Page 21


“V E. SO R.Co S a s Austin’s Largest Selection of International Folk Art, Silver Jewelry and Textiles FOLK ART & OTHER TREASURES FROM AROUND THE WORLD i m s 209 CONGRESS AVE ‘AUSTIN 512/479-8377 . \\10,OPEN DAILY 10-6 AFTERWORED I BY ROBERT LELEUX Sissy Farenthold’s hair is the color of lightning, just the shade to match her scruples. She’s got that risky, spark-and-crackle itch for The Square Deal that marks the radical. She has the radical’s great, essential giftshe reminds you of the future, but not the future that springs to mind in these dour days. Sissy recalls the sort of future we imagined in finer times. It’s the first of her happy contradictions, and is perhaps why I find myself reaching wildly into the past for comparisons. Sissy is, for starters, a South Texas Katharine Hepburn; she’s Eleanor Roosevelt as imagined by Vogue, with a splash of FDR’s patrician twinkle; she’s Battling Bella Abzug without the bite. Though there’s no mistaking her political seriousness, “politician” seems too beige and bureaucratic to describe her. “Adventuress,” with its wide-brimmed dash, seems closest to the mark. When Sissy sweeps into the lobby of her Houston high-rise in a slanted sun hat and faux-leopard sneakers, even going to lunch is filled with pioneer glamour. Houston is the place for passing fancy. It’s a city of fickle attachment, so it follows that I’d have to leave it, have to move as far away as Manhattan to find Frances “Sissy” Tarlton Farentholda lady made of sterner stuff than the Shamrock Hilton, a legend that, unlike Sissy, stands no longer. I am 27 years old. Farenthold’s last political racefor governor against incumbent Dolph Briscoe was 33 years ago. So it’s through no fault of my own that I missed seeing firsthand Farenthold becoming, in 1972, the first woman nominated for the vice presidency, finishing second to Tom Eagleton as George McGovern’s running mate. Or that in 1971, as the only woman in the Texas House \(den mother of the Dirty scandal. Or that she was the face of Texas liberalism for a generation, heading pluckier campaigns than anybody since the late U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough. I found Sissy while trawling through history, and then in the telephone book, because somewhere during the second term of the second Bush presidency, I needed to look for reasons to be proud of where I’m from. Like many before me, I was seized by the idea of Farenthold. For the past 40 years, she’s served for the state’s idealistic youth as a near-cult symbol of the Texas that might be. That’s true even though she found herself “unelectable” as Sharpstown faded from public memory and the novelty of good government wore thin. She refused to even consider, in 1973, what public interest groups assured her would be a surefire run for Congress. “What I discovered,” Farenthold told me, “was that political office was a life of constant moral compromise. And I didn’t enter politics with the purpose of compromising my morality.” It has never been Farenthold’s reputation to equivocate. I am aware of the prevailing view of Farentholdthat she’s downbeat, shy, and sober; a “melancholy rebel” was Molly Ivins’ phrase. Of course, Farenthold has always had the kind of social conscience that can sometimes run amok. If it’s not death row, then it’s apartheid. If it’s not El Salvador, it’s Iraq. The night before our meeting, Farenthold hosted a teen-rehab fundraiser; the night of the interview, she emceed a Palestinian film festival. It’s one thing to talk about honoring the holiness of every sentient being, but I’m sure that in practice it can get pretty depressing. So her fleeting moments of mournfulness don’t shock me. What does shock me \(it’s remain so wholly honor-bound and still be a real good time. “Sissy’s a bombshell. She’s a hell-raiser,” says Liz Carpenter, no slouch when it comes to weighing fiery figures, “but she’s a likeable hell-raiser.” So if Farenthold’s other achievements ever wither, if she ever fatigues of fighting global wrongdoing, she can always fall back on being terrific at lunch. Which is exactly what this Hockaday-finished, frontier daughter of three Lone Star founding familiesthe Bluntzers, the Doughertys, and the Tarltonswas born and bred for. Years before Ivins’ sobriquet, Farenthold was the Barefoot Debutante of Corpus Christi’s society page. “Politics just seems to take over everything,” she sighs over lunch. It’s in the small talk, the joking, the family stories. Yet nothing about her seems typical of a Texas politician \(she’s posh and polished; by Houston standards, she’s her storytelling. Then she’s John Henry Faulk in a Dior dress. We’ve driven in my rental car \(which is, she says, “much to dine on Montrose Boulevard. It’s the Saturday the art cars come to town. The most dazzling, ludicrous vehicles \(beaded and fish-tailed, tin-foiled and 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 21, 2007