Déjà Vu All Over Again


Al Dewlen’s 1981 novel The Session, about an imaginary session of the Texas Legislature, is the sort of book you wouldn’t recommend to anyone but might end up reading, the way you might end up eating stale candy, if you happened to come across it.

It’s a book that cries out to be described as “rollicking.” In fact it is so labeled right on the dust jacket: “a raucous, rollicking tale of Texas money, Texas morals, and some larger-than-life men and women.” (As usual, the term “larger-than-life” means “caricatures of,” particularly when the characters in question are women and/or minorities – but when a writer is trying to make a lively potboiler out of Appropriations Committee meetings, what can the reader do but cut him some slack and rollick along?)

The Session’s premise – like that of the current Legislature – is a large budget surplus: $3.5 billion in Dewlen’s tale, which was big money in those days. The year is never specified, but the era is late seventies. The initial chapters chart the arrival in Austin of Neal Youngman, a freshman legislator from the Panhandle, and Emmitt Curry, a good ol’ boy in his last of eighteen sessions. Curry has been betrayed by his longtime buddy, Speaker Peck Oxnard, who had promised to step aside and let Curry be Speaker but then changed his mind. An excerpt from one of the rollickingest of the early scenes – in which piss-drunk Curry confronts Oxnard about his perfidy, in front of Oxnard’s Corvette-driving meathead of a son – conveys the flavor of the narrative:

Emmitt suddenly thought of Peck caught in an old humiliation, a situation as ugly as he was enforcing on Emmitt now, and he seemed powerless not to make use of it. “Know what I’m thinking of, Mr. Speaker? That last time you and I snuck off to San Antonio to play, remember? She was a big-titted Jewess, wasn’t she? With a lot of hair under her arms, and a little gold chain around her belly, and dark red toenails….”

“Don’t Emmitt.” Peck went white. “Don’t.”

“And you just couldn’t make it, could you? Couldn’t get it up, ain’t that the truth? You just stood there with your ass quivering, and me, your good old Number Two, I had to bang your girl for you!”

“You bastard!”

This exchange leaves the Speaker rather miffed, and in revenge he gives Curry a bad seating assignment, right next to Youngman. The drunk old bastard and the Panhandle whippersnapper strike up one of those old guy-young guy friendships, with Youngman as the idealist Curry once was, and the two proceed with their session agendas: Youngman’s being to root out some of the corruption that surrounds him in the House, and Curry’s being to drink up all the bourbon provided him by various lobbying groups.

Youngman has two big ideas. The first is that the surplus should be returned to the people, in the form of some sort of tax cut, while the second is that the influence of lobbyists and special interests must be reduced through measures that include a dismantling of the committee system, an absolute gift ban, and reporting of all lobbyist visits to legislators. What’s a little curious to someone reading The Session now is that, viewed by Curry and by the comely lobbyist/love-interest Susan Smith (the novel’s voices of veteran wisdom), both notions are equally hopeless. When Youngman persists in talking about a tax cut, Smith “repeated what she had told him before, that the legislature thought it more economic and political to blow the surplus billions than to vote tax relief which would have to be snatched back at the very next session.”

It’s not as if there weren’t any tax-cutting conservatives in office at the time the book was written. Republican Governor Bill Clements, first elected in 1977, was a property-tax reduction man just as George Bush is today. Yet to a reader who isn’t old enough to know better, Dewlen’s book would hint that back before Republican sweeps and the Steve Forbes hand-chop and the Laffer Curve, before governors all wanted to out-tax-cut Christine Todd Whitman and every Jim Bob running for elected office was trying to promise Joe Six a little money if he would just be coaxed away from the tube long enough to vote – way back then when it was still a midsummer’s night in America – things may have been just as dirty and awful if not worse, and yet the people were at least spared the misery of watching the presidential favorite get misty-eyed about a tax cut on diapers. As is Bush’s wont.

Take an actual session – the 64th, in 1975 – when inflation and the energy crisis produced a surplus, estimated at $1.5 billion as the Legislature convened in January of that year. Budgeting would still be tricky, an Observer editorial noted in its January 17, 1975 issue, since inflation would also hike up costs and “the public is chary of spending money.” Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby “wants to salt away about $500 million of the alleged surplus in a ‘permanent working capital account’ … [but] fears that his safety fund will evaporate when the Legislature gets down to business. A serious attempt at school finance reform could use up the $500 million and a whole lot more. The Texas State Teachers’ Association is asking for a $2 billion raise in public school funds.” The editorial went on to note that elements of the business lobby were in favor of saving most of the surplus, since spending it all might prompt a tax increase two years down the road.

No mention of returning it to diaper-buyers, small businesses, timber farms, stripper well owners, and R & D venture capitalists, as the Legislature is doing this time. That same editorial certainly expressed no optimism about the session ahead: “There’s so much to be done, but don’t expect the 64th Texas Legislature to do it.” But the 64th Texas Legislature at least toyed with the idea of doing, and raised the possibility that surplus money would be spent on public schools. This session will finally provide teachers the $2 billion they’ve been asking for since 1975, but the serious educational debate has been over vouchers – one more variation on abandoning public education altogether. The conservatism the Observer criticized then was a do-nothing conservatism, rather than the current anti-government grind that’s become so dull.

The dullness ahead is prefigured in The Session – which, in making a valiant crusader out of the very boring Youngman, could have served as a propaganda novel for young Reagan Republicans. Dewlen’s tale is about the demise of one sort of politician – the corrupted, hard-drinking, small-town, minority-resenting kind – and the rise of another, with none of the aforementioned qualities and not many other qualities besides. It’s hard to say whether the constituents are worse off. But surely the audience is.