Unchained

As Bill Hobby's new book shows, getting out of politics loosens the tongue in amazing ways

photo courtesy Briscoe Center for American History
Bill Hobby with Ann Richards, ca. 1977

Most Texans would never have guessed that the fellow sitting alone in the Austin Doubletree Hotel restaurant on a recent rainy afternoon was one of the canniest and most powerful politicians in state history. Bill Hobby, Texas’ longest-serving lieutenant governor, was decidedly dressed down, wearing a black golf shirt from the University of Houston Center for Public Policy (renamed for him earlier this year), big round ‘70s-era eyeglasses and a few days’ start on a new gray beard. As he talked to me, in a small voice, about his new memoir and his memories of LBJ (and the president’s love life), Hobby sometimes sounded like just another pleasant gentleman looking back fondly on a long and unusually eventful career. Until he decided to let loose with another sharp opinion. Then it got really interesting.

Considering Hobby’s reputation as one of the classic old-style conservative Democrats, he has several surprising—and surprisingly blunt—things to say about 21st-century politics. Maybe this is what happens when a politician is finally unchained from politics—freed from the necessity of parsing his words so carefully that he says practically nothing. But whatever the explanation, Hobby in high dudgeon is both entertaining and illuminating.

Take the drug war—please. “Wars on somethings don’t work,” Hobby writes in How Things Really Work: Lessons from a Life in Politics. “Think alcohol, poverty, drugs, terror.” If he were president, Hobby writes, he would “declare victory in the war on drugs.” In doing so, he would note: “The war on drugs has accomplished some things! About half a million Americans are arrested annually for possession of marijuana. And doctors can lose their licenses for prescribing marijuana to relieve pain and nausea in terminal cancer victims.”

Talking about Texas’ low taxation and the resulting “unmet needs” of citizens, Hobby is equally biting: “The state of Texas is as big a tax break as there is,” he writes.

“Why are our leaders in Austin so determined that Texas be a mediocre state?” Hobby cries out at one point. You get the feeling he’s been asking that question for most of his life.

Back in the day, Hobby was nobody’s idea of a rabble-rouser. He was a blueblood, born into one of the state’s leading political and media families. His father had been lieutenant governor and governor; his mother had been Texas House parliamentarian and an Eisenhower cabinet member; and together they owned and ran the Houston Post. A handsome and genial Navy veteran, Hobby had become managing editor of the Post when he was practically still in utero. In 1972 he exchanged journalism for politics when he ran his first campaign—for what was then the most powerful position in state government. To Hobby’s good fortune, it was a year of upheaval. The Sharpstown bribery scandal was raging, taking down some of the state’s leading Democrats. The political neophyte with the golden name (and deep pockets) won with a simple message of reform: “Bill Hobby will make a good Lieutenant Governor, honestly.”

Hobby quickly learned how to work the state’s political machines. “[T]here were about twenty counties in Texas that were ‘one-stop shops,’ meaning that politics in the county was pretty much up to ‘the man,’” Hobby recalls. “If ‘the man’ was for you, you would get about 75 percent of the vote. If he was against you, you would get about 25 percent of the vote.

“In Fayette County, the man was Sheriff Jim Flourney of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas fame. Jim liked me, so I was golden in Fayette County. He had the ladies of the chicken ranch address postcards endorsing me, and I got about 100 percent of the vote every time.”

Ah: the good old wonderful days, when politics was clean and incorruptible!

In his first term, Hobby learned the limits of reform the hard way when he helped lead a serious effort to revise the Texas Constitution. “I believed that we could create a document more appropriate to governing a populous state in the twentieth century,” Hobby says. “I was wrong.” Hobby imbibed a sad lesson about Texans’ “fear of change and innovation. Texas voters will accept change in small increments when they are convinced of the need for it. But multiple changes with strong and credible opposition is going nowhere in a deeply conservative state.”

Following his motto—”compromise is the name of the game”—Hobby broke with history to appoint Republicans to key committee chairmanships. He navigated the rocky transition from Democratic dominance to a two-party state government. Over time, he was considered one of the steadiest and most effective lieutenant governors in history. “Bill Hobby has had more effect on Texas government for a longer time with a better end result than anyone since Sam Houston,” Texas Monthly gushed after he gaveled his ninth and final session to a close. “I could say that he taught me everything I know,” said Gov. Ann Richards, who did her share of squabbling with Hobby along the way. “That wouldn’t be quite true, but damn near.”

Hobby’s most memorable moment—unfortunately—came in 1979, when he tried to circumvent the Senate’s unwritten “two-thirds rule.” Hobby wanted to push through an early presidential primary for 1980, which was designed in part to benefit former Gov. John Connally’s disastrous White House run. (It would also benefit conservative Democrats, who could count on a lot of crossover Connally voters.) Hobby’s effort was derailed by 12 “Killer Bee” senators who flew into hiding. “I can’t imagine what I was thinking,” Hobby writes.

Hobby won election five times without a nail-biter. His toughest challenge came in 1982, when Republicans ran a wealthy Houston oilman named George Strake against him. “Strake came at me with all the usual Republican stuff,” Hobby writes. “I spent too much state money, and I was soft on illegal aliens. Worse than that, the state budget had grown! It certainly had, but not enough.”

Somehow, I’m betting that Hobby did not use those exact words on the campaign trail that year. Candidates itching to grow the state budget usually stay quiet about it. But getting out of politics loosens the tongue in amazing ways.

While there’s no question whom Hobby supports for governor this year (sharp criticism of Gov. Rick Perry is sprinkled throughout the book), he does have at least one spirited disagreement with the Democratic nominee. “Bill White has come out with term limits,” Hobby tells me, “which I’m against. Term limits are pretty silly, really.” From his own experience, Hobby insists that the longer you’re in the Legislature, the more effective you get. “Governing is a complicated business, and on-the-job-training is all most of us get,” he says. “In your first term, you learn the process. In your second term, you have some idea of the process. In your third term, you might be able to accomplish something—but not if you’re term-limited.”

In its best moments, Hobby’s memoir—written with his former chief of staff, Saralee Tiede—offers an unfiltered peek into the unpredictable mind of a man who was once a model of caution, a champion of compromise. In its most disappointing moments, Hobby veers from politics to the personal. He paints his powerful family in broad, flat strokes that seem designed to reveal little or nothing about them. Hobby has no intention of giving readers a glimpse of his soul, or of anybody else’s. But he dearly loves to let loose about politics.

This combination of reticence and outspokenness makes Hobby a curious character in his own story. Readers have to build their own composite character portrait out of his accounts of Senate battles, and out of what Hobby says when he speaks in an unguarded way. The portrait that emerges—a little fuzzy and two-dimensional—is of one of a traditional gentleman who turns out to have a vicious sense of humor and caustic, free-thinking opinions. If Bill Hobby was never a big-government liberal, at least he gave a damn about running government decently and fairly. In his heyday, that got him called a conservative Democrat. Today, it would qualify him as an outright socialist.

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Published at 4:28 pm CST
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