The invitations to the Texas State Society's Saturday night "Y'all Come 'Down Home Party'" said the festivities would commence promptly at 8 p.m. and roar on until midnight. But at a quarter-past eight, in the drab institutionally gray Longworth House Office Building cateria-- not entirely brightened by yellow tablecloths-- volunteer bartender Mario Castillo of San Angelo and Rep. Kika de la Garza's staff, was having a dickens of a time finding anyone to give the free beer to.
Howard Fenton, a Commerce Department lawyer who'd put the wingding together, stood near the cafeteria entrance, nervously checking his watch. "They'll be here," he assured himself, sounding something like a shipwrecked captain talking it up on the life raft. Well, maybe they would, but right then the merrymakers consisted of two old couples sitting sedately as if positioning themselves to play canasta and three reporters interviewing each other while they helped Mario Castillo dispose of his beer problem.
"It wasn't like this in the old days," a veteran Capitol Hill graybeard mumbled. "Hail, back then, when this outfit flang a 'do,' you could count on Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn being in the first row. And enough admirals and generals to start three good wars. Cabinet members, you name it."
But the ranking powers of the Texas congressional delegation now were staying away in droves: no House Majority Leader Jim Wright, no Jack Brooks, no Jake Pickle-- not even Timber Charlie Wilson, the group's most dedicated playboy. Other than Rep. Sam Hall of Marshall-- and hail, ol' Sam, he hadda be there, he's president of the durned outfit-- the only legislators to show were two freshmen, J. Marvin Leath and Charles Stenholm.
Sam Hall was standing around looking like maybe his feet hurt when Marie Wilson, a former aid to LBJ in the glory days, presumed to cheer him by nagging about the food. "The highlight of the buffet," she complained, "is Ritz crackers and rat cheese. And there's not even enough of that." Sam shifted from one foot to the other and said "Well, um, it's a little bit late to worry about that now."
Somebody asked Sam how many members the Texas State Society numbered, Sam rushed off and asked somebody else and returned to say "12-15 hundred. Somethin' like that. "Where are they?" he was asked. Maybe Sam didn't hear the question or maybe he thought it was merely rhetorical.
The party began to pick up a bit as a country-western band sawed and thrummed Texas honky-tonk music-- old numbers made famous by Ernest Tubb, Flloyd Tillman; a sprinkling of Willie Nelson. Songs about hurting good and betrayals of the heart and not letting your babies grow up to be cowboys. Couples danced the cowpoke stomp and now and again somebody ripped off a barroom "yeee-haw."
Mario Castillo and a half-dozen assistants now were kept busy popping the beers; everybody kept saying to everybody else "Whur 'bouts in Texas you from?" People claimed Borger and Wink and Childress and Odessa, nobody admitted to being from Oklahoma. Good ol' boys propped their elbows on the yellow tablecloths and remembered their high school football triumphs and many nights of reveling in "fightin' and dancin' clubs." Burke Bell, who wore a rakish white mustache, named the starting backfield of the 1943 State Champion San Angelo Bobcats. Nobody was caught talking a word of politics in this most political of American cities.
Now the band was playing only songs that had Texas in the title: "Waltz Across Texas," "T-for-Texas," "The Eyes of Texas." Somebody said that Rep. Leath, once a country-western singer himself, was threatening to come out of retirement momentarily. Somebody else -- maybe his wife or maybe his aide, Charles Holmes-- talked him out of it.
Lobbyist Dale Miller, who'd been LBJ's inauguration chairman in 1965, appeared white-haired and tanned in a blue-denim suit and wearing a red bandana tied around his neck. His wife, Scooter, had gone from a reception at the Japanese Embassy to dinner with visitng friends, and Dale was escorting a Dallas Morning News reporter, Nancy Smith. Nobody could remember the last time Scooter Miller had missed a Texas State Society function. There was a time when she near-bout ran the whole shebang.
That was the era when LBJ decided he wanted a low-cost event at which the common folks could shake his and John F. Kennedy's hands on the eve of their inaugration, all other events being geared to the pocketbooks of fat-cats. The Texas State Society obliged him. More than 20,000 people filed through a Washington hotel that night-- at five bucks a head-- and wrang LBJ's and JFK's hands. Later a rumor started that the profits from the event would be spent on a party to honor some general's wife. An enterprising young Hill staffer, who objected to the organization's money being spent on social butterflies, short-stopped 'em by suggesting to Walter Jenkins of the LBJ staff that the profits be donated to the Sam Rayburn Library in memory of ol' Lyndon's dead Mama. Lyndon liked the idea, of course, and presented the check to Sam Rayburn at another Texas State Society function and cried when he talked about his Mama.
Yeah, them was heady days. But Saturday night you could poke through the crowd with a search warrant and about the only titled Texans you would have found were H. K. Allen, vice chairman of the Export-Import Bank, and Lynn Coleman, general counsel of the Department of Energy. I mean, they good ol' boys and all that-- from Temple and Vernon, respectively-- but they ain't no Same Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson.
Late in the evening Rep. Sam Hall rushed up, a little bug eyed, and sang out, "Did ya'll hear anything about Jimmy collapsing?"
Somebody said, "Jimmy who?"
"Carter.", the congressman said, throwing a "You fool idiot" look.
Somebody laughed, thinking Sam was about to tell a joke. "Naw." he said. "I just heard he had some kind of attack."
Glen P. Wilson, of Waco and NASA, explained how Jimmy had tried to run a steep hill too fast but assured the congressman his president had fully recovered. Sam Hall sighed in relief, mopped his brown, everybody went on whooping and dancing, and that was the end of the political talk. Hell, ol' Lyndon, if he'd been there he'd be twisting arms and gabbling political talk till yet.