be governor paused and then said, “I gotta be careful when I’m answering a question from the great Burka.”
Besides foreseeing a Republican takeover in Texas, Burka also read the trend lines on how policy would change in the state. “Richards’ veto of a handgun referendum cost her dearly in Bubbaland; don’t be surprised if a bill giving Texans the right to carry handguns becomes a law,” Burka wrote. Today, a Texan doesn’t even need a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
Curtis says Burka also saw the future on a topic that was perhaps even closer to the writer’s heart than politics: barbecue. Back in the nineties, barbecue was still a niche cuisine, something national publications more or less ignored. Burka, however, was obsessed. His pursuit of the best barbecue in the state presaged the craze that would see pitmasters become celebrities—and see Texas Monthly hire a dedicated barbecue editor.