Whittington Is Known as a GOP Bulwark
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Harry Whittington has been a well-known fixture on the Texas political landscape for half a century, a distinguished lawyer to whom governors have turned to help clean up messes, a Republican statesman before there was much of a Republican Party in the state.
He and Dick Cheney were little more than acquaintances before last weekend, when the vice president accidentally sprayed him with birdshot, landing the 78-year-old in an intensive care unit in Corpus Christi. But friends say that Whittington is exactly the kind of man a host would include in a hunting party with the vice president of the United States.
"He's classy and charming and an outdoorsman -- the logical choice," said Gaylord Armstrong, an Austin lobbyist who has known Whittington for decades. "A gracious guy -- and handsome."
Yesterday, friends and acquaintances in Texas were still trying to decipher Saturday's events on a remote Texas ranch that catapulted Whittington -- a self-effacing gentleman -- into national news.
After a few chaotic days with little public information, Cheney spoke up yesterday, taking responsibility for the accident in an interview with Fox News. He called Whittington "an acquaintance," rather than a friend, whom he met in Vail about 30 years ago. They were brought together to hunt on the ranch of Katharine Armstrong, a scion of one of the most prominent Republican families in Texas.
Jim Francis, a veteran of Texas GOP politics, said Whittington has been friends with the Armstrong family since the 1950s, "when Republicans were just in a coat closet in Texas."
"He was a stand-up-and-be-counted Republican when that wasn't always easy to do," said Peter O'Donnell Jr., a former Republican national committeeman from Texas and a friend of Whittington since 1957.
Bill Crocker, an Austin lawyer and Whittington's office neighbor, said Whittington "is in better shape mentally and physically than most 58-year-olds." Crocker said he did not know whether Whittington, an experienced hunter, had shared the sport with Cheney in the past. "That's one thing about Harry," Crocker continued. "If he has done something like that, you have to find out about it from someone else. He will not honk his own horn."
A wealthy property owner, Whittington has contributed money to many GOP candidates, but he is known among Texas Republicans as the owner of the Vaughn Building, a structure in downtown Austin that has served as headquarters for numerous campaigns and organizations.
Political strategist John Weaver recalled that when he left the staff of the Texas Republican Party in the late 1980s to open his own consulting firm, Whittington "offered space at a much-reduced rate and helped me get on my feet. He did that for a lot of people."
Whittington's offices are on the top floor, and he is a familiar sight in the lobby, always dressed in coat and tie. A creature of habit, he starts his day working out at Tarry House, a private social club, and is an avid walker.
Whittington's politics, according to friends, have not always conformed with the conservative ideology of many Texas Republicans. One Texas Republican described Whittington's politics as that of a Rockefeller Republican, not a Reagan Republican. Others cited Whittington's opposition to the death penalty as an example of his ideological independence.
Nonetheless, "when governors need someone with experience and integrity to help solve a problem, he often gets the call," said Ray Sullivan, a Texas GOP strategist.
In 1979, Gov. William P. Clements (R) named Whittington to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice when the prison system was involved in a long-running federal lawsuit involving overcrowding and conditions.
Pike Powers, an Austin lawyer who represented the state during the prisons dispute, called Whittington "an against-the-grain Republican" who played a central role in settling the case. "The significant contribution he made was to be very much an advocate for prisoners' rights and to be concerned about humane treatment."
In the 1990s, Gov. George W. Bush named Whittington to head the Texas Funeral Service Commission to deal with scandals involving the commission.
Whittington is thought of as a genteel Southerner -- but occasionally an iconoclast and definitely strong-willed. He has waged a six-year legal battle against the city of Austin after it condemned one of his properties and built a parking garage on it. Although the fight is not over, he has so far prevailed at every juncture.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.