For the first time in 105 years, Texas last fall elected a Republican governor -- thereby unleashing William P. Clements Jr. into the national political arena.
Clements, who will be 62 in April, upset the pollsters by spending $7 million to win his first and only elected office. And now, without a trace of freshman reticence, he is a feisty, shoot-from-the-hip Texan "having the time of my life" blasting away at Jimmy Carter and assorted Democrats.
On Carter's Washington turf this week at the annual midwinter Governors' Association conference, Clements eases into a scotch-and-water and his gray eyes grow steelier as he says, "I am absolutely dedicated and committed to Mr. Carter not carrying Texas in 1980 and he can't win without Texas. He's gonna lose Texas... and he's gonna lose the election."
Clements is a conservative who started out poor and became the multimillionaire owner of the world's largest oil-drilling company, SEDCO, with branches from Trinidad to Iran. Critics say he bought the first office he ever ran for with an expensive and expansive media blitz. Today, Clements, not afflicted with modesty, says, "There never was any doubt I was gonna win."
And there is never any doubt as to his opinions. Carter's energy policy is a "disaster" and "stupid," "a plan of conservation and taxation, not a plan of production." Carter made only one "step in the right direction" on his trip to Mexico and that was "leaving his energy adviser home," says Clements.
James Schlesinger is an old adversary; a new one is Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland -- "they should both resign," Clements says.
There is even a leftover blast for California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who dominated the governors' conference on Monday. It might have been called "Gov. Jerry Brown -- and others" as 100 members of the press clustered in a room where Brown pushed for other governors to jump on board his balanced-budget bandwagon.
Meanwhile, across the hall, two good old Texas pals, Clements and Ambassador Robert Strauss, Carter's chief international trade negotiator, talked to a half-empty room about global trade agreements and more farm exports overseas.
Afterward, Clements shrugged and said of Brown's popularity, "I don't know why they are waiting with bated breath. I haven't heard Brown say anything profound yet."
Just Between Friends
What makes Clements interesting is not just his personal drive to be an important force in the Republican Party and at next year's convention. If forces move the right way, he could very well be in the crucial power-broker's position he so desires. He is afterall, governor of the third most populous state; Texas is a major influence in national politics and the Texas primary could come just a few weeks after New Hampshire's next year.
Moreover, he has a foot in the camps of several prospective Republican candidates. For 30 years he has been a close friend of both John Connally and George Bush and both campaigned heavily for Clements -- the sleek, handsome Connally endorsed him from many a TV spot. Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford also made endorsement visits. As one observer said -- watching all four politicans in a brief display of unity at a Clements fund-raiser -- "They don't want to be caught not here if Clements wins."
And win he did. Now he seems to relish the continuing curiousity about which one he will support.
He leans back on the sofa in his suite at the Hyatt Regency and says, "I talked to both George [Bush] and John [Connally] and told them, 'Under no circumstances will I get between you two good friends of mine.' I told all four, 'You are just going to have to do your thing.'" And, if by next year no favorite has clearly emerged, Clements has not ruled out being a favorite-son candidate.
Admittedly, he has the look on TV; there he appears as a sort of tall, lean Randolph Scott with a flat Texas drawl. He is, however, short. (He says he's 5-feet-10 but looks shorter.) And he doesn't look much like a Texan or a multimillionaire in his gray pinstriped suit, worn with short-sleeved shirts. He wears wing-tipped shoes, not boots.
He can be as rough as some politicians can be slick. After two-term Gov. Dolph Briscoe was defeated in the primary, Clements was asked if he would seek the former governor's support. Clements kissed Briscoe off as he drawled, "Well, every now and then a hog finds a stray acorn..."
While his blunt style rubs some the wrong way, others say such things as, "At least with Clements, what you see is what you get."
It has been suggested that some politicians seek office because they need crowd applause to quiet their inner insecurities. Clements -- who talks only in absolutes -- seems taken aback at the suggestion that he might need that applause. "I can assure you," he says, "I am not insecure about anything."
Clements's brand of self-confidence grew out of his tough slog to the top. At 17, just as he was preparing for college, his father went broke in the Depression. "That's what you could term a rude awakening." he says drily. "Dad spent the rest of his life, about 18 years, paying off his debts, whether to the tailor or banker."
Clements started working in the oil fields, keeping $50 a month and sending $100 home. He scraped up enough money for two years at Southern Methodist University and then realized, "I was making more in the oil fields than some of my friends graduating with an engineering degree."
He quit school and was sitting around one day after work when a friend said, "Let's go in the oil-drilling business." Clements said that sounded just fine -- but there was only one problem: "You and I don't have any money." His friend said, "I have a friend who's got some money."
"And that was it," Clements says of his company's rapid growth. Managing the business, handling payrolls, moving into the international field gave him the sense of accomplishment that has stayed with him -- to say nothing of the appurtenances.
There is the home in Dallas with tennis courts and swimming pool, the home in Vail, Colo., and the Virginia hunt-country estate once owned by John and Jacqueline Kennedy. Clements and his second wife, Rita, the former Texas Republican committeewoman he married a few years ago, enjoy playing tennis and the countryclub life.
"They are out of that Dallas business world which is still nouveau .He's got tons of dough and that opens a lot of doors," says a veteran Texas political observer.
Clements also is considered shrewd and smart. For years a "behind-the-scenes" fund-raiser and backer, he was co-chairman of the Texas committee to reelect Nixon. In 1973, Clements left his firm -- in which he owned a reported $100 million in stock -- to become deputy secretary of Defense for Nixon and Ford. He became known for his hard-line support of bigger defense. (And he also drew some congressional charges of possibleconflict of interest between his policy responsibilities at the Pentagon and his ties to oil companies influenced by those policies.)
Today's defense budget is "too low," he says, getting up and walking around the room, fingers grabbing air to illustrate the "pincer-like movement of Russia "moving into the Middle East. "This Iranian situation is ominous, most ominous."
Clements is off on his favorite topics: Carter, foreign affairs and the energy crisis.
"Mr. Carter's batting average in foreign affairs is very poor He's not surrounded himself with the best available talent to assist him. It's disturbing to me to read about Mr. Hamilton Jordan having serious input to our foreign policy." With a wink and a big laugh he adds, "I just don't believe that's his forte."
Yesterday, Clements held a press conference -- hardly a conventional move for a freshman governor -- to push the pro-oil-industry line on how to solve the energy crisis, including moderated "environmental restrictions." He insists that in 10 years America could be energy sufficient; although many energy experts say this is impossible.
No matter -- Clements has a hot topic in energy in these days of Middle East unrest and rising prices of imported oil. It is likely that he will ride this horse as far as it will go.
He sees no comeback for liberals: "Their time has passed." Sen. Edward M. Kennedy "has too much baggage" -- from national health insurance to Chappaquiddick -- "to have a chance to make it as president," says Clements. "I think he likes to hold himself in limbo and get everybody excited. He enjoys the attention."
And Jerry Brown? "I don't think he has any possibility of being a presidential candidate," Clements says scornfully. "Although..." and then the grin spreads as he thinks of it, "he may cause President Carter some heartburn."