Billie Carr

Billie Carr, the godmother of Texas liberals, passed last week at 74. Sue Lovell of Harris County Democrats said she knew Billie was gone when she leaned over the bed and said, “Billie, should I get you a mail ballot?” and there was no response. Billie wanted her funeral conducted in the same political tradition in which she had spent her entire life. “I’ll be half an hour late. I want a balanced delegation of pall bearers–blacks, browns, gays, and an equal number of women. And I want an open casket and a sign pasted over my left tit that says, ‘Hi there! My Name Is BILLIE CARR.'”

They did it exactly as she wished. There were voter registration cards by the guest book. Hundreds of us were there wearing tags pasted over our left tits that said, “Hi there! My Name Is…” and people wore old political buttons from ancient struggles. I haven’t had such a good time at a funeral since Nixon died.

Oh, she was so much fun. Irreverent and improper and absolutely fearless. And she had the greatest laugh. She attended her first political convention in 1928 when she was 26 days old: Her parents pinned a credential on her diaper.

Billie Carr was a working class Democrat her whole life. Her granddaddy stood down the KKK, her parents were both politically active, and her husband David was a Steelworker, but she always counted Frankie Randolph as her greatest political mentor. What a pair. Mrs. Randolph was known as “the Eleanor Roosevelt of Texas.” She was from an upper-class background and although she was a shrewd political player, Mrs. Randolph was also a Southern lady to her bones. Tall, red-headed, raucous Billie, who cussed like an art form and fractured English grammar to the end of her life, was not. She venerated Mrs. Randolph but she had the special gift of being completely comfortable with who she was.

Between the two of them, plus Ed Cogburn, they built the Harris County Democrats into a major political power. They did it the old-fashioned way–by precinct organizing. Billie’s book, How to Do It! Or Organizing a Precinct Can Be Fun is still the manual of choice. Billie believed politics is about people–you have to listen to them, you have talk to them, and all the rest is applesauce.

All over Houston, ever since Billie died, they’ve been having “a moment of silence” in her memory at the public shindigs. How ridiculous is that? If you were having a Billie Carr Minute, obviously everybody would start talking at once, at a very high volume, about some hot political topic, or at least start a good story.

Back in the days when liberals were always walking out or getting tossed out of state conventions on their ears (you don’t know what a good political fight is unless you saw the old Texas Democrats), one time Billie led a walkout with everyone singing, “John Bowden Connally lies a-smouldering in the grass/ John Bowden Connally is a goddamn horse’s ass.” Connally asked afterward. “Who is that red-headed bitch from Houston?” For years after that, Billie gave out business cards that read, “Billie Carr, Bitch.”

Billie often said of politicians, “They’re all alligators. They’re slimy and crawl on their bellies. And if you don’t love ’em and pet ’em and feed ’em, they’ll eat you alive. ” The word is now part of the lexicon of Texas politics: to be an alligator means you sell out on one issue or another. To all the alligators Billie ever chewed out, I would say: She only cussed you out if she cared. If she thought you were hopeless, she never would’ve called.

Billie Carr had known Bill Clinton since he was a baby alligator, come to Texas in ’72 to run McGovern’s campaign. She later worked her tail off for him. A main thing about Billie was, she didn’t just work herself, she made everybody else work their asses off too. When President Clinton got himself into that Monica Lewinsky mess, Billie was pissed off at him as only a woman of a certain age can be about men and their stupidity. She defended him against the Republicans, but she was steamed. Clinton made the mistake of inviting her to the White House in the middle of that deal. Here it is, a big reception line, everyone duded up, all these important folks around, and Billie came though that line, looked the President of the United States in the eye and said, low and hard, “You dumb son of a bitch.” Which is, of course, what every Democrat in America wanted to say to Bill Clinton at the time. Such a tragedy there was no one there to write down the rest of the ass-chewing, but we do know that Clinton started laughing, and said, “Billie, I knew you were gonna do that.” Which proves he wasn’t all dumb.

I love Texas, but it is a nasty old rawhide mother in the way it bears down on the people who have the fewest defenses. Not many can claim a better record for justice and freedom: She was there for the workers and the unions, she was there for the African-Americans, she was there for the Hispanics, she was there for the women, she was there for the gays. And this wasn’t all high-minded, oh, we-should-all-be-kinder-to-one-another. This was tough, down, gritty, political trench warfare; money against people. She bulled her way to the table of power, and then she used that place to get everybody else there too. If you ain’t ready to sweat, and you ain’t smart enough to deal, you can’t play in her league.

Reckon Billie’s somewhere up in heaven, in an old-fashioned Texas icehouse, with the ceilin’ fans goin’ and the beer and soda pop in those long ol’ bins full of icewater. All her family’s with her, and Mrs. Randolph, Millie Bruner, Bob Eckhardt, and Ralph Yarborough–and they’ve all got Bob Bullock cornered at last.

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Molly Ivins’ official editorial run at the Texas Observer lasted six years, from 1970 through 1976; unofficially, it lasted a little longer—her syndicated columns appeared in these pages and she remained a stalwart advocate of the magazine until her death in 2007. Her irreverence and irrepressibility continue to help define the Observer today.

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