Craig Washington, a black member of the Texas House from Houston, summed up the Texas state legislature's most recent session with a sardonic bit of hyperbole that isn't far off the mark:
"It's been a good session because we haven't passed a lot of bad bills," Washington said, allowing as how holding damage to the minimum constitutes victory in Austin. "No man's life, liberty or property is safe when the Texas legislature's in session. So the best thing that we'll do for the people is adjourn tonight at midnight."
Larry L. King is the narrator of the fascinating, surprisingly revealing CBS Reports special "The Best Little Statehouse in Texas," (8 p.m. on Channel 9). A good ole boy himself, King, who has seen and tolerated his share of human foibles, adds:
"What we've seen is not peculiar to Texas -- other mortals in other legislatures in other states make mistakes and cut deals and reach their own handy compromises. In their own ambitions, the needs and desires of the people may not always get top priority. Perhaps my Texans are a bit more colorful, a bit rawer -- but the process, alas, is much the same in your state and in your neighbor's."
This is the windup of an hour-long look at the Texas legislature, the title obviously borrowed from the hit Broadway musical "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," for which King co-wrote the book. King, a Texas writer who has taken other hard looks at the political process there, was an apt choice as narrator and co-author of the script.
He and his crew spent a couple of months earlier this year shooting more than 50 hours of interviews, debates, deal-cutting, arm-twisting, ego- and wallet-stroking and all that other good stuff that makes politics, Texas politics in particular, so fascinating. They focused on three issues -- the redistricting of the state House and Senate seats, in which blacks, browns and Republicans, three notable minorities in Texas, were kept scrambling; the evisceration of an aid-to-bilingual-education bill; and the intense lobbying to raise an interest ceiling to 28 per cent.
"The boys at CBS News got to talking about the kind of America Ronald Reagan wants and they decided it was Texas," King recalls.
Philip Burton Jr., the producer, went to Austin to look the legislature over, wisely decided that an outsider to that gaudy collection of peacocks, clowns, and public servants couldn't tell the players without a program, and called in King.
" . . . the grandest Statehouse in the land, 'built for giants,' a legislator once said, 'and inhabited by pygmies,' " King's narration begins. "Is Texas with its advertised preference for rugged individualism, its soaring economy, its conservative spirit, the blueprint of the nation's future? A model that other states will look to? . . . What may we all be in for?"
Texas will never be a blueprint for anything. Texas is Texas and nothing else even comes close. It's still a frontier in the true American sense of the term -- the place out on the edge of civilization where people still go to seek their fortunes.
People go to Florida to retire and to California to live the good life. They go to Texas to work hard and get rich. Texas politics reflects this hard-eyed, tight-fisted boomerism and it always has. The sheer energy of the state is one reason it's a political reporter's delight.
Another is that Texas is unique in this country in the openness with which the citizenry assumes, and, with a few exceptions, views as unexceptional that a major reason most people go into politics is to better themselves financially. In Boston, in Cook County, even in Jersey's Hudson and Essex counties, there's always an attempt to gloss some patina of righteous justification over the most outrageous political chicanery. Texans hold such hypocrisy to a minimum.
This may account for the extraordinary access King and his cameras got to the backroom wheeling and dealing. ("The thing about it is, just remember this: It don't make any difference whether they have to give or not," House speaker Billy Clayton, a classic political boss, lectures his lieutenants. "We're the ones that are in the givin' situation because we're in the driver's seat . . . Why don't you get somebody just to suggest to Mr. Heatly, that he don't make it hard for me to take care of him.")
King at first feared he might have an access problem because in the past he had written in the Texas Observer some harsh things about some of the boys. So, he was pleasantly surprised when Lt. Gov. William Hobby, a stolid, unsentimental baron of the Texas establishment, welcomed him by asking him to autograph an aerial photograph of the "Chicken Ranch," the legendary bordello that is the subject of "Best Little Whorehouse." ("Bill Hobby could take the excitement out of an earthquake," King says, "but . . . he's cautious, conservative, and carefully guards the state's money.")
Texas pols it turns out are as capable of being star-struck as any others. All the others accorded him a similar welcome and it became apparent that because of the Broadway musical he is a Texas folk hero something like Willie Nelson.
"There didn't seem to be anyone who hadn't seen the show and some obviously had seen it more than once," King recalls.
The presence of the lights and cameras didn't keep the white, conservative majority Democrats, for example, from cutting some hard deals, however. In the redistricting, blacks and Hispanics are pitted against each other. The bilingual education bill is watered down to provide only $50 per pupil rather than the $150 its sponsors had wanted or the $100 they thought they'd compromised on. California, by contrast, provides $180 per pupil.
The senator who introduced the 28 percent interest bill admits that it was drafted by the consultant to the financial lobby that lobbied it to passage. Jim Hightower, president of the Texas Consumer Association and one of the lonely opponents of the bill, had this to say about it:
"It's my sad duty once again to call us together and talk about this ol' ugly interest-rate bill that just keeps getting worse and worse," Hightower, a colorful and respected lobbyist in his own right, tells a press conference. "You know, the Bible teaches us that Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple and now we know where they went: They went right here to the Texas legislature."
Aside from the pleasures of its polemics, one of the appeals of politics is the simplicity of the rules. In elections there are winners and losers, nothing in between. In Billy Clayton's world, winning is having control over committee assignments and other powers that keep the necessary 76 of the 150 votes in the Texas House in his pocket at all times.
Craig Washington defined the rules of politics as well as any: "I never lose my liberal idealism and I never compromise on principles. But I have learned how to get along and I've learned that that's the only way that you accomplish anything down here."