Ralph W. Yarborough: The People’s Senator

Ralph W. Yarborough: The People’s Senator

In preparing this review, I asked Judge William Wayne Justice about the late Senator Ralph Yarborough, who died in 1996. Judge Justice has admired Yarborough since the ’50s–in his chambers a signed photo of Yarborough hangs side by side with a photo of the judge’s father. “Perhaps historians looking back with a golden eye will see his importance, what he meant to Texas,” he told me.

Patrick Cox’s Ralph Yarborough, the People’s Senator, is the first step in that direction. After 30 years of working in Texas politics, including stints as president of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and Assistant Land Commissioner in the Texas General Land Office, and as editor of the Wimberly View, Cox earned his Ph.D. in history. The Yarborough biography, his first book, is based on his doctoral dissertation.

For Texans who were politically aware in the 1950s and 1960s, Yarborough’s accomplishments are a given. (For the benefit of younger readers, Yarborough was a patron saint of the Observer, a man whose straight-up populism, personal integrity, and, as Cox puts it, “true leadership and results on plain pocketbook issues,” make him a rarity in the history of Texas politics.) Ralph Yarborough, the People’s Senator, is the first biography of the legendary politician. Despite its flaws–there is little insight into the private Yarborough and not enough about his personal evolution on the issue of race–it will become required reading for future researchers.

Cox briefly outlines the Senator’s early life: his happy childhood in East Texas; his formative experiences as a fighting attorney general under mentor Jimmy Allred (he won millions of dollars for public education in disputed West Texas oil suits); and his service during World War II (he rose to the rank of colonel and participated in the capture of Allied prison camps and the liberation of the concentration camp at Flossenburg in the forests of Bavaria). But the focus is on Yarborough’s political career from 1952 to 1970.

As a candidate, Yarborough “lived on the road nearly every day, traveling from one small town to another, making speeches on courthouse lawns, giving radio and newspaper interviews, and constantly telephoning friends and supporters,” he writes. “He frequently gave as many as twenty speeches per day and delivered countless remarks to individuals and small groups at roadside cafes, gas stations, feed stores, and street corners,” Cox observes, adding that Yarborough “consistently outpaced and wore out his drivers and volunteers.” Good stuff, but I wanted to hear more about these legendary stores of energy. Larry Goodwyn has written that when he served as a campaign worker for Yarborough in the ’50s “he was stronger at midnight than he had been at 8 p.m., and he was stronger then than he had been at noon, or when he had first jumped out of bed [at 5:30 a.m.].”

Perhaps the best way to see Yarborough is as a man who was simultaneously modern and old-fashioned. He was a proponent of federal involvement in schools, integration, environmentalism, affirmative action, and social security. But as Cox notes, he “cloaked himself in the populist-styled traditions of the pre-television political era.” His ornamented oratory was a throwback to this turn-of-the-century populism, an “evangelical style [that] resembled that of … governors James ‘Farmer Jim’ Ferguson and W. Lee ‘Pappy O’Daniel,” two of Texas’ most flamboyant mountebanks.

Cox writes that Yarborough’s “entertaining mix of history, current events, and politics kept the attention of his audiences as well as any of the best preachers on a Sunday morning.” While he peppers the book with Yarborough one-liners (example: “when politicians become fixtures, their cronies become fixers”), he doesn’t quite capture the full fire-breathing experience of the Yarborough campaign speech. Molly Ivins, for example, has described Yarborough”s approach this way: “Any politician who gets off an applause line today will stop and enjoy the clapping. Not Yarborough. Folks would start clapping, and he’d get off an even better line over the applause. And then another. And then another, until the people were on their feet cheering, and then, he’d top them all.” It might have been helpful if Cox had found space to quote a Yarborough speech at length. (Particularly for those of us who were too young to have heard him on the campaign trail, and are curious to see how the fire breathing holds up in our cynical times.)

He is at his best in describing the 1954 gubernatorial race, one of the dirtiest campaigns in Texas history (and that’s saying something).Premier mud slinger Allan Shivers, often likened to a reptile, had been governor for the preceding four years and was breaking with gentlemanly precedent by running for a third term. By then his administration’s corruption, previously out of sight, had begun oozing into view. His campaign manager was proven to be on the take from insurance companies, other cronies were caught manipulating a veterans’ pension program, and it was discovered that Shivers himself, while lieutenant governor, had bought an option on land in the Rio Grande Valley from Lloyd Bentsen, Sr., for $25,000, which he sold back seven months later for $450,000.

Shivers had entered the Texas legislature in the 1930s as a New Dealer, married rich, swung very far right, and aligned himself with the Texas Establishment–the associated interests of oil, banking, ranching, and insurance. Cox tells the story through the eyes of the Texas liberals–Creekmore Fath, Chris Dixie, Walter Hall, Maury Maverick, Jr., and so on. (Good guys all; the bad guys are nowhere in sight.)To deal with the suddenly troublesome campaign, Shivers devised a strategy of one part red scare, one part race baiting. “While I know my opponent is not a Communist,” he said of Yarborough, I feel that he is a captive of certain people who do not approve of being tough on Communists.”

The pinko charge had a limited effect. But the Supreme Court then handed down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, and Shivers lunged at the issue of race with a desperate fury. Cox tells the story well. Shivers charged that Yarborough’s “close political advisors are working hand-in-glove with the NAACP,” and implied that a vote for Yarborough was a vote for the integration “of every phase of daily living.”

Particularly useful here is the insight of Creekmore Fath, Yarborough’s longtime friend and counselor. A living legend, Fath has had a front-row seat in the state’s most intriguing political stories from the 1930s to the present as a Democratic Party operative and dedicated liberal.

“Confronting the integration issue clearly made Yarborough pull back,” Cox writes. Yarborough ignored Shivers’ attacks and tried to avoid the issue. Cox says that “he antagonized some of his own liberal supporters because of his vacillation.” Yarborough saw advocacy of integration as political suicide. But in an interview with the author, Fath implied that Yarborough may not have been confident of his personal beliefs on the issue.

“He didn’t want to address it because he wasn’t comfortable with it,” Fath said. “I just figured it was the old Deep East Texas business, that this was something in Ralph’s background that would take time.” (This is notable given Yarborough’s visionary record on Civil Rights in the senate. He was the only Southern senator to vote for every piece of modern civil rights legislation, and he co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown jewel of them all.)

Shivers’ demagoguery, his unlimited advertising, his massive vote buying in South and East Texas, and his blanket newspaper support were enough for him to eke out a victory in 1954. But Yarborough wouldn’t quit, demonstrating his fierce tenacity and refusal to surrender to Establishment forces. He came back in 1956 and lost again, this time to Price Daniel, Sr. He finally won a special election for the U.S. senate in 1957.

During his 13 years in that body he authored or sponsored every educational reform of the era–the Higher Education Act, the Cold War G.I. Bill, the Bilingual Education Act, Head Start, and others. He co-authored the Endangered Species Act and set up federal preserves at Padre Island, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Big Thicket of East Texas. He co-sponsored the bill that created Medicare and worked on many other public health initiatives. He supported the Civil Rights legislation already mentioned. And he was an early opponent of the Vietnam War.

When Yarborough died in 1996 at the age of 92, the question asked by those who knew him best was “whence shall come another?” It is fair to say that another will not be coming any time soon. As Judge Justice told me on my way out his door, “It’s hard, hard, hard to be a liberal in Texas.” Indeed it is. And we need all the history we can get.

Brant Bingamon is a writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST