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Death and Texas

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In 1845, the second-largest independent country in North America, the Republic of Texas, held its nose, took a deep breath and merged with its upstart eastern neighbor, the United States. (As a Texan myself, I understand the occasional regret that we took y'all's name instead of the other way around.) For the next century, Texas didn't give America much trouble. By and large, it was known for cattle with large horns, men with large hats and its citizenry's penchant for orneriness, braggadocio and shooting one another.

All that began to change in the late 1940s, when America suddenly discovered that an awful lot of Texans had somehow become very, very rich -- and very, very interested in national politics. The East Coast establishment's dismay at this news was captured in a six-part series of front-page stories in this newspaper that began 55 years ago this month. Authored by the Pulitzer Prize-winning White House correspondent Edward T. Folliard, the package promised what an editor's note called a first-ever look at "The Big Dealers, the fabulous money men of Texas who have been pouring part of their millions into American politics. . . . The unique thing about them is public ignorance of their motives, purposes and ideas."

Thus began more than half a century of Texas political power that would see the first Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, take a seat in the Oval Office; a second, George H.W. Bush, 25 years later; and in short order a third, George W. Bush. Along the way, the Texas "Big Dealers," a class of rightwing oilmen more commonly known as the Big Rich, would thrust upon the nation a series of princelings, beginning with their in-house attorney, John Connally, and leading through men such as Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Phil Gramm. Never let it be said that The Post doesn't give you plenty of warning.

But now, barely a month into the Obama administration, even the proudest Texans must admit: The days of Lone Star Power are over. You may greet this news with tears or with relief, but there's no denying it. Now that George W. Bush has hightailed it back to Dallas, there is no Texan of any real significance left on the national stage. Kay Bailey Hutchison is still hanging on, and Texas has that governor, Rick whatsisname, the guy with the haircut, but the most visible Texan in Washington right now is probably the Libertarian Ron Paul. I don't think I need to say much more than that.

The twangy voices of political Texas, once so loud and proud, have been hushed. Molly Ivins is gone; great lady, sorely missed. Progressives such as Ronnie Dugger and Jim Hightower still soldier on, but not like before. The closest thing to a public intellectual Texas can now claim is Kinky Friedman, a Lone Star icon whose political pronouncements -- you'll recall he was a viable candidate for governor a while back -- make Ron Paul look like Lincoln. Offhand, I can't even name another Texas congressman. You?

It's been a long time since Texas was irrelevant. Few remember it now, but before World War II it was regarded as little more than a supersize Mississippi, a backward, agrarian society whose ultraconservative businessmen were best known for the Texas Regulars, a third party they formed in 1944 to challenge Franklin D. Roosevelt. The party's defining platform plank called for "restoration of the supremacy of the white race." Those were the days of Gov. Pappy O'Daniel, a hillbilly singer and flour salesman who won the statehouse in 1938 on a simple platform: the Ten Commandments. The state's most notable legislation during the 1940s made membership in the Communist Party punishable by death. And you thought Washington was a tough town.

Texas might have remained a marginalized curiosity, but oil changed everything -- everything. Until the Great Depression, control of Texas oil remained largely in the hands of Yankee corporations. There were some wealthy Texans, but no Big Rich. During the Depression, however, the cash-strapped major oil companies all but stopped looking for oil, preferring to simply buy what they needed elsewhere. Into this vacuum charged hundreds of individual Texas oilmen, known as wildcatters, who between 1930 and 1935 proceeded to discover the largest oilfields ever found in the Lower 48, including the biggest, East Texas, and the runner-up, at Conroe, north of Houston.

Once the dust settled, four men had found the most: H.L. Hunt, a onetime Arkansas gambler and practicing bigamist who cut a deal to buy the heart of the East Texas field; his Dallas neighbor Clint Murchison, who made his fortune running illegal "hot oil" during the Depression; Murchison's boyhood chum Sid Richardson, a Fort Worth wildcatter who hit it big in far West Texas; and a cantankerous Houston oilman named Hugh Roy Cullen, a fifth-grade dropout who doled out political advice to anyone who would listen -- and to quite a few who wouldn't. It was Cullen of whom Wendell Willkie was speaking when, during an exchange of pointed correspondence during his 1940 presidential run, he noted with a sigh: "You know the Good Lord put all this oil into the ground, then someone comes along who hasn't been a success at anything else, and takes it out of the ground. The minute he does that he considers himself an expert on everything from politics to pettycoats."

It was these four oilmen whose millions built the foundation of Texas political power. Murchison and Richardson used suitcases of illegal cash to help get LBJ elected to the Senate in 1948. Three years later Cullen bought a radio network with an eye toward making it a proto-Fox News. When it went belly up, he took to lobbing checks into political races around the country; Cullen was the largest single donor to American candidates in 1952 and again in 1954. Hunt went a step further, starting the first genuine conservative media network, Facts Forum, which launched scads of newsletters, radio and television programs. When he got religion in the late 1950s, Hunt started LIFELINE, one of the first media outfits to try mixing right-wing politics with sermonizing.

The Big Rich emerged at a key moment in the nation's political history, a period that saw the birth pangs of modern conservatism. In the years before William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955, theirs were some of the loudest -- and wealthiest -- conservative voices in the land. "Virtually every Radical Right movement of the postwar era," the Nation argued in 1962, "has been propped up by Texas oil millionaires."

In the short run, the Big Rich squandered their political capital. After the press deduced how much money they had shoveled to Joe McCarthy -- sometimes known as Texas's third senator -- his demise was theirs. In the long run, however, the Big Rich got Texas rolling down a path that by the 1960s would give birth to the modern Texas GOP, one of the first great Republican machines of the postwar South. It was Cullen whose money and organizational drives in the 1940s and '50s helped transform the Texas Republicans from a cadre of nattering nobodies to a new home for thousands of newly minted conservatives. They got the conservative John Tower elected the state's first GOP senator in 1961.

Ever since, Texas oil money has been a reliable backbone of the conservative movement. Not that all that cash easily translated into influence. After taking millions from ultraconservative oilmen over the years, Lyndon Johnson actually went and got all liberal: Before Murchison died in 1969, he wouldn't even take LBJ's calls. The first George Bush was never conservative enough for most oilmen, but then many considered him a Yankee carpetbagger to begin with, about as much a Texan as Winthrop Rockefeller was an Arkansan. The younger Bush, however, was the real deal, an actual Texan wildcatter who shared the Big Rich's values and views pretty much across the board. Hunt and the others never knew George W., but they would have loved him.

And now, well, it's over. The Bush administration's bonfire of the inanities has made being a Texan something you don't brag about. None of the East Coast Texans I know want to talk too much about their heritage these days -- surely a first. Nationally, about the only Texas oilman who can still make waves is T. Boone Pickens, who captured a certain amount of national attention last year with all those commercials about alternative energy. Folks listened to Boone there for about five minutes when oil was at a million dollars a barrel, but now that the price has fallen back to earth, he has grumped his way back to Amarillo. I don't know too many writers knocking on his door these days, but that could be just the fact that he lives in Amarillo.

I'll miss all those Texans around Washington. The big boots, the big belt buckles, the big talk, the vaguely horrified look on the faces of network correspondents forced to do standups amid the cow pies and convenience stores ringing the Crawford White House. You think Joe Biden is gonna wake up one morning and shoot a load of buckshot into a Texan's face anytime soon? Ah, good times.

Texas will rise again, of that I have no doubt. I don't know when, and I don't know who, but it will. Remember Santa Anna. He thought he'd stomped the Texans at the Alamo, yet it took barely two media cycles for Sam Houston to spring off the canvas and chase him back to Mexico. So smile if you want. I'm telling you, they'll be back.

Bryan Burrough will discuss this article

at 1 p.m. on Monday at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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