The Man Who Ran Texas

Excerpts from a new biography of Bob Bullock, one of the most powerful, feared, and unpredictable politicians in Texas history
by Published on
Bob Bullock, 1998

The following excerpts are from a biography of the late Bob Bullock to be published in February by the University of Texas Press. During a political career that began with a stint in the Texas House of Representatives and ended in the lieutenant governor’s office, Bullock became one of the most powerful, feared, and unpredictable politicians in Texas. He was a chain-smoking, manic depressive alcoholic who burned through wives, employees, and whiskey, and narrowly escaped indictment. He was also admired to the point of reverence for his political skills, directness, and dedication to the state he loved.

A Turning Point In History

Bullock was appointed secretary of state in 1971 by Gov. Preston Smith on the heels of the Sharpstown banking scandal.

Inside the secretary of state’s office, longtime employees greeted the arrival of their new boss with trepidation.

After the surprise announcement was made, Sybil Dickinson, who had worked there for more than twenty years and often behaved as though she were the secretary of state, walked into [Buck] Wood’s office with an unhappy look.

“Randall,” she said, “we’ve got a problem. Bob Bullock doesn’t know anything about secretary of state.”

“Well, there’s not much to know,” Wood said. True. It was the highest appointive position in state government, but one of the least demanding. The office practically ran itself.

“Oh, this is going to be horrible,” she said.

“I know Bob,” said Wood, who was then director of elections. “We get along fine.”

His reassurances only calmed her a little. Because of his work for Smith-raising funds and attacking the governor’s political opponents-Bullock had gained a reputation of being somewhat unsavory, a bagman, a hatchet man. His mood swings, his erratic veering from project to project, his growing practice of calling associates and underlings at three or four o’clock in the morning, created the perception of a loose cannon. Wood had come to know him well, and even as he tried to soothe his anxious co-worker, he sensed that the office was about to change, that Bullock, now running his own show, was not one to preside over a sleepy hollow. It was an accurate perception.

Bullock hit the door with a frenzied thirst for information. He wanted to know everything at once. He constantly pumped employees for information about their jobs, quizzed the attorneys about the range of laws that affected the office, and, drawing on advice he had picked up earlier from H.C. Pittman at the auto dealers, he believed an education came in with each day’s post. He would spend hours reading the mounds of mail-much of it dull and routine, such as Uniform Commercial Code submissions or mundane corporate filings.

As much mail went out as came in, and it was far too much for one man to sign personally. As had been the custom, an employee asked Bullock for copies of his signature to be etched into a printing block. Bullock tersely refused.

Bullock called Wood and his assistant, Don Ray, into his office and asked about the signature stamp business.

“Bob, there’s a lot of stuff that goes out of here every day. Most of it is just routine. It’s cover letters. You know, ‘Here’s your corporate charter’ kind of stuff,” Wood said.

Bullock bristled. “I’m going to sign the stuff that goes out of here,” he said. “You bring it in here and put it on that table right over there, and I’ll sign it.”

Bullock was proud of his signature. Over the years, he had spent countless hours practicing and perfecting it. He didn’t just dash off a quick scribble; he created art. For a week and a half, he was mostly sequestered in his office, signing stacks of documents and falling further and further behind while his amused underlings speculated on the life expectancy of this new policy.

Wood arrived for work one morning and had just sat down at his desk when he heard Bullock bellow, “Buck!”

Wood walked to his door.

“Tell somebody to get in here and get this shit off my desk and get it out of here,” Bullock said. “I don’t want to see any more of this stuff ever again.”

Wood broke into laughter.

“I know you and Don are sitting out there watching me and knowing this wasn’t going to work.”

“Yeah, Bullock, we tried to warn you,” Wood said. “You weren’t interested in listening, so we figured we would let you find out on your own.”

Wood braced for one of Bullock’s explosive tirades, but it never came. Instead, he joined in laughing at his own folly.

To the dismay of his friends, he was revealing another streak, one that they interpreted as the classic symptoms of manic depression. Besides chain-smoking and polishing off a fifth of Old Charter a day, he was beset by mood swings that reached soaring highs and abysmal depths. One day he would be withdrawn and morose, and steep himself in problem solving. The next, he would be flying, and in those periods, life was one long party of all-night drinking and carousing and reckless behavior.

One night, during a bourbonized domestic quarrel, his wife ordered him out of the house, and he drove to the apartment of his friend and adviser, Carlton Carl, to spend the night. Carl was away, and Bullock couldn’t get into the apartment, so he crawled into the back seat of what he thought was his friend’s 1966 Chevrolet Bellaire. The next morning, he woke up as the car was motoring up Interstate 35, the driver unaware that he had a passenger. Bullock sat up and startled the stranger by announcing, “Hi there, I’m Bob Bullock, your secretary of state.”

A Bullock in a China Closet

In 1974, Bullock was elected state comptroller. Inheriting an antiquated, inefficient office, he proceeded to overhaul it and to pursue companies that had not paid their business taxes. By that time, his reputation for extreme behaviors-personal and professional-was becoming well established.

God Bless Texas cover

In the reorganization frenzy of those first two years, Bullock’s demeanor took twists that went beyond eccentricity. He would fire a staff member at night and rehire him the next morning. He herded his top deputies to long afternoon work sessions in nearby taverns. In the office, he alternated between roaring like a hungry lion and secluding himself poking pins into a voodoo doll representing one of his enemies. Occasionally, he took a chair beside a secretary’s desk and sat for long periods, saying nothing, just chain-smoking and staring into the distance.

Always a voracious reader of history and biography, he added the bureaucratic printing output to his reading list. Most days he took home armloads of reports published by various agencies, pored over them until the wee hours, and frequently woke his top aides to give them an impulsive assignment or solicit their thoughts on how to deal with something in the Department of Parks and Wildlife or improve Child Protective Services or some other agency beyond his jurisdiction. He insisted that his department heads be available anytime he wanted them-few would dare go to the restroom without leaving word with their secretaries-and each received pagers to make sure they were never beyond his reach. Most days, he was at his desk at seven o’clock in the morning, tapping out memos of instruction or criticism to his aides. Few were spared the “blue zingers”-so called because of the color of the paper they were typed on-and few did not live in dread of them.

His gluttony for knowledge became the stuff of Capitol legend. He created a research department unlike anything that had ever existed in Texas government, one that ranged far beyond revenue estimating and the state’s economic trends. Knowledge was coin of the realm, and Bullock was holding all the change. Legislators had previously relied on fragments of information from the various agencies, on the self-serving presentations of lobbyists, or on the business-funded Texas Research League. Now they could turn to the comptroller for independent data-ostensibly untainted by private greed-on almost any subject.

For most of the young liberals who had gone to work for him, it was, in the words of one, “the most exciting time of my life.” It also may have been one of the strangest. During the campaign, he had insisted that everyone who worked for him read and reread The Little Red Hen and absorb its message of individual initiative and self-reliance. After taking office, he copied and distributed to each staffer an 1899 essay by Elbert Hubbard called A Message to Garcia, a sermon on duty, obedience, and resourcefulness built on a tale from the Spanish American War. Garcia, it was told, was an insurgent leader working from a hidden base somewhere in the mountains of Cuba, and President William McKinley needed to get an urgent message to him.

From the story:

Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan who will find Garcia for you if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How the “fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the island, having traversed a hostile country on foot and delivered his letter to Garcia are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! There is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college in the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies-do the thing, “Carry a message to Garcia.”

Bullock wanted only Rowans at his service.

Whenever he came up with a seemingly impossible assignment and a staffer asked, “How are we going to do it,” he or she would fall under an icy stare and the admonition, “You need to go back and read A Message to Garcia. Don’t ask me how to get it done. That’s your job.”

No More Mister Nice Guy

During the 1975 legislative session, Bullock began eyeing the governor’s office. Ultimately, he successfully ran again for comptroller. His personal life and health grew increasingly precarious.

He lived alone, drank alone, and nursed the black moods that were becoming deeper and more prolonged. At work he was indefatigable. He continued to transform and modernize the comptroller’s office, played the Legislature the way Willie Mays played center field, and waged war on [Attorney General] John Hill the way Sherman marched to the sea. He partied with the women who worked for him and still used his state airplane as his personal plaything. All looked normal, but underneath, he was unraveling.

The crash came in November 1977. He and Amelia filed their divorce papers that month, and Bullock, gaunt and weary, his mental state deteriorating, found no solace in the farmhouse on the pond, where the nights were brooding and fretful. His physical condition suggested to friends that he may have been suffering from lung cancer, and they persuaded him to check into M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. Tests revealed no malignancy-only a pre-cancerous lesion of the mouth and throat-but to no one’s surprise he was diagnosed as manic depressive, a condition aggravated by excessive drinking. His liver also was damaged by alcohol, and his blood pressure was being pushed off the chart by heavy smoking. The doctors agreed to treat him only if someone stayed with him on an around-the-clock suicide watch. His top aides took turns shuttling from Austin to Houston on a state airplane.

His personal and professional lives were in shambles, and he indicated to his caretakers that he felt incapable of coping with them. Three divorces. Lawsuits for failure to pay his debts. Killer addictions. Periodic estrangement from his son. Accusations of corruption. A political future in peril. [Bill] Collier was one of the crew that rotated in and out of Houston to keep watch on him. In one period of acute funk, Bullock told him, “I want you to draft a letter of resignation for me.” Collier nodded, but sat on the request for a few days until improved spirits pushed thoughts of quitting from Bullock’s mind.

He was released after a couple of weeks, but little in his lifestyle or disposition had been altered by the dire warnings of his physicians. He was unable, or unwilling, to stop smoking and drinking. For a few months, he took lithium for the bipolar disorder, but discontinued treatment because, he complained, “it took the edge off of my personality.”

His personality was clearly edgy entering the election year. He and his staff, working on state time, put together an elaborate re-election strategy in the fall of 1977, mostly at state expense: News releases individually tailored for local newspapers, tapes for local radio stations, color slides for television stations, and extensive use of his card file of local officials and contributors. Collier complained to Bullock about the bank of secretaries outside his office with “Bullock Campaign 1978″ stationery in their typewriters. Bullock took swift and efficient action. He put room dividers in front of the secretaries’ desks so Collier could not see what they were doing. January proved that it was all a wasted effort. No one, Democrat or Republican, challenged Bullock for the comptroller’s office. The absence of opposition may have convinced him that a year of bad press had left him unscathed and bulletproof.

Drunk School and Beyond

In 1981, Bullock entered alcohol rehab at a California clinic. Friends and employees wondered which of the two Bullock personalities would return.

Long considered a man with an evil twin, the duality of his personality was summed up in a popular saying around the comptroller’s office: “Bob is as noble as John Kennedy and as barbaric as Idi Amin, and always at the same time.” But the Idi Amin side generally was chalked up to booze. Was it possible that the bad Bullock had been exorcised?

The tales Austin’s bureaucrats and politicos reveled in telling about him were more likely to involve savagery than benevolence, but his close friends swore that he was not without feeling and sentimentality. Somewhere, wrapped up in that spring-loaded bundle of implacability, they said, was a tender heart. Claudia Stravato, who worked for Bullock and became his friend, told Texas Monthly, “He had to put on such a brusque exterior, but he was soft as mud inside. He could cry at the drop of a hat.”

And here are Bill Collier’s words, written about the Bullock he knew in better times, in better moods, before things went wrong and the other Bob Bullock threatened to take over completely:

Christmas Day, 1976. I was spending the day alone at a rented farmhouse, broke, broken by a nasty divorce, trying not to be miserable, concentrating on cleaning the wild duck I had shot that morning on the pond out back. The crunch of tires on gravel, sound of the door opening: In walked my employer and friend Bob Bullock … and his constant companion, a bottle of Old Charter.

“I knew I would find you out here cryin’,” Bullock
said.

excerpt"> “I wasn’t crying,” I protested.

We had drinks. Bullock told of a horrible Christmas he spent alone and sick in a rundown hotel room after one of his divorces. Then about another Christmas when he and other misfits got together to cheer each other up, but he wound up hiding in a back room so he could cry unnoticed.

We both cried. We had more drinks.

“I love you like a brother,” Bullock said.

He gave me the bottle and fifty dollars and saw me off to San Angelo, where, he reminded me, a woman who cared about me was waiting. He was right, and it was a good Christmas after all.

There were about 3,000 employees in the comptroller’s office in 1977, and it would have been nearly impossible for Bullock to know all of them. But like a politician running for mayor of a small town, he was intent on knowing at least something about each one, or as many as a cranial database could absorb. He sat for hours in his rocking chair reading personnel files and tucking away tidbits for future use. Then, in a conversation with a staff member, he would mention an item of personal information he had gleaned from the files-alma mater, birth date, number of children. Was it to let them know he was interested in them or to let them know that he knew things? Was he Kennedy or Amin at that moment? No one could be certain. The employee might be pleased that the boss was interested in him or her. More often, he or she was nagged by the questions. Has he been checking up on me? Why? Now and then, they found that he used that information about them in ways that were contradictory to his public persona of a politician given to wrathful rampages and vengeful plots.

A few months after he became Bullock’s chief of staff, Ralph Wayne’s fourteen-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident in Brownwood. After attending his daughter’s funeral, Wayne returned to the Austin townhouse he had rented but had not taken the time to furnish with a television. In his bedroom, he found a large Sony Trinitron and a note from Bullock: “I know you won’t be sleeping much, so I thought this would help.”

A couple of days later, Wayne flew his private plane to South Padre Island, rented a condo, and planned to spend some time working through his grief by reading and walking the beaches and jetties in solitude. He spent a day on the sand under a gloomy overcast and returned to shelter before the rain came. He stayed up all night, finally fell asleep at six o’clock in the morning, and was awakened by a knock on the door at ten-thirty.

Wayne, telling the story to Texas Monthly:

I opened the door and it’s Bullock. He said, “You all right? Family’s looking for you. Hell, everybody’s looking for you.”

I said, “Yeah, I’m all right.”

He got up and left. He knew the numbers on my airplane and tracked me down. Found it at the Cameron County airport.

Even Ben Barnes, an old nemesis about whom Bullock had once vowed to “tell a lie a day” for the rest of his life, got an unanticipated glimpse of a curiously conciliatory comptroller. After losing his race for governor in 1972, Barnes returned to Brownwood to work for his friend and benefactor Herman Bennett. For nearly a decade he had no contact with Bullock. One day, out of the blue, he received a phone call: Bullock was flying into town and wanted to meet at the Brownwood airport. Not knowing what to expect, Barnes agreed, and the two met in a hangar where Bullock’s plane was being serviced. It was a short but memorable encounter.

“We’ve hated one another long enough,” Bullock said. “We ought to be friends.”

They shook hands, and Bullock departed. A few months after that meeting, Barnes moved back to Austin to join with John Connally in a commercial real estate development business. They had been masterful politicians, but, at least in this instance, were hapless businessmen. Their development company began at a time when the Texas real estate market was in a silent decline that was about to become a thunderous collapse. The day after they filed for bankruptcy protection, Bullock showed up at Barnes’ office, handed him $10,000, and said, “Just pay me back when you can.”

Employees told of thank-you letters coming to his office from people they had no idea he had helped. At Christmas time, he received cards of thanks for favors he had rendered but had not discussed with anyone.

“He helped hundreds of people,” said Nick Kralj, the Quorum Club owner and sometime political operative. “He would help people who were not capable of reciprocating in any manner.”

Bob Bullock and Ann Richards

Ann Richards: Friend or Enemy?

Bullock was elected lieutenant governor in 1990, when Ann Richards defeated Clayton Williams for the governor’s seat Bullock had long coveted. The two tangled almost immediately.

“Hairy-legged lesbians,” is how Bullock came to refer to Gov. Richards and her female staff.

Certainly, the inauguration had been a Bullock-Richards lovefest, but it wilted quicker than a rose in the desert. Bullock sized up the governor’s staff as incompetent, indecisive, too cautious, and in one respect, too fiscally conservative. One thing that didn’t help was that the new lieutenant governor had offered a job to Susan Rieff as an environmental adviser. Rieff accepted, but then was asked to go to work for the new governor. She chose to work for Richards, and Bullock, to say the least, didn’t forget.

Richards instituted the ritual of having the lieutenant governor and the House speaker to the governor’s mansion each Monday morning for breakfast and policy discussions. Bullock found the menu decidedly petit. After one breakfast, according to Speaker Gib Lewis, Bullock had about $100 worth of groceries delivered to the governor’s mansion, along with a note: “Next time, I’d like to be fed.”

Some of those close to Bullock felt that his resentment of Richards involved more than her breakfast menu or the performance of her staff. He had held some of the most important positions in state government for three decades, but couldn’t seize the gold ring. She had risen quickly from a lowly county commissioner to the insignificant position of state treasurer to governor, and was a rising star in the national Democratic Party to boot. It should have been him. With an eye on the political future, Richards tried to avoid controversy; with no political future, Bullock was as brash and impatient as ever. The clash of styles was inevitable.

Early in the session, Bullock attended a gathering at the governor’s mansion, where Richards was entertaining newspaper editors and editorial writers from around the state. On the turf of a governor dancing in glass shoes, he sported steel-toed boots.

“Texas needs an income tax,” he declared from the grand staircase in the governor’s mansion, responding to the editors’ questions about the unhappy budget prognosis. He had said it before, had he not? Not exactly. Not so emphatically. For a quarter of a century, Bullock had been warning the Legislature that an income tax “should be looked at” or that it was “inevitable” as Texas ran out of revenue options. Bullock’s predecessor, Bill Hobby, had called for an income tax in late 1989, but as he was on his way out of office and not facing another election. Now Bullock was saying the time had come, saying it in the governor’s new house in the presence of influential opinion-makers. He was the polecat at the prom, and the odor of an outcast topic was as welcome as fire ants.

The reaction was swift, clamorous, and negative. “We literally had two fax machines melt into the corner over the weekend,” said Paul Hobby, Bullock’s chief of staff.

Rumors started to circulate that Bullock was terminally ill. Why else would he so forcefully attempt political suicide? So convincing were the rumors that friends called his office to inquire about him. Word of his imminent passing reached his old friend Clinton Manges, the South Texas rancher whose on-the-edge financial dealings had landed him in bankruptcy court. “Hey, Bullock,” he said, “I got two hundred grand stashed away that nobody knows about. Let’s go around the world. One last good go.”

Hobby was impressed by the devotion of Bullock’s pals. “Here was Clinton Manges, admitting to fraud on a federal court to take his friend Bob Bullock around the world and blow his last two hundred grand,” Hobby said. “That tells you about … the way people felt about him.”

Some of the storm also blew against Richards’ door. Bullock’s dropping of the income-tax bomb in the governor’s mansion was greeted with about as much enthusiasm as if he had fouled himself. Richards hadn’t campaigned against an income tax and hadn’t ruled it out. But her stock response when asked about it while campaigning was that she didn’t think one was necessary. For Bullock to have outed the idea in that gathering of newspaper folk, where it was sure to zoom around the state like a ricocheting laser beam, not only upstaged the governor, but was going to make an issue-packed legislative session even more difficult. A number of people thought it was a good idea, and agreed with Bullock and Bill Hobby that it was long overdue. But if there’s a right time for the right idea, this wasn’t it. Richards was still testing her wings as governor, and now Bullock had provided a large and turbulent headwind. How dare he?

You’ve Got to Kiss Me First

The closeness of Bullock’s relationship with Gov. George W. Bush mystified political observers. Though the Republican governor was not exempt from “it”-Bullock’s temper-he and Bullock worked together better than Bullock and Richards had. In 1995, Bullock fell from a deer stand and broke both wrists, then contracted pneumonia.

Recovered from the pneumonia, Bullock returned to the Senate and continued to run it in the manner in which the senators were accustomed, with sound and fury.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, an African-American from Houston, had introduced a bill in the 1993 session that would have resulted in more black judges getting onto the bench. It failed, and he came back in 1995 with another, this one to appoint some judges in larger counties. Bullock knew the bill would be difficult and controversial, so he sent [David] Sibley, [Ken] Armbrister and [John] Montford to meet with Ellis and work out a compromise. Ellis considered their proposal, but decided to stand firm.

He got a call from Bullock.

“They tell me you didn’t want to compromise,” Bullock snapped.

“No I didn’t,” Ellis said.

“Well fuck you, you black motherfucker,” Bullock shouted. “You’ve got to show some leadership. You can’t have everything you want.”

Startled, Ellis tried to calm him. “Governor, I’ve always supported you,” Ellis said.

“Fuck you,” Bullock said.

Ellis invoked the name of Mickey Leland, a popular African-American former Texas House member from Houston, on whose congressional staff Ellis had once worked. Leland was one of the black legislators who had forgiven Bullock for his segregationist votes when he was a House member, and had been killed in a plane crash in Africa that precipitated Ellis’s move to the Senate.

“Fuck Mickey Leland, too,” Bullock said.

Ellis was so distraught that he left his office and walked around the Capitol grounds for a long time, trying to figure out what to do-about Bullock and his judicial appointment bill. He talked to Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson, another African American, who told him, “Do what you’ve got to do.” He decided he would not compromise just to get along with Bullock. How would he get along with him? He called Jack Roberts for advice.

“Ellis, if he cusses you out, that means he likes you,” Roberts assured him.

Rather than keep Ellis’ bill from advancing to a vote, Bullock presided over its passage in the Senate, but, to no great surprise, it died in the House. Bullock later called and told Ellis, “You’re a great Texan.” He confided that he had stood with Ellis on that bill “to make up for voting for that poll tax” in the late 1950s. He invited Ellis and his wife to join him and Jan on a trip to South Africa after the session closed.

Gov. Bush also received the it Paul Hobby had foretold. It was precipitated by Bush’s appointment of Catherine Mosbacher, the wife of Bullock’s 1990 Republican opponent, to the Department of Human Services board. He had no legal obligation to consult with Bullock, but giving him a heads-up courtesy might have avoided it. While Bullock was still smoldering over the Mosbacher affair, Bush showed up in the Senate uninvited. Governors don’t have Senate floor privileges, though that prohibition is generally ignored.

Bullock, watching Bush meander from desk to desk during a floor debate, laid down his gavel, stepped down from the podium and walked over to the governor, got close to Bush, and said, “You’re a cocky little motherfucker, aren’t you?”

Bush, taking Hobby’s advice, smiled and moved on.

Those who had to deal with him could see little evidence that a 20-foot fall and a near-death experience with pneumonia had taken any starch out of him.

Bob Bullock and George W. Bush

But the friendship between the new governor and the grizzled, combative lieutenant governor developed into a warm one. “I think that Bullock initially had a very good political relationship with Governor Bush, beginning with the governor’s election,” said Jack Martin, Bullock’s close confidante who managed the lieutenant governor’s part of their joint inauguration. “But as time passed Bob developed a true and deep personal affection for the governor. What I saw between those two men was as deep a friendship as I have seen.”

“Their friendship was based on straight talk, constant communication, and sharing a public policy agenda that always placed the people of Texas first and foremost,” said Reggie Bashur, a top aide on Bush’s gubernatorial staff. “They agreed on many issues, but when they had a difference of opinion on an issue, there was an abiding respect and unwavering spirit of cooperation.”

[House Speaker Pete] Laney recalled an episode when that friendship defused a potentially serious conflict. During one of their weekly meetings, Bush and Bullock were at an impasse over a detail in one of Bush’s cornerstone issues. Bullock was unwilling to compromise.

“I’m going to have to fuck you on this one,” he told the governor.

Bush stood, walked over to Bullock, and kissed him.

Sputtering and wiping his mouth, Bullock said, “What the hell was that all about?”

“Nobody ever fucked me without kissing me first,” Bush said.

Longtime political writer Dave McNeely was a reporter and columnist for the Austin American-Statesman for 26 years, and continues to write a syndicated column for Texas newspapers. Jim Henderson, a veteran Texas journalist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, is now a freelance writer. He previously worked for the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Chronicle.

Dave McNeely, former columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, writes a weekly political column for more than two dozen newspapers.