Power Politics

Books about Texas, the presidency and national politics remind us that the Lone Star State has a long history of influencing the country’s agenda.


A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

Aside from being Texans, John Nance Garner and Lyndon Baines Johnson had something else in common. As vice presidents, they were eclipsed by charismatic commanders-in-chief: Garner by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Johnson by John F. Kennedy.

As Robert Caro writes in The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, the newest and fourth volume in his biography of LBJ, the once formidable “master of the Senate” had been relegated to the outskirts of Camelot, pining for an invitation from Kennedy to the throne room. The Ivy League circle embedded at the White House and in the Washington, D.C., social scene derided LBJ as “Uncle Cornpone,” a swipe at his Texas drawl and awkward demeanor.

Sam Rayburn, the longtime U.S. House Speaker from Bonham, had warned LBJ that the vice presidency was a powerless position. John Nance Garner, known as “Cactus Jack,” once told Rayburn the job was not worth “a bucket of warm piss,” Caro writes. Roosevelt had selected Garner, a former House Speaker, as his running mate in 1932 after the Texan failed to get the Democratic presidential nomination. In 1941, Garner retired to Uvalde, done with national politics. In 1963, an assassin’s bullet made LBJ president.

After three years out of power, Johnson was back.

The Bushes—George Herbert Walker and George Walker—eventually followed LBJ in the office, though plenty of other Texans had designs on the presidency and fell short. Most recently, Gov. Rick Perry briefly rode the tea party wave before wiping out during the Republican primaries. The anti-Washington, limited-government politics that fueled his candidacy are analyzed in Gail Collins’ As Texas Goes… How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda.

The Passage of Power and As Texas Goes… reflect the ongoing fascination with the state, its political progeny and the influence they exert over the national agenda and the presidency. Caro and Collins capture Texas and Texans at two very different stages in the state’s political progression: The Texas of LBJ and the Texas of the tea party.

“The whole sense of the Texas-ness of Texas was interesting to me, ” Collins said in an interview with the Observer. She had never encountered a place where the residents were so wedded to a state identity and where the politics were so influential.

“The influence the state has had over the Republican Party since it became a Republican state is best reflected in the tea party,” says Collins. “[Former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey was one of the original founders and organizers of the tea party. Before it became more socially conservative, Ron Paul was one of the original intellectual guiding lights of the tea party movement. It very much has a Texas energy to it.

“When wonderful and very smart journalists from Texas call up and have arguments with me for the benefit of a radio station, one of the things they say is that I’m misjudging the Republican Party in Texas, that there’s a lot of old establishment Republican spirit still in Texas. … The tea party end seems very ascendant to me right now.”

Armey recently told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien that President Barack Obama is the “biggest threat to our liberty in the history—in our lifetime.”

Long before Dick Armey and the tea party, Texans had ascended to national power with a relatively liberal brand of politics.

“The peak of Texas power was 1930 to 1948,” says Walter L. Buenger, a history professor at Texas A&M University. “There was Rayburn, Garner and other influential committee chairs and leaders.”

Part of the state’s influence was due to the long tenure of its congressional members. “Texans had the habit of re-electing people over and over again,” Buenger says, citing Congressman Wright Patman of Cass County in northeast Texas, among others. From 1928 to 1976, Patman was a member of the powerful House Committee on Banking and Currency, now the House Committee on Financial Services, and served at times as chair. Rayburn was House Speaker for 17 years and a congressman for almost 49 years, arriving when Woodrow Wilson was president and departing under Kennedy.

Before “the modern period,” Buenger says, Texas had “liberal politicians of considerable importance. Sam Rayburn was liberal by modern standards, a staunch supporter of the New Deal. Wright Patman was more liberal, and senators were more liberal.” In Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good, published last year, Steven Fenberg chronicles the Houston businessman who helped FDR revive an economy on the rocks during the Great Depression.

Texas’ influence on the presidency predates the New Deal. Another Houstonian, Edward M. House, was a close advisor of President Wilson, working as a foreign policy emissary in Europe. And there were Texans in the cabinet and in positions of power in Congress when Wilson was president, including a young Rayburn.

“Most in those days were Democrats,” says Buenger. There had been a long string of Republicans before them, but “until recent times, [Texas’ influence] has been in Democratic administrations.”

For a long time, the former slave-holding states rejected the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln, who ended slavery, and the party that established Reconstruction in the South. As a result, the Texas Democratic Party was a big tent (for white politicians) with three distinct factions. “You could think of one faction as the conservative business; one faction as rural insurgents, populist types; one faction as progressive modernizers,” Buenger says.

Successful Texas politicians learned to juggle the factions and align two of the three to win elections. They learned to compromise, Buenger explains, to “seize the middle ground and make deals.”

When the Republican stigma began to fade, conservative Democrats started joining the party.

“The more interesting thing is since about 1985 Texas has grown more conservative: whether it is a leader in this movement or has followed the pattern of California, I don’t know,” says Buenger, who has yet to read Collins’ take on state politics.

Collins argues that Texans’ conservative worldview is shaped by what she calls “the law of empty places.” As if in a time capsule, Texans view themselves as rural folks who don’t need government interfering in their lives, rather than as residents of a largely urban state.

Texas’ politics may have changed since the days of LBJ or even those of George W. Bush, but the state is still a major player. According to Collins, Texas has already had an impact on the presidential election. Although he’s “not normally a Texas kind of individual,” Collins say, Texas put Mitt Romney over the top in the Republican primaries, even though his track record has been to fix government rather than grind it into the dust.