Legislating in Texas
A provincial legislature is a fertile source for a writer. So many crimes are committed there daily in an atmosphere of a service club social, and the human flaws are so accessible. Sometimes it is too much for one to bear, the more or less constant spectacle of legislators backed by the sanction of powerful business lobbies frustrating the few good and intelligent men who are willing to labor in the maw of small-time politics. Until 1955, when a handful of young intellectuals, led by Ronnie Dugger, began writing about it in the Texas Observer, the Texas legislature was seldom expected to be taken seriously. It was a circus of ordinary follies, a lane-end; stagnating in the backwaters of provincial politics, it was rendered bloodless by the stereotyped formulas of the big-city newspapers. The state had produced a distinguished Speaker of the U.S. House and a Senate majority leader who already had his sights on the Presidency, men with towering national influence and the guarded instincts of superior professionals. At the state level they had charted a subtle course somewhat between and above the conservative business establishment on the one hand, and the growing postwar liberalism on the other; as far as the legislature of their home state was concerned, it was less embarrassing for Speaker Rayburn and Senator Johnson to avoid it than to do anything about it. The place had had its heroic moments: the occasional populist calling for vengeance on Yankee bankers, the tiny group of reformers rallying against the giants of oil and gas for drawing the colony dry and leaving a pittance in return. A rigorous conservatism not only called the plays, it set the rules for debate. The dramas and sorrows of this curious institution had been left to the interpretations of tired newspapermen whose sensibilities had corroded from too much exposure to a diet of daily deceit, mostly crippled cynics who were unable to tell an irony from an obscene story.
My first exposure to the Texas legislature at the working level was in 1960, when I returned from England to become editor of the Observer. I was no novice to politics at the time, though I think I still vaguely suspected there might be some science lurking in it, even in a state capitol. Four years before, as editor of the great student daily at the state university, I had erred into editorializing about state politics, particularly about its twin deities, oil and gas. I suppose the authorities had not expected a gentle-natured American boy to overreach into areas ruled by hidden divinities; a student editor in Texas can blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and the Apostle Paul, but irreverence stops at the well-head. The agitation which followed was not edifying: a university president as frightened as a high-school principal, professors of advertising deploring “propaganda,” regents making formal statements which might have emanated from Mussolini's ministry of information, and old J. Frank Dobie saying the whole lot of them cared as much about intellectual enlightenment as a razorback sow about Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
But the state legislature itself was something more directly human, irrelevant to ivory tower polemics, and I was simply not prepared for it. It is difficult to convey exactly the way I reacted those first days there, but I remember it as a kind of physical sickness, the result of a continuing outrage, for which even writing was no outlet. I don't think this could be attributed to any moral righteousness, nor to an undue naïveté I knew my Lincoln Steffens, and I had more than a passing knowledge of the Whig House of Commons, which appealed to my decadent Mississippi instincts; I had always had a curious liking for politicians, and if the preference were between a sanctimonious old bastard with the right ideas and a politican with none at all, I would not have hesitated. Despite all this, I remained in a state of unusual anger. I would spend most of a working day wandering around the floor of both houses, eavesdropping on the big lobbyists, interviewing the strategists behind the legislative monstrosities which passed as conservatism, and drinking interminable beers with the representatives of what the Dallas Morning News called the “liberal-leftist axis.” What I saw and heard, however, did less damage to my equilibrium than it did to Bob Sherrill's, my associate editor. Sherrill had been around. He was born in Frogtown, Georgia, a place which no longer exists, educated in California, and he had worked as a newspaper carrier, a janitor, a house painter, and a water analyst. He was a veteran reporter who had written, in the old tradition, for some twenty-five papers all over America. When he grew tired of one town, or began to hate an editor's guts too much for his own sense of balance, he would simply depart for another, usually in the dead of night. Sherrill was a painter and a poet, and had once worked briefly on a Ph.D. at an Ivy League school before concluding that the city room of any middle-sized daily was more civilized and usually more literate. He was also a cynic, but with a soft underspot he almost never showed, and he joined the Texas Observer, as he told me at the time, to see if idealism existed, and if so whether it was worth the effort. He had had almost no experience with politics, which he regarded as a form of athletics, but he had covered more rapes, muggings, frauds, murders, fornications, and mutilations than most men of comparable sensibility. Those first days in the legislature Sherrill would station himself in the most inaccessible corner of whatever room or chamber he happened to be in. I would often spot him across the house floor, lurking in the shadows of some statue, a sneer on his face. Sometimes he would sit on his haunches in a corner, the way farmers do outside the old general stores of crossroads towns, rolling his eyes straight up to the ceiling, cursing silently to himself. Gradually he would begin to move among the members on the floor, taking notes and shaking his great head. Our paths would occasionally cross in these peregrinations. Sherrill would whisper, “Jesus Christ,” or “Shi-yeet,” and then recount to me something he had just watched or been told. I think he was ready to fight. Once he accosted me to talk about the activities of one particular big-city delegation which had five members, four of whom got around in wheelchairs. “I've been counting,” Sherrill said, “and the ones from — are all invalids, except R—, and that son-of-a-bitch is a mental invalid.” Sherrill came to scoff, but I think he remained as long as he did because there was so much to scoff at.
Recently I have been going back over the notes I took at the time to recall what most impressed me. In the first week there was an important committee hearing on appropriations. The chairman, a rural demagogue who liked to dress in the nattiest Ivy fashions—perhaps to help himself forget that in his constituency he represented more cows, centipedes, and horseflies than people—spent several minutes berating a witness for what he called undue “lobbying.” The witness's lobbying had consisted of pointing out that the State of Texas was appropriating several hundred thousand dollars for advertising the wildlife activities of its game and fish commission, $30,000 for financing a quail hatchery, and not a penny of a requested $10,000 for allowing a state council on migrant labor to remain in existence to make recommendations on vehicle safety, child labor laws, and minimum housing standards. That same afternoon I went to a committee hearing on the senate side, where officials testified that the State of Texas did not have a single juvenile parole officer. The director of the Negro detention home said many of the children with no parents and nowhere to go when they got out, would “often develop some problem to remain in reform school.” A state senator suggested, and his colleagues laughed in good fun, that perhaps they should put some of these delinquents under the animal wildlife board. The director of the state's youth services testified at another hearing the next day, “We simply don't have a single bed for neglected Negro children in this state.” “Well,” a senator asked, “where do they go?” “Your guess is as good as mine, Senator,” the director replied. The director later told me that these Negro orphans with no place to go had sometimes been sent to reform schools with hardened offenders, because these were the only state facilities which could take care of them.
Lobbyists for oil and gas, whom the old hands called “the Knights of Congress Avenue,” usually outnumbered state senators at tax hearings. A joint session one morning heard a special address from one of those perambulating preachers in which the Southwest seems to abound; he was warmly applauded when he said the profit motive is the last good human instinct, Jesus upheld the profit motive, and “What's good for Kaiser Steel is good for the country.” Fifty-thousand-a-year corporation lawyers flocked to committee hearings, especially on taxes and appropriations, to argue their favorite theme: “You can't tax a corporation; a corporation is all of us.” For years a conservative governor had tried to get the legislature to pass an escheats bill—or abandoned property act—of the kind that had already been enacted by some thirty-six states, and in a debate which was a prelude to its being defeated again one man argued, in high seriousness: “Someone said this escheats bill was around a thousand years old. Let's think just a minute who it was that started it—the King of England.1 Gentlemen, I don't believe in this law.” In response to an appeal at a committee hearing for stronger school attendance laws for Mexican-American children, who then averaged only three-and-a-half years of schooling, one especially outspoken female legislator, who reflected the majority sentiment on the committee, said, “If more children had to work younger today, they might appreciate luxuries.” One morning a bill advocating a fifty-cent-an-hour minimum wage for Texas got 33 votes out of 150 in the lower house. Proposed tax increases on oil and gas were lucky to reach the floor. Occasionally they did, to be defeated.
The loss to Texas of its natural heritage, sold for pottage, has been one of the great shames of a state in which social services contrast so dramatically with basic economic wealth. If an enlightened tax program had been applied to oil and gas two decades ago, Texas today might have the best and most progressive state government in America. It is in this perspective that the constant destruction of decent appropriations takes on deeper shades of meaning than in the legislatures of other, less endowed states. The reformers in the Texas legislature never missed an opportunity to argue that theirs was a state which ranked first in the nation in oil, with about half the nation's underground reserves; first in gas, with over 45 per cent of the nation's underground reserves; first in cattle, first in cotton, first in everything from livestock and mohair to goats and pecans. Yet in basic social services the State of Texas ranked first in its caseload per state social worker; 41st in old age pensions; 40th in public assistance programs in general, with almost three-quarters of these funds from the federal government; 40th in literacy; 42nd in aid to dependent children; 50th in vocational rehabilitation for injured workers; close to the bottom in educational services. Despite its impressive natural beauty, its state parks were a travesty, and it could be judged nothing less than criminal in its negligence of the mentally ill.
Such arguments, made almost in desperation, were greeted, depending on the moment, with smugness, high hilarity, inattention, or a simple lack of intelligence. On the Observer we were sometimes overcome with futility and anger, the flaws seemed too great to be measured in terms of our own private contempt, and the sheer enormity of the task of reform from within the system made our occasional optimism seem a waste of good energy. “If Texas won't,” it was said bitterly, “then Washington will.” The most intelligent of the reformers knew that the most crucial economic demand was to keep chipping away at the tax wall set up by oil and gas; the odds were overwhelming. It had become political legend, after a mere ten years, how a group of tax reformers patched together a coalition in 1951 for a “gas-gathering” tax. Friends of the oil and gas interests forced an extra session in the hope that the five dollar per diem pay would force the “taxeaters,” as the papers called them, to disband and go home. But the gashouse gang, as they became known, pooled their money and rented an old house on Nueces Street in Austin. They kept going on free food from their sympathizers, and sometimes on bourbon from the liquor lobbyists (the best and kindest of their breed) who mainly appreciated the show they were putting on. Eventually the gashouse gang got their tax, but they had legislated on a shaky principle, and it was not the work of an influential anthropomorphic God who has doubts about Standard of New Jersey that their tax was struck down as unconstitutional.
Bob Eckhardt, a legislator from Houston, once remarked to me that the state capitol in Austin was “built for giants and inhabited by pygmies.” The legislature was starkly out of character with its surroundings: the big, distinctive old building on a rise overlooking Congress Avenue, the broad lawn with the gnarled oaks, the portraits of the Alamo, of Mirabeau Lamar, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, Jim Hogg, Sam Rayburn. Both houses, as elsewhere, were gerrymandered beyond coherence. The lower one had 150 members, the state senate 31; they were from El Paso on the west to Texarkana on the east, from Mexico on the south almost to Kansas on the north. Of these 181, there were no Negroes. There were about eight mexicanos, young men educated in the night schools or sometimes not at all, angry and intelligent and willing to take on the best legal talent the corporation could offer.
The great majority of the legislators were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, yet one would have to go to the national Congress, of all other American parliamentary bodies, to find a legislature which encompassed so many differing regions and values. There were a bare handful of Republicans, new arrivals who usually dressed better, disowned Lincoln, and were prone to caucus in phone booths. Their idol was the Arizona Senator, and ideologically they occupied the low ground somewhere to the right of Ethelred the Unready, though not without company from the ranks of their Democratic colleagues. The provincial political manner, a back-slapping exuberance coated with an uneasy literacy, dominated the place. An East Texas racist could attack a man in the morning as an enemy of the commonwealth, and ask his advice in the afternoon on whether his son should go to “one of them Ivy League schools.” There were men with meanness written on every feature, heavy, red-faced meanness, men you wouldn't want to cross if you could avoid it, and there were decent, friendly, and well-educated men who sought one's respect and attention; it took time to recognize that the votes of the decent and friendly ones against social legislation, against Negroes, and against any meaningful taxes counted as much and usually more than the votes of the straightforward reprobates.
There we were, existing theoretically within the old institutions: majority vote, most of the time, free speech, and the dictates of an informal country courtesy. It was good to be a gentleman, even when it was not consistently possible. Sometimes, as in Lord of the Flies, someone threw away the conch shell. One night, in a bitter floor debate in the lower house, one legislator pulled the cord out of the amplifier system, another hit him from the blindside with a tackle; there was mass pushing, hitting, clawing, and exchanges about one another's wives, mistresses, and forebears. Sweethearts and wives, who were allowed on the floor with friends and secretaries cowered near the desks. In the middle of the brawl, a barbershop quartet of legislators quickly formed at the front of the chamber and, like a dance band during a saloon fight, sang “I Had a Dream, Dear.” This was an exceptional occurrence, but I recall it took place during an interim in which the parliamentarian was looking up a complex point in parliamentary procedure.
The state senate, on the other hand, was more like a mortuary parlor, which befitted an institution whose greatest contribution had been the sure death of any faintly progressive piece of legislation. It was a plush green chamber, just large enough to accommodate 31 senators—so small that in its earlier days the business lobby could control the entire state government by more or less owning thirteen senators.2 Three or four senators would laugh and banter for hours about whether non-resident brewers should pay state fees, or discuss the jurisdiction of notaries public, or how corpses could best be diverted for medical science, all while loan shark bills rotted for lack of a hearing, air pollution bills for lack of a sponsor, and while the two or three first-team leaders worked efficiently behind the scenes to make sure no pipelines taxes ever reached the floor.
The first time I went into the state senate for a floor debate, I wrote down my reactions: “A young reporter turned to me and asked, ‘How can I tell the truth about what it's really like over here in a news story?’ Under the format of a daily newspaper it is impossible. A good journalist with a mind of his own can see right through the deceits. He knows the man is lying, and he knows the man knows he is lying. It is like a game. Indignant outbursts are accompanied by sly grins; laughter creeps into the most heartfelt speeches. Nothing whatever has the ring of truth.” One night while the senate was considering a gas tax bill, I was in a private club with a well-known county judge noted chiefly for his capacity for whiskey sours. He began exploring the place and came back and told me, “I've just uncovered a covey of old birds.” He led me to a back room and pulled the curtains. Seated at the table were the chairman and five members of the tax committee of the state senate and the four biggest oil and gas lobbyists in Texas. “Senator R—,” the judge shouted, sticking his head through the curtain, “y'awl decidin' on that gas tax?” The senator turned and said, “Judge, it's got us all up in the air.”
A man could not have edited a newspaper with the acute degree of contempt one felt in those first days. As often happens to people deeply involved in everyday politics, I think I relaxed, or perhaps weakened, as a means of survival. In the Texas legislature at the time, even when one saw every human decency violated, and many of the violations actually put into law, you learned that there was little future in indulging outrage and anger at the personal level. Otherwise one's daily existence among politicians would have consisted of more or less uninterrupted physical violence. The experience of calling a man a turncoat or a scoundrel in an editorial and then shaking his hand and exchanging banal pleasantries on the house floor the next day was never a comfortable one, but it somehow kept a balance between anarchy and the parliamentary forms. It also helped when an editor built up his private intelligence network to a perfection such that the opposition began ratting on each other, a practice which was indispensable on a journal like ours. There is a myth, and it dies hard, which says that politicians who vote alike are natural friends, but in a roomful of like-minded country representatives there are jealousies of an intensity that in contrast would make the court of the Sun King seem like Our Town.
But the country politician has a remarkable resilience. I once subjected an important lobbyist to a half-hour of detailed questioning concerning a certain malpractice on which I had been reliably informed (in this case by the Governor of Texas, who called me into his mansion in the dead of night and sneaked me through the back door to tell it), and afterward the man cordially asked me to have a drink with him at his club. Ronnie Dugger once called a politician a crook in an editorial, and two days later the man crashed a dinner party at Dugger's house. I expected my shots to have greater effect; I hoped to see my victims rage in vengeance or in guilt, to come at me with a coal-black .45 the way they do in Pulitzer citations, but they never did. When I ran a list of the forty-five ranking diehards in the Texas legislature, based on a voting analysis which cited votes against everything from free toilets for school children to industrial safety bills, one legislator—later promoted to Speaker of the Texas House—came to me and demanded a correction: he had voted against all these measures and his name, “goddamn you” (as he patted me on the back) had not been included. A Texas politician with a tenth-grade education has hidden springs of sophistication in such matters. I found him less violent about politics, both in the physical and psychic sense, than is the average young matron with a college diploma and an executive husband who thinks Goldwater could salvage our honor.
After a time one began to see such politicians, quite simply, as a reflection of the broader system. The quality of human matter in most state legislatures has never been epic, and an apportionment based on acreage rather than people has tended to tolerate similar vast and empty expanses in representative epicrania. This legislature was no worse than many, considerably more entertaining than most, and in its young men, like myself, it encouraged a true sense of being close to the source. They were human beings, Texas people, and fairly typical products of Baptist Waco, racist East Texas, or the more disturbingly reactionary sections of the Panhandle. They were lesser men, most of them, than the men who organized the game, and although they moved about like barnyard fowls in their glory, there was something rather pathetic in their performance. It was difficult if not impossible for many of the country boys to resist the courting they got in the city: the plush hotels and parties, official attentions, little courtesies from important people, the first-name talk with the bankers and oilmen up from home. One of them had once delivered a lengthy diatribe against a tax bill on the floor of the lower house, an oration riddled with distortions and strange simplicities. I went over to talk with him about his exercise in logic, which would doubtless be on the front-pages of most of the dailies the next day, and which had obviously been successful in helping marshal an impressive majority. After several minutes of conversation I made an unexpected discovery: he had the brain of a small bird. He had almost no grasp of the issue or its consequences, or even of the implications of the speech he had just made. He really did not matter one way or the other, he had spoken his piece and voted, and he preferred to forget the whole business and be a jocular companion.
In this environment it took me a few weeks to learn that the heavy hand was not only ineffective, it was usually irrelevant. Humor was essentially a way of surviving, and it was no coincidence that every good man I knew in the political life of the state had a deep and abiding sense of the absurd. Humor also was an offensive weapon, the best way of expressing one's contempt. An editorial could go on for 5000 words against a charlatan or a liar, one could quote every authority from St. Thomas Aquinas to Murray Kempton, but the barb or the burlesque was the better way to stalk an enemy. The country legislator is filled high with his own importance, he esteems his own peculiar cynicism, but he seems deathly afraid of humor when it is employed against himself. For this reason the annual Oscars awarded by the Texas Observer included: Oil and Gas Man of the Year, Oil and Gas Rookie of the Year, Pipelines' Utility Man, The Standard of New Jersey Good Conduct Medal, Most Likely to Secede, the Wall Street Combat Ribbon with Oakleaf Clusters, DAR Revolutionary of the Year, the Most Outstanding Swinger of Birchers, the Frates Seeligson Purple Heart (named after one of their associates who had unexpectedly fallen in combat the previous election), Neanderthal of the Year, and Most Disappointing Neanderthal of the Year (for moving back and forth too indecisively between the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon periods).
The preponderance of mediocrities in the capitol could only deepen one's appreciation of the good men. They came from likely places—Houston, San Antonio, and El Paso—as well as from the most unlikely ones: Roby, Jacksonville, Denison, Refugio, Tulia, Alvin, Trinity, Goliad, Liberty. I think first of Bob Eckhardt, a gentle and learned man, undoubtedly one of the outstanding men in state politics in America. The role of the anecdote, the story, is a powerful one in Southern politics, and Eckhardt was a genius in the milieu; his humor was usually sad and quiet, like Lincoln's. He wore a big hat and had a thick Southern drawl. Once I asked him, “Eckhardt, why do you wear that dirty old hat?” and he said, “A man with a hat like that and a drawl like this couldn't be a liberal.” He told the story about how a voter in Houston walked up to his mother, who was helping him campaign, and said, “Mrs. Eckhardt, we're favorably inclined toward your son, but we're worried about his views on the race issue.” She replied, “Oh, I'm afraid that's my fault. I raised him to be a Christian.” Once, at the end of a floor debate in which the conservatives, taking their cue from the Goldwater primer, were trying to cut state aid money to illegitimate children, Eckhardt went to the microphone and said, quietly, “I'm not so much concerned with the natural bastards as I am with the self-made ones.” The only time I saw Eckhardt angry, under the most trying conditions, was after the conservatives had butchered his oil and gas tax by adding several unconstitutional amendments. He marched up to Judge “Twinkletoes” Foster, the biggest oil lobbyist in town, shook his fist, and, in a voice trembling with child-like rage, said, “You ruined my tax, Judge. You made it unconstitutional, and you know it.” Otherwise, Eckhardt kept his balance, even when he was one of only two men in the Texas legislature who refused to vote for a resolution praising the House Un-American Activities Committee. His weapons were a relentless logic, a towering dignity, and the power of humor. He knew more oil and gas law than all the lobbyists in Austin; one afternoon I saw him take on every major lobbyist and lawyer the pipelines could muster in a committee hearing and plainly best them all. Fancy lawyers who specialized in testimony before the important finance committees regarded him uneasily. The one-night stand corporation defenders who would fly in from the East or the Midwest to make buffoons of the backwoods reformers on particularly dangerous tax legislation had been forewarned about him. I heard on good authority that these perambulating lobbyists, masters of ridicule, condescension, and the complexities of the law, were tipped off about Eckhardt by their bosses in approximately this manner: “Now when you go down to Austin to testify against this franchise tax, there'll be a fellow on that tax committee named Eckhardt, with a drawl like a dirt farmer, but when he starts asking questions, you'd better stop and think about the answers. He knows more than we do.” When one of these lobbyists for a large paper corporation warned a tax committee one day that liberal taxers had wrecked many another state, that his company contributed a lot more to Texas than Texas contributed to it, and that a tax revision would drive his corporation to ruin, Eckhardt asked:
“Mr. Combs, can you tell the committee why your company decided to come to Texas?”
“What do you mean, Mr. Eckhardt?”
“Well, can you tell us why you decided to locate in Texas rather than, say Albuquerque, or Wichita, Kansas, or Oklahoma City?”
“I don't quite see what you're driving at, sir.”
“I wonder,” Eckhardt said, “if it had anything to do with water and trees” (pronounced whaa-tu and treeehs) . He then proceeded, in the most brilliant statement I have ever heard on the subject, to attack big corporations which “come down here and take our natural resources out of the earth, and take our water and our trees, and drive their big trucks on our roads, and send their children to our schools, and send you lobbyists down here to our legislature, and don't even begin to give us a proper social payment in return.” On another occasion there was a hearing on an industrial safety law. Texas was the only industrial state with no regulation, and the sponsors of a safety bill tried to argue that some one thousand workers were killed on the job every year, and many thousands injured. Witnesses from the corporations argued that it is impossible to “legislate safety.” One of them said, “It's the workers, not the machinery or management, that's always at fault.” To this Eckhardt replied, “Well, you know in the lumber mills, those big hooks that come down and grab a log and pull it into the saw, sometimes they grab a worker and pull him into the saw. But I guess you'd call that worker failure, because the machinery was workin' just right, and it sawed up that worker just like he was a log.”
There was N—, the most sensitive one of all. He represented a Mexican-American constituency near the border, where his father owned a town. He would sit off in a corner, at times on his haunches next to Sherrill under the portrait of Sam Houston, sipping gin from a 7-Up bottle. He was a member of one committee that had an especially long history of razing professors, non-fundamentalist preachers, and intellectuals. It was probably the most racist and xenophobic of all the legislative committees, and N— would stand off on the peripheries drinking from the 7-Up bottle. The only time he ever spoke seemed to be out of some final desperation. The rural conservatives, to put the city liberals on the spot, had introduced a bill which would require all professors and teachers in state-supported schools “to acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” At the hearing on the bill, the sponsor was testifying on its behalf. One of N—'s friends on the committee interrupted to read Jefferson's Act Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia.
“Well, that's just fine,” the sponsor, a gargoyle named W.T. Oliver, replied.
“Well, W.T., it looks like we'll either have to be for you or for Tom Jefferson,” N— said.
“Yessir,” W.T. said, “that seems to be the choice.”
“W.T.,” N— said, “you're makin' it awful hard on us.”
There were those with memorable eccentricities, like G—, who was still relatively young in a seedy way but had spent enough years in those environs on the losing side to deserve being shell-shocked. He was a fighting reformer from the old school, and his idols were Maury Maverick, Sr., George Norris, and the elder La Follette. G— campaigned for re-election from a sidewalk café in Paris against a blind female justice of the peace; his platform was “one-hundred-per-cent Americanism.” G— was the only one I knew who wrote IOU's at Hattie's, the local whorehouse. He was also the only politician in Texas who read the New York Times every day, the Nation, the New Republic, the Progressive, the Washington Post, and the Hudson Review. He scored his highest triumph one day when a visiting Eastern intellectual, out from New York to ascertain if the rest of the country were, as rumor had it, inhabited, glanced at the newspapers and journals on his desk and whispered, “My God! A civilized man in the Texas House of Representatives!” G— and N— once rented a house where the liberals could meet, and named it “the Russian Embassy.” G— confided to me at the Russian Embassy one night, “You know, a politician's got to sell out to somebody, it's just a matter of pickin' the right people to sell out to. I've sold out to the truckers and to liquor. I may be their property, but I've never yet cast a vote against the people. The truckers aren't a bad group, and the good thing about the liquor boys is that when you vote for the truckers when you really don't want to, you can go off and get drunk about it free of charge.”
There was McGregor, an intellectual who was elected at the age of twenty-one by business interests, and who in three sessions became the smartest and most articulate of the minority. There was Henry Gonzalez, now a Congressman, who broke the national filibuster record in the state senate on a racist bill, and who used to describe a Latin-American as “a Mexican with a poll tax.” There were B— and B—, both of whom had been in the state legislature for ten years beginning when they were twenty-one. Once they got so angry after being defeated by a particular lobby on an important vote one afternoon, that they broke into the lobbyist's house that night and stole three dozen sirloin steaks from the deep freeze. And, finally, there was Spears, the toughest fighter of them all and the one who will probably go the farthest, who told me he won on a piece of legislation “because I got mad and I stayed mad.” Once, after a bad defeat, he pointed to the lobbyists in the gallery and shouted, “Today was the Alamo, but San Jacinto is yet to come.”
But San Jacinto seldom came. One measured victory, not in terms of winning, but in the few additional votes picked up in defeat. In the lower house there was a big electric voting board, green lights for aye, red for nay, and we got used to seeing the same lights, the angry flashing nays, beginning with Alaniz and ending with Zbranek, always scattered and outnumbered.
It sometimes seemed like a charade, gathering in the gloomy old house where the liberals met to dissect their most recent defeat. What went wrong? Why did somebody desert? Who would handle the fight against the racists' newest bill the next morning? Empty beer cans and cigarette butts littered the floor. Tempers would flare; there seemed little or no leadership, no focus. Some conservative would telephone and ask them to join a celebration party in a downtown hotel: “You boys take yourselves too goddamned seriously.” But after awhile even Johnny Garcia from the San Antonio West Side could forget politics and devote himself to serious, uninterrupted beer drinking, the way beer is taken in Texas.
Yet this was not all. Sometimes, by surprise, on some lazy afternoon the chamber would suddenly break into eloquent, angry exchanges, going straight to the dilemmas of our politics. The bill under debate might be nothing, but Eckhardt would begin with a sad lament for something gone wrong, then shift imperceptibly into a brilliant exposition of all the things that had contributed to the failure of state government in Texas and elsewhere. This would move Spears, who would follow with a defiant diatribe full of emotion and fight; then would come N—, with a terse set of questions aimed at the conservatives, challenging their credentials and their future efficacy and warning them that even their drivers' licenses would soon expire; and then G—, with a memorable story illustrating the follies of inaction. By this time they would all be on the floor shouting for recognition; someone would have told B—, sitting back in the rotunda smoking a cigar and trying to arrange something with a sexpot of a secretary, that his friends had the floor and were fighting mad. He would rush to the Speaker's apartments to get Kennard, sitting at the window drinking bourbon and staring into space; the two would go to the floor and engage in mock questions and answers mimicking a lobbyist. McGregor might get up and, to illustrate a point about the race issue, exclaim, “The ground, gentlemen, is bloody and full of guilt where you were born,” a poetic outburst as comprehensible to most of the assembly as the later plays of Bertolt Brecht or the cantos of Ezra Pound. Caldwell would talk about, of all things, the common law and the Constitution of the United States, and Whitfield would quote King John at Runnymede or the Emancipation Proclamation.
At this point, as one got some brief foretaste of what a radically reapportioned legislature might promise, the conservatives would have given up, for they were outclassed if not outnumbered. The press table would be deserted; the specialists for the dailies would see little consequence in the libs talking into the thin air; but under the portrait of Sam Houston, Sherrill would be taking notes.
1 This may have been that arch-radical, King Edward III (1327-1377) .
2 In this regard, the techniques of the big lobbies have changed considerably. It wasn't too long ago in Texas that the lobbyists mainly resorted to the “three B's”—bourbon, beef, and blondes. The methodology has become more sophisticated. On important issues the business lobby has gone outside the legislature to cultivate grassroots public-relations campaigns among a legislator's constituents, especially the more wealthy and influential. In this way it has learned to pressure the individual legislator where he hurts the most: his fear of defeat in the next election. In the Texas legislature in 1961, a state sales tax was finally passed after extensive work of this kind in the constituencies. The oil and gas lobby was the strongest force behind the sales tax, organizing something of a front group called “Citizens for a Sales Tax” which actually asked for small contributions from average citizens. John Kenneth Galbraith might have been pleased by the results, but the methods would doubtless have appalled him. If Galbraith disguised his Harvard credentials and became a Texas legislator, say from Lawn or Muleshoe, I imagine he would favor more taxes on oil and gas, and he might even conclude after a time that Texans as a whole are not an affluent lot.
The change to more sophisticated lobbying techniques is probably taking place along much the same lines in other states, just as it has in Washington. In Texas the custom of the three B's simply lasted longer. There is still considerable skullduggery; it is just more civilized.