From the Archives: A Tribute to Bernard Rapoport


Originally published in the Observer on March 13, 1981. 

HOUSTON—Journalists, like politicians, are vested with the duty to serve the public interest and have conflicts of interest they should divulge. There is no way the Observer could cover the tribute to Bernard Rapoport in Houston Feb. 26 without a conflict of interest. For 25 years Rapoport’s American Income Life Insurance Co. has been the Observer’s principal advertiser. I’m the owner and publisher of the Observer, and I also have a deeper conflict than that: I regard Barney as one of my closest friends.

I first met him in 1955 when someone—I’ve forgotten who—suggested I go up to Waco and ask him for an ad in the Observer. We met for lunch in a cafeteria. He was in the life insurance business, and I did not want to fly under any false colors with him.

“Mr. Rapoport,” I said, give or take a few phrases, “I am here to talk to you about advertising in the Observer, but first I had better tell you something.”

“The way I look at life insurance, it’s essentially a social service. There’s nothing much to it but applying statistical actuarial tables on life expectancy on the foundation of the state of a person’s health. Everyone should have life insurance, and the cost of it should be the same in the same circumstances—there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a part of Social Security.”

Barney had heard me out in silence, but with full attention. Quickly he said to me, “I agree with you.”

We signed an advertising contract then and there, and he has been with us through all our ups and downs ever since. He has never once asked that the Observer do anything or not do something editorially; he has never sought to affect our endorsements or our crusades. He of course did not know I would be writing about the tribute to him—would have been offended had I told him so in advance as I would have had he asked me to do it. He is a model of the kind of high-minded major advertiser every newspaper needs.

Barney, as I call him (others call him “B” or “Berney), in effect decided to let his name be used—let a tribute be paid to him at $250 a ticket—in order to help retire Jim Hightower’s campaign debt from his 1980 race for railroad commissioner.

Surely Barney knew this would miff many of his friends who would want to come to the tribune, but not to give to Hightower. “You ought to see some of the mean letters that came in,” Hightower said. One can see why those who are anti-Hightower were put out, but one can also see what kind of a man Rapoport is from his willingness to let them be put out if that was the price of his helping advance progressive politics in his home state. Hightower estimates that his $47,000 debt was completely paid off by the proceeds from the dinner at the Hyatt-Regency.

There were warm standing ovations when former Sen. Ralph Yarborough and recently defeated Houston Congressman Bob Eckhardt were introduced. The gathering included other local and state politicians, a contingency from Texas labor headed by Texas AFL-CIO President Harry Hubbard, and warhorses of liberal politics in the state.

Leading off the program, State Senator Oscar Mauzy of Dallas said:

“I first met Bernard Rapoport when we put together the group that organized The Texas Observer back in the early fifties. I was on the committee that put that great institution together.

“We said, you know, ‘We want a free voice. We want a voice that’ll speak the truth, that will tell the people of Texas what is happening to them in their state government, in their local government, and as it is.

“And we ran it for about two and a half months, and then we found out that it took some money to do it. We went to see B, among some other folks, and he said, ‘If you’ll promise me that you’ll not shade it for or against anybody, but if you’ll tell the truth on all of ‘em, I’ll help you.’

“He did, and they did. The Observer waxed me worse than any other newspaper in Texas, including the Dallas News.”

Hank Brown, former president of the Texas AFL-CIO and a longtime business associate of Rapoport’s, said: “I met that character when he was a broken-down peddler in 1946. He went bankrupt because he was more interested in electing Homer Rainey [the liberal candidate for governor of Texas that year who lost to Beauford Jester in a runoff] than he was in peddling jewelry in Waco. …

“I’d like to recall one occasion. … In the late sixties, when Baby Ben Barnes [the lieutenant governor of Texas then] on his way to the Presidency stumbled over Sharpstown, aided and abetted by old Preston Smith, who had accidentally become Governor of Texas, tried to impose a food tax upon the people of our state.

“We called upon Bernard one night and said. …, “Show up in the morning with $25,000, because we gotta buy (time) on TV and tell the people that they’re fixin’ to be engaged with the corporations of Texas in a sexual intercourse act and they’re gonna be on the receiving end.’ …

“In any event, Bernard … showed up at KTBC (the Johnson’s station in Austin) the next morning with 25 grand and we laid down the dough and bought 30 minutes on TV. We put Barbara Jordan, Oscar Mauzy … Charlie Wilson … and the great Joe Bernal and they told the people the story, aided and abetted by the great John Henry Faulk. …

“Monday mornin’ over 15,000 women showed up, God bless the Lord … they hung the Governor in effigy, unfortunately, at 6:30 and hung old Baby Ben at 7, and I tell you, the Rangers, and the DPS [the Department of Public Safety] removed the women from the Capitol at 2:30 in the afternoon, called it a bomb scare, but the only bomb they had was all them mad women.

“It’s the only time in my experience of 35 years that a bill was pulled down by the author. … Baby Ben had slicked it through the Senate, and the House had the bill defeated by 4:30. And do you know that to this day, a food tax in Texas has never been re-introduced. …”

George McAlmon, an attorney and businessman in El Paso, said: “Bernard Rapoport is probably the most generous man in the United Sates, generous in charities, generous in politics, but for some perverse reason … he insists on projecting a tough-man image during the working’ hours. Many of you have heard him say or read in the press, “In business, I am a predator.” …

“Now, Bernard, you can wear a great big ol’ dirty mountain-lion skin around your shoulders during the week all day long … but you’re not foolin’ anybody. …

“This man is generous in business as well as in any other sense. He is always trying to get people together. He is crowding friends. ‘Do this.’ He’s helping them get together. …

“He is for scores of us scheming, conniving, greedy businessman, a one-man Marshall Plan. We’re always after him for something.”

Hightower, now president of the Texas Consumer Association, said: “We glad that you’re buzzin’ around, because if you weren’t, this would be a far worse country, and certainly this state would be far worse off. …

“You’ve been a friend to me, a good one, personally, politically. I think I can tell a story on ya as a result o’ that.

“About six or seven year ago I was in Washington, D.C., with B, and we were walkin’ across the Capitol grounds, and he was hustlin’ me to come back to Texas … he ‘uz sayin’, ‘Come on back down,’ and then in a candid moment … B turned to me and he said, ‘Jimmy, I’m only gonna deliver one-tenth of what I promise to you, but that’s gonna be ten times more than anybody else is gonna give you.’

“That’s exactly the truth, and you know, he gave a hundred times that, because you know a lotta people’ll give ya money, not enough, of course, but a lotta people’ll give ya money, because they’re makin’ an investment, but B invests his heart. …”

William W. Winpisinger, the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said: “I suspect the reason that we all so much value and cherish this man is because he learned the fundamental and basic lesson a long time ago, as have we: he know that power in this country flows two places, to those who have the money and to those who have the people. God knows, Barney, we know you got the money. I can remember a time when I thought we had the people. Some one of my colleagues told me a long time ago, when I was a young man, “Money doesn’t talk, Wimpy. It swears.”

“Now I don’t want you to get the idea, Barney, that I’m taking off on one of those damn radical tirades of mine, and you’ll know I’m not, and you’ll know I’m not knocking the American capitalist system, when I swear that your money talks.

“And you oughta know as well that I have none the less a believer on my side than Abraham Lincoln, because Lincoln said a long time before he was President that these capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people. We’re eternally thankful, Berney, that you mastered Lincoln’s lesson so well that no one has ever said that about Bernard Rapoport.

“You’re a lot more like Ben Franklin, in my humble opinion, who said that ‘Private property is a creature of society, and it is subject to the call of that society whenever its necessities shall require it, even to its last farthing.’ We’re paying tribute to you tonight, B, and want you to know that we’ll back you to the last trade union member, because whenever there’s a conflict between human rights and property rights, we know that human rights will prevail in Berney Rapoport’s every act and deed, right down to his last farthing.

“That’s I guess what we in the labor movement have for a long time realized about tonight’s honoree. He lives his life as he believes.”

Congressman Charles Wilson, D-Lufkin, jested:

“Many think of B primarily as a fundraiser, but … I think of him as a brilliant political strategist. I don’t know if many of you know how busy he was during 1980, or how much ground he covered. If he wasn’t in South Dakota mapping the McGovern campaign, he was in Idaho helping Senator Church. From there it was Indiana for Senator Bayh, and then he stopped in Iowa for Senator Culver, and finally the campaign ended with B celebrating with Senator Durkin in New Hampshire.”

U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Ca, said:

“You may think he’s a Texas secret, but he’s known to the knowing in California and Washington and all the states beyond. …

“B (seeks out) in a quiet way people who need a helping hand and who have something to contribute, people with awareness of the problems of our time, most of all people with a heart, with compassion. If they have those attributes, he forgets all else, he overlooks all foibles and all weaknesses and concentrates on the strengths and does what he can to uphold and strengthen those attributes so that they can serve the causes that B wants to serve. …

“His mark on the issues of our time has been truly immense because of his optimism, his ebullience, his perseverance, and his singling out and helping people who can advance those causes.”

Cranston said Rapoport’s leadership meets standards set 2,000 years ago by the Chinese philosopher and poet, Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, less good when they obey and acclaim him, worse when they fear and despise him. … Of a good leader, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”

Rapoport spoke then, saying:

“(Jim Hightower) is a young man who wants to be a politician, which is indeed a very noble purpose for one to have. Jim and I share one thing in common. He has a deep, a very deep, sense of outrage at injustice, and that’s what gives him his impetus and desire to be a politician, and my own interest in politics stems from the same feeling.

“I think all of us have been a witness to what Murray Edelman talked about when he said:

“Political history is largely an account of mass violence and of the expenditure of vast resources to cope with mythical fears and hopes. At the same time, large groups of people remain quiescent under noxiously oppressive conditions and sometimes passionately defend the very social institutions that deprive or degrade them.”

We have all grown sufficiently sophisticated to recognize that this situation cannot endure for any sustained period of time. Unaddressed social injustices breed tomorrow’s revolutions.

“You know, what precludes these resolutions from occurring is a society which provides access to the people. Someone once said:

“Keep the avenues of honor free. Close no entrance to the poorest, the weakest, the humblest. Say to ambition everywhere, ‘The field is clear, the contest fair; come, and win your share if you can!’”

As the number of new businesses in our country diminish, as the bureaucracies— whether they’re governmental, whether they’re business, or whether they’re labor— increase, as the capital requirements to enter business magnify, those who are possessed of the entrepreneurial spirit are increasingly frustrated and denied entrance. No impartial observer can deny that this is the situation that exists today.

For me, the mitigating of the entrepreneurial spirit in our country is one of the saddest occurrences … Because of this we find that power is possessed in fewer and fewer hands, and I suspect that this as much as anything has produced the increasing alienation which we feel in this great land of ours. There’s a tenseness in this land, as evidenced by an increasing adversarial attitude among business, labor and government. …

“If all the leaders of business, of labor and of government had the attitudes that those in this room possess, there would be a tremendous reduction in unemployment, in inflation and in poverty. … We should then better understand what Sophocles meant when he said in Antigone:

“We are born not to share in hate but to share in love.”

In lieu of flowers, the family  has generously requested that donations be made to The Texas Observer, or to the Rapoport Scholars Program at the University of Texas.

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