This being the season of thanksgiving, I am come to toast Bob Eckhardt, the great Texas Congressman, who died last month at 88. We owe him thanks and are so lucky to have had him with us. What a rare one. And a lot of fun, too.
If ever a politician of the 20th century deserved the title “legislator,” it was Eckhardt–legal scholar, craftsman, steeped to his bones in the constitution, law, and history. They called him “the House’s lawyer.” The only politician I ever knew who could write a bill so that it did precisely what it was intended to do, and did nothing it was not intended to do, with a vision lasting past generations.
He was a character and a camper, a carpenter and a cartoonist, a cheapskate, horseman, swimmer, devoted if slightly absent-minded father, drinker of whiskey and Shiner draft beer, story-teller, freedom-fighter, labor lawyer, environmentalist, anti-racist–and all this long, long before it was ever fashionable or p.c. At least 60 years ago, someone said to his mother, “Mrs. Eckhardt, your son is just a little too cozy with the Nigras, don’t you think?” She replied sweetly: “Oh, I’m afraid that’s my fault. I raised him to be a Christian.”
He had the accent and the aspect of an aristocratic, if slightly scruffy Southern gentleman–flowing mane, bowtie-askew, not-quite-white suit, planter’s hat, biking through the heat of Washington summers to the Capitol. I have beside me the remnants of a bottle of MacAllan scotch he left at my house a few weeks ago: “It taastes just as goood, and it’s ten dollahs cheapah.”
The New York Times said of him: “A congressman who looked one part but played another for 14 years” (1967 to 1981). Actually, he didn’t play any part, he was just a natural anomaly. “How could a may-an with an accent like this be a liberal?” he would inquire, poking fun at himself. If we could nominate anyone from our time to go back and talk with Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Franklin, Eckhardt would be the man.
Lynn Coleman, former general counsel of the Department of Energy, said Eckhardt was a man of the 18th century, meaning a time before specialists and experts, when an educated man was familiar with all the universe of knowledge. The quality of his mind was just striking. Ronnie Dugger wrote of him 30 years ago: “Profoundly intelligent, well-informed, wise and humane. He does his own thinking.” His mind was like an eagle, soaring high, strong and free, with exceptional vision that, once locked on a subject, did not let go.
His ability to focus was so complete, he was often oblivious to his surroundings. Eckhardt was once deeply involved in a conversation with his friend Tommy Sutherland, professor of southwestern literature and father of seven daughters, when a covey of naked little girls, fresh out of the bath, came racing into the room. They swarmed up the sofa where Eckhardt and Sutherland were talking, ran across the back, climbed down the other side and raced out of the room. Neither Tommy nor Bob ever looked up.
Unlike most brilliant and independent thinkers, Eckhardt actually enjoyed the legislative process. He would re-draft bills endlessly to accommodate input from his colleagues. The people at the House Legislative Counsel, the specialized office that actually writes bills, were always thrilled and challenged when dealing with an Eckhardt bill because they knew he would read every word and catch every mistake. He loved discussing abstract ideas such as social justice, but his genius was for turning them into the concrete, creating legislation and moving it through the process.
Eckhardt had the old-fashioned notion that one ought to listen to one’s colleagues. It took a dozen staffers to keep him on schedule, and when he was AWOL, they would often look in the House and find him engaged in debate on a subject far removed from his own committee assignments but about which he was well-informed. He could learn anything, said Coleman, to the point where he could engage in debate with any expert–a brilliant generalist. Too bright to be bored, during lulls in the legislative process he would draw wonderful caricatures of his colleagues, a priceless collection of which is now with the Barker Texas History Center.
But a politician he was not. He was terrible at glad-handing and even worse at asking for money. It’s amazing he lasted as long as he did, given that his Houston district was the epicenter of the petrochemical industry. He was the brains behind the Clean Air Act and believed in regulating the price of natural gas. It was typical of Eckhardt to put what he thought was good for the country ahead of his own political life. He thought he represented people, not industry–and as Joe Gunn of the Texas AFL-CIO said at his funeral service, “Every working man and woman in Texas should know his name, and even if they don’t, their lives are better because he was there.”
He also served in the Texas Legislature during the 1950s, and former Sen. Babe Schwartz said, “The beaches of Texas will be open to her people for all generations because of Bob Eckhardt.”
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.