An Essay on “Strong and Clear”

They say that the Eisenhower era was a time of order and quiet in America. As Presidents go, Ike didn’t lie much. He played golf. When around town in Washington or out in America, he smiled a lot and generally looked pretty much at ease. Indications were, all in all, America was a place that worked.

Not so. At least, not so to me. There was no complacency, on golf courses or anywhere else. Instead, a vast restlessness suffused the republic—especially that part where Texas was. Or at least where I was. So let me insist to you that it was a time of striving. A sense of urgency was around. And it wasn’t just a “sense†that could be explained away as some kind of “mood.†It was a tangible component of our provincial culture and it had its prophet. The name of that person was Ralph Yarborough. I knew him pretty well, and I am going to tell you about him.

His primary social memory was the Great Depression. It made a New Dealer out of him and in the 1930s he served as an assistant attorney general in the gubernatorial administration of Texas’ New Dealing governor, James Allred. In 1952, Yarborough encountered the state’s arch-conservative governor, Allan Shivers, on the steps of the Capitol and announced that he intended to run for Attorney General. Shivers brushed him aside: “I’ve already decided who’s going to be Attorney General.â€

The words or perhaps something in the bearing of our state’s imperious governor touched some nerve in Yarborough. He soon announced his candidacy and it was not for Attorney General. Rather, he said, he intended to try to retire Governor Allan Shivers from public life. Thus began the Yarborough-Shivers wars or, as conservatives put it, the Yarborough wars. The first one, in 1952, was a predictable rout—the well-financed incumbent prevailing by 200,000 votes or so. But Yarborough activated something that had gone dormant in Texas politics—its Jeffersonian traditions. Austin was awash in corporate corruption and employees in every branch of state government knew it. Yarborough called a spade a spade and the clearer he got, the more information he got via unsolicited phone calls from state employees. More clarity, more phone calls. In terms of issues, the 1954 campaign became the most engaged statewide contest in Texas politics since the Populist-Democratic battles of the 1890s. The first primary was almost a dead heat, necessitating a runoff campaign of unparalleled vituperation. The Shiverites’ attack on Yarborough became very personal as well as unencumbered by factual accuracy. The obsequious conduct of the state’s press so outraged the burgeoning ranks of “Yarborough Democrats†that in the aftermath of their man’s heartbreakingly narrow defeat, a number of them gathered at Buchanan Dam determined to underwrite the entry into Texas politics of a new kind of journalism to match the demands of the times. (This initiative would soon produce Ronnie Dugger’s Texas Observer, but that, as they say, is another story.)

The kind of continuing politics needed to turn back Ralph Yarborough proved much too daunting for Allan Shivers. He declined to run in 1956. The business lobby begged the state’s junior senator, Price Daniel, to come home to save the governor’s mansion from radical contamination. Another tumultuous campaign, another eyelash conservative victory (or perhaps theft, as Yarborough believed to his dying day). But, alas, Daniel’s move to Austin left his Senate seat vacant; Yarborough won the by-election for the unexpired Senate term and a year later, in 1958, won reelection to the Senate for a full term. International oil was glad to see him gone from statehouse contention; there was a limit to the damage he could do to Big Oil as one of 100 senators. If the truth be known, a number of Ralph’s most passionate supporters were glad to see him settle down, too. Everybody was exhausted. In Texas, at least, the Eisenhower years were not about golf.

But, as signaled, this piece is less about “politics†than it is about the culture of striving. Senator Yarborough taught an impressive number of decent young people with progressive tendencies that they needed two qualities in abundant supply: measured amounts of either, or both, absolutely would not do. To corral the minions of entrenched corporate power, one needed to possess the rhetorical power to be clear; and one additionally needed to be a long-distance runner. Those not politically strong enough in their convictions to be clear would never recruit what Ralph called (in intimate conversation) “the whole people†for the good and simple reason that a lot of fine people don’t understand things that are not clear to them. One had to be strong to be clear. The second requirement—mastery of long-distance running—was arduous, but the good Senator believed it was probably good for the republic that it was so; it guarded the ranks against falling in behind candidates who longed for “quick fixes†when there weren’t any.

At some point in the early 1960s, some “real Democrats†(as country liberals in Texas liked to call themselves in those days) cobbled together a few dollars to allow a decent but conceivably innocent fellow named Larry Goodwyn to have the benefit of the expertise of a leading hired gun of the Shivers establishment. The financiers of this illicit conclave did not know what the hired gun would say to me, but whatever it was, they felt it might help our side to be better prepared in some future class war with our provincial rivals. Unorthodox as it was, the meeting came to pass in a downtown Austin hotel room. I found the man from the opposition to be quietly straightforward and blessedly free of the kind of manly posturing that made Allan Shivers such an impossible prig. Without awkwardness, we were able to get down to business. I asked him what kind of signal he felt candidates should send to the voters of Texas. “Well, they need to be strong,†he said. He paused, and I paused with him, and he continued: “The candidate needs to be strong. And clear. The campaign needs to be in agreement on what is to be said and it should be said strongly and clearly. And repeated. That’s what the campaign is—repeating things strong and clear.†I mentioned that our research indicated Texas was 34th among the 50 states in per capita spending on public education and something like 47th in workman’s compensation and per capita income. I was thinking about a campaign to “make Texas No. 1.†What did he think about that? “That’s good,†he said without hesitation. “I like that. It’s good and strong.†I brought up a couple of other items on the progressive wish list, the first one presented, I am sorry to say, a bit murkily. He hesitated, and then nodded. I made myself clearer. He nodded with greater warmth. The clearer I became, the faster he nodded agreement. We shook hands in mutual understanding. No wonder those campaigns had been so bloody.

I certainly had not started out with such an approach to politics. Ralph Yarborough taught me. In the ’58 senatorial reelection campaign, our man’s slogan was, “Put the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can reach it.†It drove our opponent, a Dallas millionaire named William Blakely, absolutely crazy. Though he had a ranch and styled himself “Cowboy Bill,†Blakely’s rustic image was routinely undercut by his habit of wearing flashy cufflinks. Lest there be confusion on this matter, the famed Texas folklorist, J. Frank Dobie, wrote a scathing piece entitled “Fake Cowboy.†In any case, the conservative standard-bearer hated Ralph Yarborough’s jam jar. He sputtered and clucked and finally, in the middle of the final week when it was evident he was doomed, Blakely announced his belief that it was high time people were taught that they needed to keep their hands out of the jam! Senator Yarborough chortled with glee. “That jam jar is a ten strike!†He explained the origin of this rhetorical masterstroke: “An East Texas farmer sent a box to the Yarborough Campaign headquarters in Austin. Inside the box was a jar full of jam with a handwritten note rubber-banded to the outside of the jar. The note said: “Put the jam on the lower shelf where the little man can reach it.†Yessir. Strong and clear.

The Austin headquarters tended to be somewhat gerrymandered, with over-representation of people from Austin and Houston. In that assemblage, urbane as it was, the jam jar idea was perceived as something less than a ten strike. But the headquarters also had a thin leavening of people from places like Hillsboro and Jacksonville and Navasota and such. The jam jar was okay with them. I want to be clear here: They were college graduates or soon-to-be graduates and the jam jar was okay with them—these people from Hillsboro and Navasota. They were our roots; they represented where we came from. And, lest we forget, they could think. As one of them explained to me, well, this campaign has been a little lackluster, a little overconfident. I think the Senator sensed it, worried about it, and decided we were not getting through to our folks. And that farmer who sent the jar? I bet that’s what he thought, too. You’ve got to admit, that “jam on the lower shelf†does cut through a lot of bull. You know, about the party of the people and all. I know it’s true, most of the time, or at least some of the time, but it’s not always clear to folks. You know?

My instructor in politics was a rather mature lady, around 60 or so and a little plump, who hailed from Robertson County. Her name was Lillian and she stayed on board through the years of the Texas Coalition in the ’60s. She was a Jeffersonian-Populist-New Dealing-Yarborough Democrat who believed the big folks and little folks were in this thing together. If she were still alive, she would despise George Bush for the same reasons she despised Allan Shivers. Lillian would of course be for Kerry, though she would be worried about his ability to reach the whole people. I’m absolutely certain the frown on her face would have been strong and clear.

But I don’t have the words to tell you how much she would have loved Molly Ivins. Indeed, what those two generations of Texas women know, that most liberals in the country don’t know, is how to organize.

Larry Goodwyn is the author of The Populist Movement: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America and Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland. He was associate editor of the Observer from 1958 to 1959.

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