The Man in the Panama Hat

Gary A. Keith reclaims the legacy of Bob Eckhardt, the quixotic progressive.

Fellow eccentric Maury Maverick Jr. described Bob Eckhardt as “98 percent genius, 2 percent village idiot.” Two percent is probably lowballing it, but none would dispute that Eckhardt was a remarkably perceptive guy, a populist politician with an amused mien, thick drawl, and naughty streak.

Eckhardt: There Once Was A Congressman from Texas is the first biography of the homegrown progressive since his death in 2001. Given the depth of research, it may be the last. The book counts as political science and Texas history. But its greatest accomplishment is reclaiming a crucial figure who is already fading from public memory. Gary A. Keith, a political scientist and assistant professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, has done posterity a favor.

Eckhardt: There Once Was A Congressman from Texas

“Bob Eckhardt was an intellectual giant who made an indelible mark on the work of the U.S. House Of Representatives during the 14 years he served in that great institution,” former Vice President Al Gore writes in the book’s foreword. “He was a Shakespeare-quoting, Renaissance man of high principles who had a lust for life that included a love affair with the Constitution and a consuming passion to craft legislation in the public interest.”

For four decades-including stints in both the Texas House and U.S. House-Austin-born and bred Eckhardt was a leading figure among Texas progressives. He was also a character. His manner of expression was courtly and ornate. He collected obscure and lyrical turns of phrase, and worked them into his everyday speech. Chairing a subcommittee in the U.S. House, he declared, “Seniority is like a frigid, flirtatious shrew. When I was courting her, she made me miserable. Now that I have her, she gives me no satisfaction.” During a debate in the Texas House over whether to delete information on parentage from birth certificates, he said, “I am not so much worried about the natural bastards of this state as the self-made ones.”

Literate and droll as he was, he was also wild. Before ever meeting him, his third wife, Celia Morris, had observed the congressman eating at Scholz Garten in Austin, “cutting his bread with his pocketknife and plunging the bread into his gravy, swirling the bread around, then eating it with a look of immense satisfaction.” Keith writes, “She was not amused.” He describes Eckhardt’s lifestyle when he was between wives: “The floor of his apartment was completely strewn with dirty clothes, books, and kitchen items. He would prop his typewriter on two empty whiskey cases close to the gas heater, typing away in a cold apartment.” Apparently Eckhardt lived like this at the end of his days, when his supply of wives had been exhausted.

Bob Eckhardt

Then there is the matter of Eckhardt’s style of dress, which was splendiferous. He was known, especially in later years, for wearing rumpled seersucker suits, gaudy bow ties, and large panama hats. Combining these with his long, thick, gray hair and blunt cigar, Bob Sherrill wrote that he had a “Spanish-moss quaintness and an elegant corniness that people tend to associate with Southern politicians.”

As Keith says, the sort of guy you’d like to have a drink with.

Eckhardt was born in 1913 at 2300 Rio Grande in the heart of Austin’s West Campus neighborhood. He descended from Prussian nobles who began homesteading the Hill Country in the mid-1800s. Like them, he was a romantic, a classicist, a progressive, an intellectual, and a believer in human rights and civil liberties. He also believed in having fun. As a boy, Eckhardt rode horses, drew on sidewalks with chalk rock, wrote poetry, and sculpted obscene body parts with Johnny Faulk and Jack Kellam from clay dredged from the banks of the Colorado River.

This carefree life stretched into high school and then into his studies at the University of Texas, where Eckhardt encountered a generation’s worth of operators who would dominate Texas politics for 50 years. Amazingly, Creekmore Fath, Jake Pickle, John Connally, Allan Shivers, Bernard Rapoport, Tommy Sutherland, Fred Schmidt, Hector Garcia, Gus Garcia, Henry B. Gonzalez, D.B. Hardeman, and Stuart Long, were all his classmates at UT. Most became lifelong allies or adversaries. He couldn’t help but get swept into politics, running and losing against Pickle for president of the student assembly.

During these years, Eckhardt added beautiful, strong-willed women to his interests. He met and wooed roommates Orissa Arend and Julya Thomson, falling in love with both. The former became his wife in 1942 and bore him two girls. The latter became his long-term lover. His refusal to give up the affair ended his marriage in 1961. Orissa, suffering from bipolar disorder, killed herself four years later. By then Eckhardt had broken off his relationship with Thomson and married Nadine Brammer, another beautiful, talented, and strong-willed woman, and the former wife of Billy Lee Brammer, author of The Gay Place and former Texas Observer editor. With her, he had another daughter and was a stepdad to Nadine’s three kids from her marriage to Brammer.

Eckhardt came of age politically in the 1950s. The political junkie unfamiliar with this era of Texas history should read up-it’s impossibly fascinating and perverted. The agreed-upon starting point is 1952, when Ralph Yarborough challenged Allan Shivers for governor. The story goes that Yarborough, the magnetic populist, bumped into Shivers in the Capitol and announced his plan to run for attorney general. Shivers, the establishment autocrat, informed him he need not file: A candidate had already been chosen. The incensed Yarborough filed in the governor’s race instead.

That angry reaction began a six-year cycle of endless campaigning, not just for Yarborough, but for Eckhardt and the entire liberal wing of the Texas Democratic Party. Yarborough lost for governor in ’52. Between ’52 and ’54 (governors served two-year terms then), he put enormous pressure on Shivers with nonstop crusading in every corner of the state. Eckhardt stumped right along with him.

Shivers responded with demagoguery. He declared his unalterable opposition to integration. He called a special session of the Legislature and pushed a series of bills that outlawed the Communist Party and mandated death for its members. He charged that Yarborough was controlled by unions and the NAACP, which in turn were controlled by communists. The smears culminated in the notorious “Port Arthur Story,” a television spot created by Pickle that turned a labor strike in Port Arthur into a communist plot to destroy the town.

Businesses showed “Port Arthur Story” throughout the state and helped Shivers defeat Yarborough by a few thousand votes in the ’54 primary. After the defeat, liberals decided they needed a statewide newspaper to deal with such situations. About 30 met at the Driskill Hotel in October. They decided to purchase The State Observer and install 24-year-old Ronnie Dugger as editor. Eckhardt drew up papers for the sale. Dugger, with Eckhardt’s crucial backing, was granted complete editorial control. He renamed the paper The Texas Observer and turned to Eckhardt for artwork and cartoons.

Eckhardt had found expression for his creative side in various ways all his life. He’d executed murals and paintings during his years at UT and written poetry and journalism as well. Cartooning was his big thing, though. He’d drawn cartoons compulsively since childhood and published many anonymously in the ’40’s in The Texas Spectator, a precursor to the Observer. “He created logos for the various sections of the Observer, as well as a cartoon for its first issue: a man with a cane, top hat, long braid, and topcoat, saying, ‘I do not agree with anything you say, and I will fight to the death your right to say it.'” Dugger was delighted. The two became close friends. Eckhardt drew nearly 100 cartoons for the Observer between 1954 and 1990.

Bob, Nadine and Sarah Eckhardt.

In 1957, Yarborough and the liberal Democrats cashed in on six years of campaign frenzy. Yarborough was elected to the U.S. Senate. With liberal power cresting, Eckhardt jumped into a race for a state House seat from Houston. With his connections to labor and the contributions of longtime Yarborough operatives like Frankie Randolph, Eckhardt began a stretch of 22 consecutive years in public office. Eckhardt loved the work. Keith writes that he “would mull over the bills, listen to the debate, then go sit on the carpeted steps going up to the speaker’s desk, scribble out an amendment, plop it on the desk, and wait his turn at the mike.” With his friendly, accommodating style, even the segregationists liked him. And he understood not only how to write a bill to make it do what he intended, but how to move it through the sausage grinder.

His first success was the Open Beaches Act of 1959. As he prepared for his freshman term, the Texas Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing beachfront landowners to drill for oil. Some owners thought the decision allowed them to fence their beaches. The ruling disturbed the Eckhardt family, which had for years frolicked on the Galveston beach.

The newly elected representative went into lawyer mode, researching common law. He sent editorials to newspapers. He did interviews. He talked to every member of the House and signed up more than half as co-sponsors of a bill to get the fences taken down. Keith writes, “They may not have known it, but those legislators were signing on not just to a bill to overturn Luttes [the ruling allowing fences], but also to a historical understanding and a legal philosophy that Eckhardt had coaxed from his studies.” Eckhardt harmonized elements of Roman and Spanish law, old English law, and the practices of early Texas settlers to arrive at a notion of “the commons” as applied to Texas beaches.

Developers attacked. Even with public opinion overwhelmingly on his side, Eckhardt had to beat back amendment after amendment on narrow vote margins once the bill hit the floor. By reminding fellow legislators of the bill’s support (and even dropping his usual decorum on occasion-he uncharacteristically threatened that he would “burn” a fellow congressman if he voted against the bill), he prevailed. In years since, the Open Beaches Act has served as a model for similar measures in California and Oregon. At the end of his legislative career, Eckhardt considered it his best bill.

Eckhardt served eight years in the Texas Capitol and then won a U.S. House seat. Over 14 years in Washington, he pursued the same interests he always had: fair taxing (he spent his life trying to tax the oil and gas industry), civil rights, consumer protection, and safeguarding the environment. His efforts helped clean up Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel, create the Big Thicket National Preserve, regulate toxic substances, improve automobile safety, and ensure the continuation of product safety regulation. Keith writes that “his fingerprints were all over the Alaska Lands Bill, Superfund, Clean Air Act, Securities Act, and Federal Trade Commission Warranty Act [and] he became the chief craftsman of the Toxic Substances Control Act.”

As the years went by, Eckhardt focused more on policy and began getting mixed reviews on constituent service. He’d never been an enthusiastic or disciplined campaigner. He wrote that his supporters “demand that I demean myself. … They think, ‘Yeah, he gets elected to that high and mighty office of representative, place 2, but look how silly he looks jumping up as high as he can with his shirttail hanging out, nailing a political placard out of reach; look at him with his pockets all bulging with stuff about himself, trudging through the supermarket parking area.’ It’s sort of like a fraternity initiation. When you’ve done enough demeaning exercises to hate yourself and everybody around you, they think you’re fit for their company-and I suppose you are.”

By 1980 only 28 percent of his constituents recognized his name. This, along with his unrelenting attacks on the oil and chemical industries, finally caught up with him. Big oil mobilized. The religious right, a new phenomenon, did so as well. Eckhardt’s record of consecutive victories ended at 23. A new political age dawned.

He tried his hand at lobbying, but he’d had heart surgery in 1978 and hadn’t been the same since. “His doctor told him to cut back his drinking to no more than one drink a day,” writes Keith. “So, he would fill the tallest glass he had with his scotch or his wine and drink that one drink.” Booze was blamed for a stroke in 1988 that temporarily stole the famed orator’s power of speech. In retirement, Eckhardt liked to spend afternoons sipping whiskey in his backyard tree house. It’s one of the places Keith visited him and saw that Eckhardt never gave up his whiskey.

Keith quotes Eckhardt extensively throughout the book. Reading those words creates a certain cognitive dissonance. It’s taken for granted that politicians relentlessly focus on their work to the exclusion of a larger life. In Eckhardt’s case, the politician never snuffed out the man. In his quotes, we encounter Eckhardt the artist, Eckhardt the lover, Eckhardt the craftsman, Eckhardt the philosopher. But the most disconcerting thing about his words is the vulnerability in them. After his 1958 campaign, he wrote that he’d blocked “that unguarded door of the imagination. I’ve blocked it in the campaign. I pass out these little cards and brochures and say ‘good morning,’ ‘how are you today,’ ‘may I give you one of my folders,’ ‘thanks.’ But the door leaks a little.”

Brant Bingamon is a writer in Austin.