Surveying the oil-fouled beaches of the Texas coast recently, Gov. Bill Clements remarked, "There's no use in crying over spilled milk. Let's don't get all excited about this thing."
"This thing" -- the world's largest oil spill -- and Clements' chin-up dismissal of it have caused Texas' first Republican governor in 105 years more grief than anything else since taking office in January.
Not since the 62-year-old Clements threw a rubber chicken into the not-quite-empty plate of the wife of the mayor of Amarillo at a 1978 political dinner have the Dallas millionaire oilman's tough-guy ways landed him in so much trouble.
his said, it should be noted quickly that, so far, Texans seem rather pleased with their gritty and impolitic governor who has set out to prove that conservatives can be activists, that Texas should be reckoned, a permanent force in national affairs, and that as governor of the third most populous state he should be taken seriously as a mover and shaker with a national agenda.
In striking contrast to his immediate predecessors, Clements is working to become a state, regional and national leader. He is paring the state payroll to cut spending and jawboning the heads of independent state agencies to do the same.
He has met with other border state governors to coordinate policy on common concerns, and has been to Mexico four times in efforts to solve drug, immigration and energy problems -- as well as to embarrass President Carter, whose only state visit to Mexico is best remembered in the Southwest for the "Montezuma's revenge" statement and other gaffes.
A typical recent schedule began with a network television appearance and a visit south of the border, and ended with a trip to the Soviet Union, and so at times it is hard to tell whether William Perry Clements Jr. is just the 40th governor of Texas or the sixth president of the Republic of Texas.
"Bill Clements is the strongest and most effective governor Texas has had since John B. Connally," says Doug Harlan, a state Republican Party activist and analyst in San Antonio.
But the practical results of Clements' first eight months in office are more mixed, and his handling of the oil spill blackening Texas beaches has done him no good. His success as a cost-cutter has thus far been modest. He had promised to reduce state spending by $1 billion, but the reduction was closer to $250 million, and in June he signed into law a $21 billion biennial budget, the biggest in state history.
His efforts to unify border state governors, particularly behind a program to legalize the importation of some Mexican labor, basically failed. And while he proved more diplomatic than Carter during a visit with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, the Mexican leader shrugged Clements off with 30 minutes of talk (Clements' aides predicted a two-hour meeting) and a piece of crystal left over from his inauguration.
Most of Clements' high-priority legislative requests wilted from inattention by the Democrat-dominated legislature this year, although the opposition did act to give the governor greater control over state spending.
"As Texas' best practitioner of political theatrics since John C. Connally," Texas Monthly magazine said in its June legislative wrap-up, "Clements managed to come out looking good despite getting virtually nothing he wanted, as opposed to his predecessor, Dolph Briscoe, who usually got everything he wanted and looked terrible."
One of Clements' harshest critics, Harry Hubbard, president of the state AFL-CIO, nonetheless calls this year's legislative session the most anti-consumer ever, and attributes the damage to the governor. Well, not so much Clements, Hubbard adds, as the reaction of legislators to the shifting conservative winds that helped blow the Republican into the governorship last fall in his first campaign for elective office.
Setbacks notwithstanding, Clements is popular, and the polls show it. Texas is, after all, the state that prides itself on candor.
A country-and-western song currently high on the Texas charts hymns the need for a wild hair once in while." Texas in short, is more hospitable than most states to a shoot-from-the lip governor.
"Go jump in the creek," was Clements' advice to one state legislator.
"No!" he barked at an ABC reporter trying to ask one more question about clements' ties to the company that leased the drilling rig involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.
And then just last week, told that women who deep-sea dive during pregnancy risk serious harm to their babies, the governor quipped, "They're always looking for birth control. We might say, 'Go deep-water diving and exercise birth control.'"
Clements enjoys yukking it up.
"He's a joke, an embarrassment," Hubbard said.
And according to one Democratic pollster, George Shipley, "There are those who argue that Clements' basic brittleness, hot temper and tongue have the potential to ultimately do him in."
Shipley's firm found in a recent poll that Clements enjoys a 64 percent voter approval statewide. The figure varies from poll to poll, but not the basic conclusion that Texans so far approve of their first Republican Governor since Reconstruction.
But, Shipley said, the governor's reaction to the oil spill could "come back to haunt him for years to come."
"You have to measure him in context," cautions Harlan. "His performance versus his predecessors'."
A story: Preston Smith, who succeeded Connally as governor a decade ago, is perhaps most fondly remembered for an appearance at the University of Houston. Taking up the celebrated cause of a young man given a lengthy prison term for possession of a small amount of marijuana, Smith's student audience chanted at the governor:
"Free Lee Otis! Free Lee Otis! Free Lee Otis!"
They chased the governor off the stage, and later Smith was asked about it. "I never could figure out," he told a TV interviewer, "why they were shouting frijoles."
Another story: at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Dolph Briscoe Smith's successor, managed to cast simultaneously his and his delegation's vote for George C. Wallace and George McGovern. Then later, Briscoe, who frequently absented himself from the capital in favor of his Uvalde ranch, called a news conference to announce that he was not mentally ill.
In six years as governor of Texas, Briscoe made not a single appearance on the network Sunday interview programs. He was governor of the nation's premier oil and gas producing state yet it was left to the governor of Oklahoma (now U.S. Sen. David Boren) to speak for the oil-rich states.
By contrast Clements, a man who knows power, is willing to use it to advance the Texas cause as he sees it, to further energy production and to defeat Carter, who carried the state in 1976 and found its 26 electoral votes crucial to his victory over Gerald R. Ford.
Clements has brought to state government managerial habits of mind developed in the oil business as a young man and later at the Pentagon, where he was an assistant secretary of defense under presidents Nixon and Ford. He has set out to solve long-range problems facing Texas, especially the question of where state revenues will come from once oil production begins to decline.
But his tar baby, of sorts, has become the oil borne on Gulf waters from a runaway Mexican well to the tourist beaches of Texas.
Clements is the founder of Sedco, the Dallas-based drilling company that leased the rig involved in the spill to the Mexican state oil company, Pemex. Clements' Sedco stock has been placed in a blind trust, although he acknowledged that the trust isn't all that blind, since there is nothing but Sedco stock in it. His son is president of the company.
Clements still says "we" when mentioning Sedco, and he has maintained that the placidity of his response to the Gulf spill has nothing to do with his Sedco ties.
"A little outrage would have been in order. A little anger, some sorrow, vows to do something," wrote Houston Post columnist Lynn Ashby of Clements' behavior. "I can't help but have a feeling of being let down . . . and the governor says we should pray for a hurricaane" to blow the oil away.
The oil, which has been washing up on the Texas coast for weeks, has officially engaged Clements' attention. The spill and its potential for environmental havoc are serious, he now admits.
Clements, of course, faces challenges on many other fronts, some with implications reaching far beyond his time in office. His role in the political development of this one-party state is the object of much attention. After Clements spent $7 million on the 1978 primary and general election campaigns, most of it his own, former U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough, the gray eminence of the state's liberals, observed that there was "still only one party in Texas. The party of money."
But most analysts here agree that Texas, though not yet comfortable with genuine two-party politics, is at least moving away from monolithic, one-party, Democratic rule. Accordingly, one of the most important measures of Clements' success in office, however long his term, may be the extent to which he helps the Republican Party take hold.
The political drift here is toward state parties more closely aligned with the national parties, much the way Virginia politics went a decade ago. It is a direction desired by both state parties, although the evolution has proved more difficult for the Democrats, whose party officials are generally more liberal than their officeholders.
The dilemma for Clements is clear: how to win our traditionally conservative Democrats and independents to the GOP while saving some of the rewards of political victory for the loyal, long-suffering Republicans who laid the groundwork for his election.
Earlier this year, he hurt some Republican feelings with the appointment of Democrats to state offices and judgeships, but the trend of late has been to fill vacancies with veteran Republicans.
There was a sign last week that Clements' courtship of right-wing Democrats is working. A respected state representative from Dallas appeared in public with the governor to announce his switch in party affiliation, and Clements said he expected other Democratic officeholders to follow suit and register as Republicans.
Clements' success at home has emboldened him, and though he says he has no interest in national office, he claims he's already had an impact on national politics. President Carter's appointment of Houston businessman Charles Duncan as secretary of energy and the president's abandonment of his proposal for amnesty for illegal aliens are, Clements says, largely the results of his lobbying. In the end, though, the important thing is what Clements has done for Texas.
"How Bill Clements does," says Houston Republican State Rep. Chase Untermeyer, "will determine whether we elect another Republican governor in the next 100 years."