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The Hostage

The fecklessness of George Bush is best seen in the way he has dithered back and forth between two Republican parties for all of his political life. While yearning intermittently toward the evanescing party of his father—the Wall Street internationalist party of paternalistic “Wise Men”—he rose with the surging Goldwater party, to which his fortunes have been hostage.

Bush’s choice of Texas as a starting place is called, in his own version of his life, a declaration of independence from his father. (Actually, he was working for his father, who through a protégé, Neil Mallon, ran Dresser Industries.) But the Texas move created dependence on a state party, inchoate when he joined it, that formed the vanguard of the Goldwater movement. Goldwater made one of his early impressions on Republicans by the reaction to his Texas appearances on behalf of John Tower during Tower’s Senate campaign in 1961. It was the Texas state committee of Peter O’Donnell, a leader of the Draft Goldwater movement, that Bush managed for the Houston area, after having organized its scattered fragments in West Texas.

As Chandler Davidson has argued, the Texas Republicans had no past component of moderate views.1 It was a one-wing (right-wing) party, of no national importance until the Goldwater movement gave it an opportunity to grow, because it suffered no internal conflict with less extreme Republican views.

The story is complicated by a paradox that Bush has lived without ever understanding it. The leading state party of the Goldwater movement was given artificial assistance by liberal Democrats in its crucial moment of takeoff. It became the accidental beneficiary of the bitter fight the Texan Democrats waged against the Yarborough liberals of the 1960s, a fight that led to such anomalies as John Kenneth Galbraith’s endorsement of George Bush for the Senate in 1970 as preferable to the conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen—this at a time when Bush had opposed the civil rights bills of 1964 and 1966 and was actively supporting the war in Vietnam.

The Republican Party in Texas “arrived” with John Tower’s election to the Senate in 1961. He was the first Republican to win statewide office since Reconstruction, and only a concatenation of flukes had raised him up. The first oddity occurred in 1957, when the conservative Democratic Party found itself, despite desperate last-minute efforts, putting a liberal, Ralph Yarborough, into the Senate. This happened because Texas’s one-party system had no runoff at the time—the leader in the Democratic primary had always been the winner of the general election. But in the special election of 1957 (held to fill the seat vacated by Price Daniel), a Republican, Thad Hutcheson, divided the conservative vote with Yarborough’s Democratic rival, Martin Dies, and let Yarborough slip through.

Liberal backers of Yarborough like Ronnie Dugger saw how useful a Republican candidate could be in siphoning conservative votes out of the Democratic Party, giving the liberals a better chance at office. They felt they could safely “spill” those Democratic votes without creating a major Republican opposition. They were looking only at the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party, since it had been the whole ball game up to that point. Tower became the first beneficiary of this strategy. Bush would have been the second one, in 1964, but for Kennedy’s assassination. And he would have been boosted by it into the Senate, in 1970, but for Richard Nixon’s clumsy meddling.

John Tower, the son of a preacher who moved from church to church in conservative East Texas, had first attracted public notice as a country-and-western disc jockey (Tex Tower). But after a stay at the London School of Economics, he returned to Texas, in pinched-waisted Savile Row suits, dandified. His booming voice compensated—at least on radio and television—for his puppet size. In 1960, this pointy-toed little Jack went forth as a giant slayer against the towering Lyndon Johnson. Normally, this was a sacrificial Republican task. Texans would never forfeit the power that went with Johnson’s majority leadership in the Senate. But Johnson had angered many Texans in 1960, on three grounds. First, after attacking the Kennedys in his own primary race for the presidency, he had “sold out” to them by joining their ticket. Second, he was campaigning on a national platform with several items anathema to many Texans (e.g., repeal of right-to-work laws). Third, he had extracted from the legislature a hasty revision of the law that let him, simultaneously, run for vice-president and for the Senate: the majority leadership was too dear to give up on the chance Kennedy might not win.

Capitalizing on these discontents, Tower got an improbable 43 percent of the vote against Johnson, and then took his campaign in to the special election to fill Johnson’s seat after he resigned to become vice-president. This is where the liberal Democrats came to his assistance. Tower was running against the Democratic oil millionaire William Blakely, called “Dollar Bill” by his liberal Democratic enemies. Yarborough said he would “go fishing” on election day, and conservatives—tempted to jump ship and actually vote Republican—were prodded from behind by liberals muttering “good riddance” to them.

Tower squeaked through with that help. The state now had two enormities in its Senate representation—a liberal Democrat and a Republican—and some of the same people had promoted both of them. Young Turks had ganged up on conservative Democrats from two directions, the Texas Observer cooperating with Young Americans for Freedom. This was the burgeoning party for which Bush went to work in the Tower era. His credentials were good. He had been the principal Republican organizer in Odessa and Midland, Texas, during the Fifties—an area so conservative that it had gone for Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats” against Truman in 1948, and it even voted for Lyndon Johnson’s Republican opponent for the Senate in that year. Odessa would elect some John Birch Society officials in the 1960s, though Midland Democrats mobilized to prevent any spread of the society beyond one school-board election. Bush had organized hard-core opponents of communism and attacked “encroachments” by the federal government.

In the more urban and urbane Houston he was even more successful. Harris County Republicans voted him their county chairman in 1963. Later that year he announced that he would challenge Yarborough, whose first full term was ending in a storm of recrimination over his vote for the Civil Rights Bill. The effort Yarborough forces had mounted to make conservatives leave the Democrats seemed about to backfire on them. The same moves that let Yarborough win the nomination in 1957 were encouraged by people working to repudiate Yarborough.

Yarborough was the only southern senator to vote for the civil rights bill—as Goldwater was the only nonsouthern senator to vote against it. Bush’s election strategy for 1964 was linked to the Goldwater movement by the very nature of Yarborough’s difficulties. But Bush’s ties to Goldwater would have been strong in any case. Texans had been involved in the Draft Goldwater movement from the outset—including James Leonard, who was directing Bush’s 1964 campaign.

In July of 1963, Craig Peper, the finance chairman of the Harris County Republicans, resigned in protest at Chairman Bush’s open favoring of Goldwater for the presidency. The party’s fund-raising operations should be officially neutral until the nominee is chosen, Peper was arguing. But Bush praised the Draft Goldwater people and announced that he was “100 percent” for Goldwater himself.2 Two months later, Bush resigned his county chairmanship to announce for the Senate (aiming first at that high post, as his father had). That was September 11. He had just over two months of euphoric planning to replace Yarborough and make up, with Tower, an all-Republican Texas presence in the Senate.

Then Kennedy was shot, and all bets were off. Texans were even more disoriented by the blow than other Americans. Their man succeeded to the presidency. The assassination had happened on their soil. Their law officials were being blamed for mishandling the aftermath of the crime. Kennedy had been killed in a town associated with extremists like H.L. Hunt and General Edwin Walker. The President had been killed shortly after Adlai Stevenson was assailed by hostile demonstrators in Dallas. The whole state was held complicitous in the crime—if not actually conspiring in it, at least enabling it through a “climate of hate.” Parties and candidates were asked to repudiate “extremism.” Johnson, the new president, took steps to unite the battle-scarred Democratic Party. He prevented conservative Joe Kilgore from running against Yarborough.3 He wanted peace and unity in the nation, and especially in his home state. He would be glad to have Yarborough’s vote when his civil rights act passed.

Bush, if he meant to continue his campaign in this altered world, had some basic decisions to make. As a county chairman building a minority party by encouraging defections from Democrats of all sorts, he had refused to exclude anyone. But now that the call to repudiate extremism had become more urgent, he would have to heed it, ignore it, or denounce it. Not only was Yarborough calling him a supporter of extremists; the resigned finance chairman now repeated his charges that Bush was doing the bidding of the Birchers.

Before the assassination, Bush had called attacks on the John Birch Society a form of “reverse McCarthyism.” He told the Houston AFL-CIO convention, a week before announcing his own candidacy: “I am sensitive to this label business. I think labor will be doing the same harm McCarthyism did if it continues this way.”4 He stuck by that position, though not in as outspoken a way, throughout his 1964 campaign against Yarborough. Richard Nixon had repudiated the Birch Society in his 1962 contest for governor of California, and thought this contributed to his loss that year.5 Bush tried to label Yarborough the extremist, especially on his civil rights vote. He was the “dedicated left-wing radical.”6 His vote was an example of the wrong answer to race relations, the “worn-out, one-track answer, that tired Hubert Humphrey answer, that awful Ralph Yarborough answer—the federal government must do it.”7

In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, with all the Democratic factions uniting behind the Texas President, it is a wonder Bush did so well. He got 43 percent of the vote—the same amount Tower rolled up against Johnson in 1960. Yarborough, whose family came to Texas in the 1840s, called Bush a carpetbagger with a “rich daddy” in the Senate. “I am not a good singer, but I sang on the radio Bush’s song about ‘We’re little lost sheep who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa.’ “8 James Leonard, who ran Bush’s 1964 campaign, says his eastern manner did not hurt in the metropolitan areas, especially Houston: “Bush was the Republican Kennedy, young, dashing, articulate, rich.” 9 But rural areas were a different matter. “I tried to make a Texan of him,” says Leonard,

  1. 1

    Chandler Davidson, Race and Class in Texas Politics (Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 200–201, 206–207.

  2. 2

    Houston Chronicle, July 3, 1963.

  3. 3

    John R. Knaggs, Two-Party Texas: The John Tower Era, 1961–1984 (Eakin Press, 1986), pp. 41–43, and an interview with Ralph Yarborough.

  4. 4

    Houston Chronicle, August 29, 1963.

  5. 5

    The national Goldwater campaign debated the John Birch Society issue and decided (as Bush did) not to repudiate members of the society but privately to exclude them from the campaign organization. (Denison Kitchel, the campaign director, had been a member, though Goldwater and his aides were unaware of this.)

  6. 6

    Houston Chronicle, September 24, 1964. The word “dedicated” was a term of art with right-wing extremists, borrowed from “dedicated Communist Party member.”

  7. 7

    Houston Chronicle, October 14, 1964. Bush also repeated the false claim brought up by Yarborough’s primary opponent, radio’s “Scotsman” Gordon McLendon, that Billy Sol Estes, the convicted Texas financier, gave unreported money to Yarborough. See also the Houston Chronicle, May 24, 1964; September 24, 1964.

  8. 8

    Author’s interview with Ralph Yarborough, February 1992.

  9. 9

    Author’s interview with James Leonard, February 1992.

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