The People’s Senator Ralph Webster Yarborough, 1903-1996 Real Memories for a Virtual Wake BY SARGE CARLETON n EMEMBERING RALPH Yarborough Elks like looking at an Escher print: perspective gets turned on its head. The further away you are, the larger Yarborough is. Not appears, is. Ralph Yarborough was a man of principle, substance, and accomplishment. To say you worked for him was a source of pride. I’ve worked for other Texas politicians, and I know the difference. But close up Ralph seemed all idiosyncrasy and foiblethe correctness of his philosophy and the fervor he brought to the fight, and the respect and affection you genuinely had for him, to the contrary \(as the stuff that anecdotes are made on. I write this with the thought that reading this issue of the Observer will be like going to a virtual wake. A good wake contains laughter as well as tears. So, here, virtual Lone Star in hand, are some of my very real memories of the Senator. The first story about Ralph I remember is a Chuck Caldwell story. In a sense, it’s really about Lyndon Johnson, but there’s something of Ralph in the telling. After the trauma of Kennedy’s hugely ill-starred effort to bring the warring factions of the Texas Democrats together, and one of the warriors becomes president, Yarborough is invited to the LBJ White House. It is a peace offering. Afterwards, Caldwell, a Yarborough staffer, walking through the senatorial suite, hears laughter coming from Yarborough’s office. It’s Ralph and Creekmore Fath, who in 1968 would run for Congress with the slogan, “Help Bring Lyndon Home.” “What’s so funny?” Caldwell asks. They laugh some more and Fath says, “Well, the Senator was just telling about his visit to the White House and going skinny-dipping in the White House pool.” More laughter. Chuck didn’t get it. “Well, the Senator was just saying how ol’ LBJ is a bankwalker.” Hysterical laughter now from them, utter confusion for Caldwell. “What’s a bankwalker?” The Senator explained. “Chuck, you’re from East Texas, you should know this. When I was a boy and a bunch of us would go skinnydipping, there’d always be one or two who werewellbetter endowed than the rest Ralph Yarborough campaigning in of us, and before they jumped in they’d always walk up and down the bank some, showing off. And I was just telling Creek, here, about how the leader of the free world is still a bankwalker.” Hoots and tears at this exquisite snapshot, this quintessential reification of all they know of Johnson’s bullying vanity and brutality. “Sure, Ralph, come on down for a swim in the White House pool. Got nothin’ better to do. And, hey, it’ll just be us sixty-year-old guys, so don’t bring your trunks.” It’s late at night and the Senator and Gene Godley and I are driving back from western Maryland. He’d delivered a speech I’d written. As we reached the Very Reflecting Pool where Wilbur Mills would perform his drive-in baptism, we heard the news on the radio. Homer Garrison, former head of the Texas Department of Public Safetythe man who had done for name recognition of the Texas Rangers in the Latino community much what Hitler had done for the Gestapo in the Jewish communityhad died. “Good,” I said. “The evil bastard.” The Senator cut me off. “No, it’s not right that he’s dead.” Christ, I thought. He’s right. He’s a Baptist and he’s right. You don’t gloat over anyone’s death. 1954 RUSSELL LEE Ralph continued his thought. “The sonofabitch escaped Justice.” Another speech. This one a draft of one he’d deliver in Austin at a national meeting on bilingual education. It was a nice speech. One of its phrases would be picked up by the New York Times as their quotation of the week. The draft began with a quotea sign of desperation in a speech writer; having no ideas, you do what you’re good at, free-associating. The Senator called me to his office for a meeting on the speech. A good speech, he said. But there had to be some changes. First, this quote here from Oscar Wilde has to go. I tried to explain to him how the ideas expressed in that quotation were a keystone for the speech, how the rhetoric, the structure of the speech, made sense only in the context of that quotation. Most importantly \(and I to rewrite the speech. “We can’t use his quote,” said Ralph, quite serious and maybe a little exasperated that I didn’t get it, “because he has a reputation. As a homo…” An uplift of tone at the end of “homo.” That wasn’t the end of his sentence. What could the other part of Wilde’s reputation be that for Ralph Yarborough 4 FEBRUARY 23, 1996
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