washingtonpost.com
Tex. Lawyer's Activism Nurtured by New Deal

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

Creekmore Fath, 93, an Austin lawyer and one of the last of the FDR New Dealers, died June 25 of renal failure at his home in Austin.

Mr. Fath held several positions in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and played a key role in several important Texas elections, including the controversial 87-vote "landslide" that sent Lyndon B. Johnson to the Senate in 1948.

In 1940, Mr. Fath left a fledgling law practice in Austin to become a staff attorney with a House committee chaired by Rep. John H. Tolan (D-Calif.) that was investigating the plight of destitute migrant workers.

Twenty-three years old and unfamiliar with the ways of Washington, Mr. Fath didn't know that he had signed on to work for a select committee slated to disband when a new Congress convened in 1941. When he found out, he suggested asking first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to testify before the committee as a way to generate publicity and keep the committee in business. He reminded committee members that she had expressed concern in her newspaper columns for the Okies and other Dust Bowl migrant workers.

"Okay, Creekmore, you take care of that," Tolan said. The veteran lawmaker laughed, and his fellow committee members laughed with him. They knew, as Mr. Fath did not, that no first lady had ever testified on Capitol Hill.

The next morning, Mr. Fath called the White House and talked to Malvina Thompson, Mrs. Roosevelt's secretary. "I told her I desperately needed to use Mrs. Roosevelt at a hearing in December, that I wanted to use her as the gimmick," he recalled.

Mrs. Roosevelt invited him to tea at the White House the next afternoon, and, after clearing it with her husband, she agreed to testify. The panel stayed in business, in large part because of her endorsement of its work.

Later, Thompson told Mr. Fath that Mrs. Roosevelt agreed to meet with him because he was the only one who had ever admitted that he wanted to "use" her. Thompson also told Mr. Fath that the first lady had said, "I wanted to meet him because he sounds like he's 14 years old."

Creekmore West Fath was born in McAllister, Okla., and grew up in the small West Texas town of Cisco and in Fort Worth. His family moved to Austin in 1931. After receiving his law degree from the University of Texas in 1939, he set up a practice in Austin with boyhood friend and fellow UT law school graduate Bob Eckhardt (who went on to become a longtime Democratic congressman from Houston).

When Mr. Fath arrived in Washington, he was tall, prematurely bald and politically astute, and he soon developed a gravitas that inspired confidence. "Creekmore Fath has the best political judgment of anyone his age in Washington," President Roosevelt was quoted as saying.

In 1941, Roosevelt appointed Mr. Fath counsel to the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project. Later, Mr. Fath became counsel to the Senate Committee on Patents, which was investigating German cartels under Adolf Hitler and their involvement with American corporations.

After serving in the Army from 1943 to 1945 -- during which time he was assigned to the White House -- he worked in the Office of War Mobilization and the Department of Interior.

In 1947, he married Adele Hay, whose grandfather, John Hay, had been President Abraham Lincoln's secretary and then secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. After turning down an offer to teach patent law at Yale University, Mr. Fath, at 30, took his wife with him back to Austin. He resumed his law practice and plunged into Democratic Party politics.

He also announced for Congress as an unreconstructed New Dealer. He and his wife campaigned in a car with a canoe roped on top and painted with the slogan, "Fath for Congress . . . He Paddles His Own Canoe." He finished third in the primary.

There was no Texas Republican Party to speak of in the 1940s and 1950s, but the state's liberal and conservative Democrats were bitter enemies. Mr. Fath and his fellow liberals considered themselves "loyal Democrats," unlike Texas Gov. Allan Shivers and Senate candidate Price Daniel, who called themselves Democratic Regulars and who regularly supported the Republican presidential candidate. Lyndon Johnson often tried to play both sides.

Mr. Fath never liked Johnson, personally or politically, but in 1948, he agreed to help him in his U.S. Senate race against former governor Coke Stevenson. Mr. Fath considered the governor a racist.

Johnson won the Democratic primary by 87 highly questionable votes, and the outcome hinged on a notoriously corrupt South Texas county that reported election results late. A Johnson partisan told Mr. Fath: "Well, they were stealing in East Texas. We were stealing in South Texas. So God only knows who really won the election, Creek. But today, God was on our side by 87 votes."

For the next four decades, Mr. Fath continued to practice law and to work for liberal Democrats.

He also amassed a personal library of more than 45,000 volumes, including many rare books and first editions. In a high-ceilinged library behind his Austin home, he shelved original editions of almost every presidential campaign biography since the founding of the republic. In addition, he collected Thomas Hart Benton lithographs, a collection he started by spending $5 from the first fee he received as a lawyer.

Although still active politically, he was out of the public eye for the past couple of decades of his life. He reappeared briefly in 1996, when his wife arranged with the Faths' friend Bill Clinton for a sleepover at the White House to celebrate her husband's 80th birthday. Clinton was intrigued that the granddaughter of Lincoln's secretary would be staying in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Mr. Fath, who had not been back to the White House since his days as an aide to FDR, soon saw his name showing up in newspaper stories about Clinton campaign contributors rewarded with overnight stays in the White House. The Faths had given $1,200.

His wife died in 2007.

Survivors include a stepdaughter, Moyra Byrne of Thorndale, Tex.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company