Politics in Texas is a history of ironies, and the cruelest of them all hangs on a rifle shot in Dallas two years ago. "The bullet" informs all that has since happened in Texas: the miscarriage of an embryonic Republican Party, the paralysis of the liberal Democrats, and the assumption by Governor John Connally, and his Administration of conservative Democrats, of unrivaled power. Somewhere in these vast reaches dissident souls may be stirring, but they dance to outcast drummers. The Connally consensus is complete.
"Two years ago," a Houston lawyer said last week, "there were some blacks and whites, but no more. There is only one big center." Texas is a gray place. Opposition to Connally is fragmented and ineffectual. The Governor has stifled it with a combination of kindness, cleverness and cruelty, in the best Texas tradition. It does not surprise some non-Texans, who can see the same characteristics on a wider screen, starring Connally's closet political traveling companion. But quick conclusions may be deceiving. "I'd bet," the lawyer said, "that the President learned more from John than the other way around."
Connally's explosion of power and popularity date from "the bullet," but his office, of course, antedated that day by more than a year. He was Secretary of the Navy under John Kennedy, a position for which he had no extraordinary qualifications, except that hew as a self-made Texas millionaire and had managed all of Lyndon Johnson's political campaigns since 1938, including the vice presidential race in 1960.
Like Johnson, Connally came from a poor family made poorer by the depression; his father was a tenant farmer and a bus driver. Connally was, naturally, president of the student body at the University of Texas, which man not be a prerequisite for political fortune in the state, but seems to assure it. After war service, he got into the Austin radio business—another path to glory—and that led to an association with the oil tycoon, Sid Richardson, who cut Connally in on some lucrative properties.
Thus armed with position and funds, Connally burst, or more appropriately slid, into the national political scene. He was, as one of his close advisers describes it, "Lyndon's bag man," that is, the pipeline for the Texas money which financed Johnson's political exploits. It is not a dishonorable job in politics, and he served well.
Meanwhile, a slow evolutionary process had begun back home. The conservative regime of Gov. Allen Shivers (he supported Eisenhower against Stevenson and in 1952 ran as both a Republican and a Democrat) was the target for all the "national" Democrats in the state, grouped around a core of liberals. They were even able, by a combination of circumstance, luck and great enthusiasm to elect a liberal (Ralph Yarborough) to statewide office (the US Senate), a feat which has not been duplicated since.
"There was a real chasm between the state and national factions of the Democrats," a Connally Administration official explained. Shivers did nothing to mollify the national-ites, and they flourished. Their strength, too, polarized the independent conservatives into the Republican Party. Shivers left the governorship at the beginning of 1957 with a deeply divided Democratic Party and the beginnings, however tentative, of a two-party system. His successor, Price Daniel, did little to change the situation. He was a mediocre politician, and although a conservative and a statist, hew as not extraordinarily successful in designing tactics to defeat his opponents. He gave up a Senate seat and beat Yarborough for the governorship. Yarborough then won the vacant Senate position in a special election.
The Kennedy candidacy—ironically— was the greatest boost to Republicanism in Texas history. The radical right has a home here, and it hit the Kennedy campaign, and the later Administration, with equal vigor. Kennedy also supplied a beneficence for the liberals, who finally had a national focus of attention. The joker in the pack was Lyndon Johnson, who occupied—to put it mildly—a highly ambiguous role. He was intensely disliked by most of the liberals, for sound reasons and others, and hew as considered something of a sell-out by his fellow-conservatives for accepting the vice presidential spot. But he had not forgotten about Texas, and whatever the pressure he put on Connally to leave the Navy Department (history does not record the details of Connally's motives), the move served his purposes. It also was a happy one for Kennedy, who was horrified at the election of John Tower in 1961 to be the first Republican Senator from Texas (he filled Johnson's unexpired term).
John Connally returned to Texas in 1962 as a dragon-slayer: he would kill the GOP for Kennedy and the liberals for Johnson. But something was wrong with his terrible swift sword. He had a wicked primary fight with the liberal Democrat, Don Yarborough, was forced into a run-off primary, and won by about 26,000 votes out of more than a million cast. Then—wonder of wonders—the Republicans put up a real live candidate in the general election and found 715,000 votes against Connally's 815,000. Previous Republican candidates were lucky if they got 75,000 votes in all.
Connally was doing a tolerable job as governor during the first year of his term. HIs "issue" was education—he was for more of it, which suited the conservative businessmen fine, too. (The Texas constitution decrees the establishment of a "first-class university.") They had been convinced that industrialization of the state depended on finding more brains, or at least more technologically trained brains (Texas ranks 44th in the country in literacy). Connally managed to pass some small measure of business controls—against small loan agencies—and remain thick with "the lobbies" or the "interests" or the "establishment"—that half-legendary, half-real business power-elite of major oil companies, banks, insurance, and the like that is said to control Texas government. He had a modicum of political power, but the Republicans and the liberals were still gaining, and there could have been a dandy fight when Connally came up fro reelection in 1964.
Then the bullet. It was in a Texas city—Dallas, no less— the financial capital of the state (and the South), the most sophisticated, and the Republican stronghold. Long after they were cleared of specific blame for the assassination, Dallas Republicans would not admit their party affiliation, from a sense of shame. Then, to be wounded while riding with the President was to participate in the apotheosis; Connally became part, if a small part, of the demi-godhead. And irony upon irony: the death of Kennedy not only removed a spur to Republicans everywhere, it also installed a Texan, of all people, in the presidency, and it was none other than that fellow for whom John Connally had worked unselfishly all these years.
Without trying, Connally was assured of control as long as he wanted it in Texas, but that did not step him from trying. "Like Johnson, he is a total politician," one of his aides remarked. He pores over every item of political news in the state; he involves himself in contests for county commissions in San Antonio and jockeys for power in local party committees. When a hostile party worker was elected by a county organization to the State Democratic Executive Committee, he encouraged the state party convention to reject the county action and seat a more "acceptable" member.
It is not all done with mirrors. Connally has an effective personal organization. Politics is not controlled through a party machine; politicians have their own mechanisms, their own men. The state party headquarters in a small suite of rooms at the end of a corridor in an Austin office building; there are three (poorly) paid staff members. "Our whole budget is probably only twice as much as the state chairman in New York makes himself," one of them said ruefully. The state committee does not run campaigns to raise war chests; it is lucky if it can raise enough money to cover its printing and postage costs every year.
Government and politics here seem to be frozen at some Paleolithic stage of evolution. LIke a horseshoe crab of one of those animals that should have been extinct millions of years ago, the Texas system has developed hardy defenses that permit it to survive among the fittest. it is still frontier politics; it has the sham of direct democracy with little of the substance. Politicians have to build their own followings, evanescent personality movements that can bust as easily as they boom.
It all works to keep the politicians of the conservative center in power, with no party checks on behavior. The Republicans on the right and the liberals on the left are "oppressed minorities," as a Republican official said recently, and their interests often coincide. They both favor reform of the electoral structure for a two-party system. For despite the factions, and the factions of the factions, Texas is still a one-party state. The Southern tradition enshrines the nobility of the Democratic Party, whatever its national identity. Texans are free to vote in any primary they choose (there is no party registration), and last year, 92 percent of the voters picked up the Democratic primary ballot (they make the decision as they enter the booth). It is easy to see what a deadening effect that kind of mass vote can have on nominations. Almost always, the liberals lose on primary day; perhaps half of those choosing between Democratic candidates would, in a two-party system, by Republicans. Even in Texas, Republicans invariably get a minimum of a quarter of the total vote in the general election, when a serious Republican is running.
The system is bad for moderate Republicans, too. Since less than ten percent of the vote in the primaries is for Republicans, candidates have a very restricted electorate to which to appeal. It is comprised of the furthest-right element, and it demands close conformity to rightist principles. Last year, George Bush had to run for the Senate in the Republican primary as a hard-line conservative; later he moved closer to the center (was consequently shredded by the Birchers).
Republicans and liberals would like to see permanent party registration as a qualification to primary voting. That, perhaps, would help polarize the electorate. As it is now, the most that liberals can do is "veto" conservative Democrats in a general election. In 1961, for example, the liberals "went fishin'" and let John Tower beat the Democrat Bill Blakely, who was considered the worse of two evils. More than liberal principles, the liberals want power, and their first job as they see it is to cup up the conservatives.
It is difficult for outsiders to realize the bitterness and the isolation of the liberal faction. The liberals, often enough, are closer to the Republican organizatino than the Democratic. "I see the Republican executive director all the time—great fellow!" said a liberal worker. "I couldn't tell you who the Democrat is with the same job." County Democratic organizations with a liberal bent (particularly Houston's Harris County Democrats) might just as well be in a third party, and indeed they soon may be.
The one plan which has some hope of denting the Connally consensus is the formation of a Liberal Party, which (ideologically) would be about as liberal as the Democratic Party in most Northern and Western states, but which might catch the most politically disgruntled Texas Democrats.
This is the year to try it. Tower's Senate seat comes up, and both Connally and Johnson must try their hardest to get it away form the Republicans. It seems likely now that a conservative will win the Democratic nomination in the spring. A Liberal Party could then picks its own candidate and, the liberals hope, draw enough support away from the Democrat to reelect Tower. As a by-product, the militant liberal effort might succeed in organizing the Latin and Negro vote, which has never been successfully done. The liberals believe there are enough "bodies" to assure continued power if only they were mobilized. Even now, in straight, hard-fought contests, liberals can split the vote with conservatives in the urban counties, and get between 40-50 percent of those who come out to vote statewide.
Republicans love the basic idea. Tower is moderately popular, but the Republican influence is at a minimum, and he will need wholesale defections from both conservative and liberal Democrats to win.
The conservative Democrat running for the seat is Waggoner Carr, Connally's attorney general, who wanted very much to be governor but found that office rather securely held and had to move up this year to the Senate race. Carr is of the smooth, courtly, controlled breed of Texas politician; no "hot damns!" issue from his cool lips. He addresses visitors familiarly in the middle of sentences ("It's a fine day, Bill, here in Austin") as Dale Carnegie suggests. Carr would like very much to be the Connally-Johnson candidate for the nomination, but he just misses the boat. For although they are both in the conservative faction, Connally and Carr have been put a certain amount of distance between them. Carr has his own political organization; it is not at all coincident with Connally's. The governor has felt Carr's hot breath on his neck from time to time as the attorney general contemplates the possibility of some day occupying the Governor's Mansion.
Johnson is not directly threatened, but he has no special commitment to Carr (as he does to Connally), and while he conceives it his best interest to keep the conservatives in full power in Texas, he prefers Senators in Washington who would vote for Administration bills. Carr may not always be obliging. If he shares Connally's beliefs, he might in fact prove altogether ornery. For instance, Connally is against repeal of 14(b), in favor of state vetoes on anti-poverty programs, against public accommodations civil rights laws, and other Great Society legislation. If Carr follows the same route, he will not be very helpful in the Senate. Johnson, however, has another possibility. US Rep. Jim Wright, of Fort Worth, is teetering on the brink of the Senate contest; if he can raise enough money, he will jump in, and while he would be the underdog to Carr, the Fates might be kind.
Wright is one of a handful of Texas congressmen who follow the national Administration's suggestions. His record of support for the President this year is near perfect. He even voted for the repeal of 14(b), and Texas is a "right-to-work" state. That is one of the reason he is having trouble getting up a campaign fund. Wright can be a bore—there is much of the pious Texas Baptist about him—but he makes a good impression in large groups and on television, which is the only way to campaign over 267,339 square miles.
Wright might also be the strongest opponent against John Tower. Liberals would be more inclined to vote for him (although many want to punish him for voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) than Carr, and Johnson would probably insist, over Connally's protests perhaps, that the conservatives work for any Democrat. The President has a way with Texas politicians: last year he enraged Connally by insisting that the conservatives drop the idea of putting Rep. Joe Kilgore in the primary against Ralph Yarborough, than whom Connally has no more hated enemy—and vice-versa. Kilgore was dutifully dumped.
Liberals would like to think that the political difference between Connally and Johnson could lead to an open breach, but they are probably deluding themselves if they believe that the President will let it happen. Johnson does not reward political loyalty with indifference, and Connally needs Johnson too much to allow the relationship to crack. The two men agree to disagree.
On the other hand, Connally's understanding of the Johnson phenomenon may be imperfect. "John konws only one phase of Johnson's life," a Houston Democrat said. "That's the middle period—Johnson as an organizing, finagling, wheeling and dealing money man. He never knew Johnson as the FDR man [Connally is 48; the President is 56] and he does not know him as the Keeper of the Great Society. They weren't raised in the same political environment either, although they had similar backgrounds. Connally grew up in the boom of the 'forties. Johnson grew up in the worst part of the depression. Johnson had to fight the business interests and the conservatives. Connally played them for all they were worth."
Connally is up against next year—with no opposition—and he chose the annual meeting of the Texas Research League—an association which is "the establishment"—to make what is regarded as his campaign kick-off speech. His style is a fine compromise between the hot and the cool schools of politicking, with perhaps more evocations of piety than most Easterners find relevant, but on the whole reasonable. He did not pander completely to his conservative audience: "Today we are witnessing the birth pains of a new era in local, state and federal relationships.... There will be endless debate on many [federal] programs, but on one point there is no disagreement; they have a profound effect on the responsibilities and the services of our state and local governments."
Well, no one could quarrel with that, and so Connally went on to tell just how the state could adjust to the Great Society, like it or not. That may not qualify as strong progressive leadership, but it is good consensus politics in a conservative state.
The liberals can do little to counter Connally's cooptation of much of their strength. He appoints a few "qualified" Negroes and Latins to state boards and cuts into the minority opposition. He wins labor, more or less, with the Kennedy Administration image and prodding from Johnson. Labor is not egregiously liberal in Texas in any case. The "independent liberals" are still antagonistic, and they do not count for terribly much. But they are a dedicated, if beleagurered lot. One finds rough diamonds all through the gray Texas sand: housewives of limited means and no social standing who divide their time between their household and the nitty-gritty of liberal politics; students at Texas University who are uniquely independent in the South; and free-lance liberals like Ronnie Dugger, whose Texas Observer is the conscience of the political community. Weekend before laset, representatives of the "four legs" of liberalism—labor, Latins, independent liberals, and Negroes—met in Houston to formalize a Texas Organization of Liberal Democrats (TOLD) which might federate the separate liberal "coalitions" that exist in many counties. They have been the effective agent of the national Democratic Party faction, but for all the familiar sociological and political reasons (Latins and Negroes don't get along, labor is not solid nor is it uniformly liberal, and independents are prone to non-cognitive philosophizing, etc.) the coalition has not had statewide power. TOLD will probably not do much better. If Carr is the Democratic Senate nominee, it might, like the projected Liberal Party, exert some clout. If Wright is the candidate, the liberals will be in total disarray, with no possibility of agreement on tactics. Legislative reapportionment (despite hanky-panky from the Connally forces in drawing districts) and congressional redistricting will elect some liberals, and a few Republicans. There may be a Negro state senator—Barbara Jordan, of Houston. But those who count on redistricting or election law reforms to break up the factional system will probably be disappointed: the problem is political not organizational. Power, not rules, will enliven the scene. The Latins must organize politically; "they are still 50 years behind the Negroes," an Austin liberal said. The Negroes themselves are much less active in Texas than in the Southeast, and they have yet to show the extent of their power.
One can only marvel that there is agreement on anything in Texas, or any government at all. For its size and its disparities and (not to be unkind) the political primitivism of its citizens, it needs the instruments of a sovereign state rather than a federal unit. It is still living the Old West myth; it takes Federick Jackson Turner too seriously, for Frontiersmen do not inhabit the 40-story skyscrapers in Houston. It partakes of Old South fantasies too, but with many exceptions that it is impossible to pigeonhole Texas as anything but Texan. Pat Brown cannot play very strongly on everyone's sense of California do-or-die. But John Connally has all the Texas eyes.