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What Was I Thinking?

Lissa Muscatine held Hillary’s hand as she wrote Living History. Most of these these auto-hagiographies are tedious, self-serving, and have the shelf-life of a well-funded political campaign.

The autobiography of former Texas AG Dan Morales is an exception. Morales wrote it in administrative segregation in Caldwell County jail, where Federal Judge Sam Sparks ordered him held until his trial began. (He pled guilty after reaching an agreement with federal prosecutor Johnny Sutton). And it won’t be forgotten.

What Was I Thinking? doesn’t tell all. But Morales provides insights into what must be the most peculiar political career in the history of a state in which “peculiar” is redundant when used as an adjective describing “political.”

In a chapter entitled “Trial Balloons,” he claims there was nothing wrong with directing a half-billion dollars to a friend with whom he signed a secret contract to “serve as my co-pilot” in the state’s tobacco lawsuit. No one should be surprised that Marc Murr never showed up in federal court in Texarkana, nor wrote nor signed any of the 310,000 documents filed in the pleadings of The State of Texas v. American Tobacco et al. That wasn’t his job. Morales hired Murr to watch over the “fat-cat lawyers” Morales had retained to represent the state. Morales signed contingency contracts that required the lawyers to bear all the expenses. But if they won, they would win big. Win big they did. If the five law firms the state hired could earn more than $3 billion–for doing nothing more than renting and renovating a building for office space in Texarkana, hiring staffs, conducting an investigation that filled a Beaumont warehouse with tobacco industry documents, conducting thousands of depositions, appearing in court hundreds of times over the course of two years, to win a $17-billion settlement for the state–Murr deserved compensation for his effort, too.

Morales is almost capricious describing the use of his campaign funds to pay his criminal defense lawyers. The title of the chapter, “MALDEF,” establishes a playful tone. In 2000, Morales ran a penurious, shoe-leather primary campaign for governor, while he also drew half a million dollars from his political account to pay lawyer fees. The sketchy (but legal) use of his campaign account made him the butt of his critics’ jokes. “What do Dan Morales and Al Kauffman have in common?” for example, was the setup for the punchline: “They’re both running a Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.” The MALDEF title taunts his critics by implying that they weren’t laughing at Morales, but with him. And there’s an indisputable logic to the use of campaign money to pay legal fees. Morales could hardly serve as governor if he were convicted and jailed.

Most revealing is Morales’ account of ending affirmative action admissions in Texas universities. Like Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, Morales was an affirmative action admission to an Ivy League law school. Like Thomas, Morales has worked to end affirmative action. Like Thomas, Morales believes that affirmative action does irreparable harm to its recipients. But Morales does something Thomas can’t. He offers himself up as living proof of the harm affirmative action can cause. It wasn’t so much what he learned at Harvard Law, but the lesson he learned from his admission to law school. It created what Mexican intellectuals call autoracismo–the self-loathing that led Morales to eschew his culture.

More importantly, Morales writes, affirmative action also eroded his values and queered his moral compass. “Think of it,” he reflects. “A man whose surname means ‘morals’ destroyed by well-intentioned government handouts.” Morales will continue writing while in federal prison. And he is raising funds for a program–based on Watergate felon Chuck Colson’s prison ministry–to assist minority youth whose lives have been damaged by affirmative action. –Lou Dubose