Back to mobile

Bernard Rapoport, 1917 – 2012

A Life Examined
by Published on
Photo by Alan Pogue
Bernard Rapoport

I came to know Bernard Rapoport when he was chair of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and I was editor of this publication in the early 1990s. One of our writers was reporting on a story about conflicts of interest within the UT administration. When the university president ignored our requests for what we believed was public information, we did what reporters do. We sent a Texas Public Information Act request letter to each member of the Board of Regents—including board Chair Bernard Rapoport.

B—who passed away late Thursday night in Waco—had been the Observer’s most generous and dependable financial supporter since the 1960s. The University of Texas Board of Regents was the only political appointment he’d ever wanted, and he went at it with the enthusiasm, intelligence and energy he had devoted to American Income Life — the insurance company he and his wife Audre started with a $25,000 investment in 1951.

Without even a phone call to warn him, we had sent B and each of his colleagues on the Board of Regents registered letters, which state law compelled them to answer.

His response was immediate.

On the day he received his letter, he called the publisher’s office.

“Who the hell is running the show down there?” he asked.

Then he instructed the publisher to tell me that “the Observer will never get another dime from Bernard Rapoport.”

We waited for the responses to the open records letters, which never arrived, then ran the story without the information, informing readers that the regents had ignored our requests.

Three months later, after yet another monthly check didn’t arrive, I called Bernard. He asked me to come to Waco and meet with him.

“Why haven’t we met?” he asked me when I walked into his office.

I told him I should have been courteous enough to warn him that the demand letters were in the mail. I also told him the story had run without the information we requested from the regents.

He said he had read the story and it lacked balance.

“John Dewey said every government needs a minister of irritance,” Bernard said. “I support the Observer because it’s the minister of irritance in Texas.”

Sometimes, he said, he was angry at himself for supporting the Observer.

He told me the monthly checks would resume, including the three he had withheld. He would support the Observer, under the same agreement he had made with Ronnie Dugger 50 years earlier: “I don’t intend to tell you what to write or what not to write.”

If B Rapoport had a character flaw, it was loyalty. It turned out that he was as loyal to the Observer as he was to the UT System’s chancellor, whom he believed we were treating unfairly.

As I was leaving his office, B told me I shouldn’t bother to wait for the information we had requested. He wasn’t responding. He had told his colleagues on the board to ignore the Observer’s open records letters, that he would “take care of them.”

The chairman of the UT Board of Regents was telling me he had violated the Texas open records law and directed the other regents to do the same. I told him I disagreed with him.

It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

 

When Ann Richards appointed Bernard to the University of Texas System Board of Regents in 1991, she got a skilled CEO, an impassioned advocate for higher education for low-income children and an intellectual devoted to academic freedom.

B saw the appointment as an opportunity to take the university to kids whose economic circumstances made leaving home impossible. He promoted the South Texas-Border Initiative that built and expanded campuses in South Texas, and considered the University of Texas downtown San Antonio campus —close to the city’s working-class West Side—his finest single accomplishment as chair of the Board of Regents.

“Those young people couldn’t come to the university,” he said, “so we took the university to them.” B had left San Antonio more than 50 years earlier to attend college. He paid his tuition, room and board by working full-time at his uncle’s jewelry store, and the University of Texas had changed the course of his life. In San Antonio, and in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, he was putting the university at the doorsteps of kids who otherwise might not have beat life’s odds.

B believed in the transformational power of education. He talked about his college years in Austin the way some men of his generation talked about their service in the Second World War. (B was classified 4-F by his draft board because one of his legs was shorter than the other, the result of a childhood accident.)

In the 1930s, the University of Texas had “the best economics department in the country,” B would say. Professors Bob Montgomery, Edward Everett Hale, and Clarence Ayres had shaped Bernard Rapoport’s intellectual development. B delighted in returning to a conversation he once had with John Kenneth Galbraith, who decades later told him that in the 1930s and 1940s the economics department at the University of Texas was “the best and most radical in the country.”

“The most radical economics department in the country!” Bernard would say. “Why can’t we do that today?”

I often thought B should have been a professor. He was learned. Learned unlike anyone I’ve ever known outside academe. Had his father David Rapoport landed in New York rather than Texas when he fled persecution in Siberia, I am convinced that his only son would have become one of our great public intellectuals. As it turned out, B made $565 million building an insurance company. Along the way, he became one of our great private intellectuals.

Marx, Keynes, Veblen, Dewey, Mumford, Ortega y Gasset, Hume, Weber, Niebuhr. Name the writer. Bernard had read and reread them. He didn’t quote economists and social theorists, but he was conversant in the systems of thought and analyses they developed.

The friendship I developed with Bernard and his wife Audre began with regular trips from Austin to Waco, to brief B on the Observer’s financial condition, and to plead with him to increase “his participation.”

Meetings in Waco involved dinner at the Outback Steakhouse, where the Rapoports were regulars. After I left the Observer in 1999, I continued the trips to Waco for dinner.

Dinner at the Outback always began at 7, with Canadian Club whisky and water on-the-rocks.

Then politics.

Bernard Rapoport’s politics were grounded in his conviction that the role of government was to improve the lives of its citizens. The growing accumulation of wealth in the highest tax brackets gnawed at him. He considered it not only unjust but a threat to capitalism.

B told his marbles story so frequently and widely—as a child he would go in the tank just as he was about to win all his opponents’ marbles, so the game could continue—no one was surprised that the party favors at his 90th birthday party at Jay Rockefeller’s Washington mansion were bags of marbles and airline-cabin-service bottles of Canadian Club.

If wealth, like marbles, wasn’t distributed, capitalism couldn’t work.

Audre, who as a sometimes-not-too-silent partner had helped B build American Income Life, knew the marbles metaphor and could usually see it coming. While she isn’t a bibliophile in the B Rapoport category (who is?), she shares his politics and is a keen observer of human behavior — from U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s newly acquired gravitas to the unfailing good manners of George H. W. Bush. And Like B, Audre “adored” the Clintons.

An unavoidable digression from dinner conversation at the Outback involved B’s grilling of the waitperson about college and career plans. B was sincere, and the kids waiting tables seemed to know it. Somewhere in Texas, a young woman with a newly minted MBA must recall a line of received wisdom that a larger-than-life nonagenarian delivered with her tip: “My father always said, ‘take care of your family name and never get caught without a book in your hand.’”

But Bernard couldn’t help himself, and the conversation inevitably would turn to the ideas he cared about.

“Why,” he would ask, “isn’t Marx taught anymore? Is it possible to understand labor theory without reading Marx?”

Who, other than Bernard Rapoport, would discuss Spain’s greatest modern thinker over dinner at the Outback in Waco, Texas? “Anyone who believes that José Ortega y Gasset was an authoritarian has misunderstood The Revolt of the Masses,” Bernard said.

How many of the Waco Outback’s regulars walked in the door ready to unload on journalists who got it wrong when describing Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence on Barack Obama? “Writers who focus on Niebuhr’s theology always forget his contributions to secular liberal thinking,” Bernard said.

“Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class was written 100 years ahead of its time.”

Was I interested in “collaborating on an essay reinterpreting Mumford’s Technics and Civilization for the post-industrial, age of information?”

“Did I ever tell you how John Dewey freed me from Karl Marx?”

Not the usual conversation one hears over Bloomin’ Onions and Victoria’s Filets at Outback.

B didn’t limit himself to the liberal arts curriculum of his college years. He introduced his friends to Chalmers Johnson’s critique of American empire, promoted Paul Woodruff’s slim volume on democracy, flogged Norton Garfinkle’s The American Dream vs. The Gospel of Wealth, read each of Taylor Branch’s volumes on the civil rights movement, and was disturbed by what Lewis Lapham discovered when he set out to write Money and Class in America.

I honestly believe that Bernard could have driven across Interstate 35 to the Baylor campus and taught a class on moral philosophy or economics.

This is not to suggest that dinner with Bernard was academic or disquisitional.

It was political gossip; election handicapping; stories about travel.

It was an account of Bernard’s courtship of Audre Rapoport — (née Newman), to whom he had proposed on the morning after their first (blind) date in 1942.

The story of Audre and Golda Meir sharing a smoke and realizing they smoked the same brand of cigarettes.

It was a description of walking into a café in Jerusalem with the city’s mayor, Teddy Kollek, and observing that Kollek was beloved by Jews and Palestinians.

It was B’s delight in the telling and retelling of his response to an American Income Life manager who warned B that one of his agents was gay: “How much business does he write?”

It was Bernard’s off-color humor and the same four recycled baseball jokes that seemed like starting pitchers in a regular rotation.

It was inquiries about the Observer’s finances.

It was B’s never-ending variation on the same theme: that no matter how much he invested in candidates, campaigns, or advocacy groups, he was losing ground in his attempt to make the country a more just and humane place.

And always updates on Abby and Emily, B and Audre’s granddaughters. No reporter ever wrote a lede as compelling as what Abby had written a week earlier, no American poet had ever written as fine a line of verse as had Emily.

 

Bernard Rapoport changed American politics for the better. He invested millions in campaigns, wrote checks and raised funds to elect the current Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, was devastated by the Democrats’ loss of the U.S. House in 2010, and had his heart broken when Waco Congressman Chet Edwards lost his seat in an election that no amount of money could have saved. (B regularly called me, and others, during the last election cycle, looking for some glimmer of hope regarding Chet’s race.)

He was a major donor to Ann Richards’ campaigns for governor. He funded Garry Mauro’s quixotic challenge of George W. Bush in 1998. He supported Democratic centrists, like Martin Frost and Tom Daschle. He raised money and organized events to elect Bill Clinton and supported Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign.

B had participated in an early Austin fundraiser for Barack Obama but warned Obama that “if Hillary gets in the race, all bets are off.” B had promised Hillary his support eight years earlier and he delivered.

Bernard had met the Clintons when Bill and Hillary Rodham were working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972. B would become a donor and fundraiser on every one of Clinton’s election campaigns. He was one of a small group of wealthy Democrats who met in Little Rock in the summer of 1991 and committed $1 million to Clinton’s campaign organization and to raising money through the general election. As the Democratic field shaped up in 2008, he was ready to do the same for Hillary.

B believed loyalty mattered, and he was loyal to the Clintons, just as he was loyal to other politicians who had fallen from grace. He provided former Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright a paid position, and a moment of public redemption, after he was driven from office by the thuggery of Newt Gingrich. He stood by Henry Cisneros, politically and financially, after an FBI investigation of Cisneros’ personal life ended his political career.

B quietly helped several victims of Kenneth Starr’s protracted prosecution of Bill Clinton — even if hiring Web Hubbell as a consultant for $18,000 didn’t work out so well. Hubbell was an associate attorney general in the Clinton administration and a casualty of the Whitewater investigation, pleading guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion committed while at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. The $18,000 retainer B paid him resulted in a subpoena to testify before the Whitewater grand jury.

B delighted telling of one member of the grand jury who looked at him and remarked: “He must be innocent, he wasn’t even nervous.”

Web Hubbell needed help, and Bernard helped him. It was that simple.

Molly Ivins described B as the best foul-weather friend a politician could have. “He has hired so many demoralized Democrats who were forced to leave office one way or another, it’s amazing he could keep the insurance company running,” Ivins wrote.

B even offered to put Bill Clinton on retainer at American Life, after Clinton lost his reelection race for governor in 1980. Clinton declined.

While B might have been described as a values investor in political campaigns, contributing to Democrats who could win elections, he put much of his money where his heart and ideals were.

He was the finance chairman for Ralph Yarborough’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate, and, after Yarborough lost to Lloyd Bentsen, labored to raise money for Yarborough’s attempt at a comeback in the Democratic primary in 1972. He contributed to, raised money for, and worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas. He raised money and contributed to Michigan Congressman David Bonior — whose labor-liberal and anti-war principles he considered impeccable.

B once told me he signed on with Paul Wellstone’s 1990 Senate campaign when Tony Mazzocchi described Wellstone as a political science professor who had joined Hormel worker picket lines and been jailed for protesting unfair lending practices. For B, that brief description and Mazzocchi’s endorsement was sufficient.

Mazzocchi was a socialist trade unionist who came out of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union to found the Labor Party. He embodied the politics of David Rapoport, who understood that the relationship between labor and management or ownership is adversarial. When B wrote Mazzocchi a check to cover the cost of a Labor for Peace anti-Vietnam War ad in The Washington Post in the early 1970s, it cemented a relationship between the old-school trade unionist and the man Mazzocchi called “the most radical businessman in the nation.” It probably helped earn Bernard Rapoport a place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

If Paul Wellstone was good enough for Tony Mazzocchi, he was good enough for Bernard.

“I opened up the bank for Wellstone,” B said.

Bernard and Audre opened up the bank for more good causes and candidates than can be catalogued here. Breakfast with the two of them at the St. Regis in Washington was a gathering of the best of the American institutional left — much of it supported by the Rapoports or their foundation: Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies; Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute; Mike Lux, who founded American Family Voices and the Progressive Donor Network; Mary Beth Maxwell of American Rights at Work, whom B and former Congressman David Bonior promoted as Obama’s secretary of labor; and many more.

The Rapoports also opened up the bank for programs and projects in Israel.

Bernard was a devoted Zionist, but Zionist in the mold of Teddy Kollek, who served as mayor of Jerusalem for almost three decades. Like Kollek, B believed that Palestinians were possessed with the same dignity and humanity as Israelis. B also believed that Palestinians should have their own independent nation.

He and Audre once helped underwrite an East Jerusalem eye clinic run by Arab physicians who served predominately Arab patients. Other projects were a day care center and a high school for the children of Israeli families who believed in the nation’s original socialist principles and in peaceful coexistence with Palestinians. In current educational lexicon, the Givat Gonen High School might be described as a human-rights magnet school.

“Anything Teddy asked for,” Audre once said.

Bernard never quit.

Sitting in a wheelchair at the Outback Steakhouse in Waco three years ago, with his health fading, the stock market down and business losses piling up, B told me about an investment he was considering.

“It might earn us millions,” he said. If it did, he would use the money to fund social-service projects, advocacy groups and education.

He told me that though he had used his money to make the country a better place, he wanted one more run at it.

This country seems a smaller place without him.

In lieu of flowers, the family  has generously requested that donations be made to The Texas Observer, or to the Rapoport Scholars Program at the University of Texas.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.