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Those Were the Days

University of Texas Press' New Series on Texas Politics

By Clay Smith, April 26, 2002, Books

Earlier this spring, University of Texas Press began publishing a series of books about politics in Texas. Because the editors of the series, which is spearheaded by Don Carleton, the director of UT's Center for American History, understand that it's more interesting to read about underdogs than the ruling class, all three books in the series are about Texas liberals. But early in the first book released in the series, Ralph W. Yarborough: The People's Senator, a biography of the late populist senator, biographer and historian Patrick Cox explains in one cogent paragraph why the notion of a "Texas liberal" hasn't always been something of an anomaly:

Texans possessed a long tradition of strong suspicion when it came to large corporations, monopolies, and out of state businesses. This lack of trust dated back to the Republic of Texas and continued through the Populist era of the late nineteenth century. Public acceptance of business increased somewhat in the next century with the economic expansion during World War I and the boom of the 1920's. However, after 1929, as the national economy and personal fortunes declined with the onset of the Great Depression, people quickly began to move away from the idea that business and the economic cycle should direct the economy. More Americans believed their elected officials and the government had a special responsibility to respond to the economic downturn. In Texas, people began to look to their state government to respond and to protect citizens from businesses which many perceived as the primary culprits for the economic depression. Despite the discovery of oil and increased urbanization, Texas was still a rural, agricultural state in tradition and outlook. ... Texans retained a large measure of the populist, anti-corporation sentiments rooted in its past.

The notion that citizens would turn to the government for intervention and protection without excessively engaging in heady arguments about whether or not The Government has too much power is the single most salient example that the assumptions under which Yarborough and his contemporaries functioned are a relic of the past. That's one reason this series is so vital right now -- populist movements can largely be thought of as history. The role that government should play and the influence it should have over citizens' lives is, arguably, the most constant strand of thought running throughout this series, which, considered in tandem, offers unrivaled insights, as Patrick Cox puts it, into "the unusual world of Texas politics." Here's a brief overview of the series.

Ralph W. Yarborough: The People's Senator ($39.95) by Patrick Cox: Cox, who is a historian at the Center for American History, gives Yarborough thorough, respectable coverage in this comprehensive biography. What Yarborough lacks in vitality, it makes up for with its detailed analysis of the small-town East Texas native who gallivanted to Europe in the Twenties as a young man with others of his Lost Generation for the putative romance of a European education. When he boarded the ship in New Orleans that would take him to Le Havre, France, the ship's officers put him in charge of the cattle on board because of his Texas accent. That's how he paid for the passage. But Yarborough's European idyll was hardly Edenic. As Cox points out, "He witnessed firsthand the depravations of war and the sufferings of a conquered people. ... The time he spent in Europe as a young man undoubtedly brought home to him the widespread hardships and sufferings of people." After returning to Texas and obtaining a law degree from the University of Texas, Yarborough and his new wife Opal, who grew up with him in East Texas, headed out in 1928 to El Paso, where he would earn $150 a month instead of the $50 per month being offered to starting lawyers in Houston or Dallas. Though his wife steadfastly refused to entertain the notion of being married to a politician, Yarborough couldn't quell his passion for politics and convinced Opal that he would flourish under the leadership of the state's new progressive attorney general, James Allred. Yarborough's early political education was forged during the state's oil boom of the Twenties and Thirties, when the State argued in many controversial cases that the State should retain rights to land found to harbor petroleum because the income derived from the oil would bolster public education. "From this point forward," Cox writes, "Yarborough saw himself as a defender of the public interest and an education proponent." Through a progression of stints that eventually led to him becoming a United States Senator from 1957 until 1970 (including three unsuccessful attempts to become the governor of Texas), Yarborough frequently took stands in marked opposition to the power structure. "Yarborough followed his convictions with a religious fervor matched by few public figures of his day," Cox explains in the Afterword. "His was a public personality that was long on vision, ability, and knowledge but sometimes short on political judgment. ... In his mind, the confrontations with establishment figures, corporations, and more-conservative politicians were based on democratic values. He believed that the law and government maintained a duty to defend individuals and organizations from unfair practices and illegal activities." This biography ably captures the essence of Yarborough's appeal and achievements (among them, designating Padre Island as a National Seashore and establishing Medicare and the Cold War G.I. Bill), and explains why later generations of left-leaning Texas Democrats have placed Yarborough on a reverential pedestal.

Once Upon a Time in Texas: A Liberal in the Lone Star State ($39.95) by David Richards: The Yarborough biography is a necessarily wan document compared to this no-holds-barred memoir by a central figure of the Texas left, a lawyer who argued controversial and critical cases that changed the political and social landscape in Texas, principally in the Sixties and Seventies. "I had so much fun practicing anti-establishment law during the era of the 1970s, I should have paid for the privilege," Richards writes. "Stupidity abounded. It seemed as though every day brought some new outrage by governmental bodies as they tried to hold the line against the onslaught of the unwashed." Richards, who used to be married to former Governor Ann Richards and now lives in Mill Valley, Calif., was stoutly on the side of the unwashed, and hobnobbed with Austin's vibrant community of writers and musicians (he was invited into Mad Dog, a tight group of talented hellion-artists like Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, and Willie Nelson). "Those were the days," Richards writes after explaining that in the mid-Sixties, Ann Richards and a friend of hers convinced their local supermarket to stop selling La Casita melons because farm workers in South Texas were striking for higher wages. The "those were the days" refrain makes frequent appearances in this memoir, but the nostalgia seems entirely well-earned. Richards was instrumental in representing unions ("representing unions in Texas was a pretty effective way of culling your Christmas card list," he writes) and in forcing the state to dismantle its segregated school system and to repeal the loyalty oath that required citizens to swear that they did not belong to "subversive" organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World. Once Upon a Time in Texas is not a ghostwritten memoir, and Richards' achingly precise, matter-of-fact writing sometimes rings flat. But there's a payoff: Richards may have operated in the educated legal world, but the unrehearshed quality of his writing propels the reader to feel intimately drawn into his struggles (statements like "I thought, 'What the hell,' I might as well try to take out the entire law while I was at it" are not that uncommon). Once Upon a Time in Texas is a rare glimpse into both the legal struggles and culture of the Texas left by one of its crusading leaders.

Being Rapoport: Capitalist With a Conscience ($39.95) by Bernard Rapoport, as told to Don E. Carleton: In the introduction to this collection of reminiscences by Waco insurance magnate and leftist philanthropist Bernard Rapoport, Texas native Bill Moyers writes that "The young people who work with me in New York City still recall the first time he whooshed through our office. They had never before experienced such a force of nature." Moyer's assessment is more than corroborated by the text that follows, which is heavy on the action verbs. Of course, if you asked Rapoport, he'd say that's the way it should be. Like Richards and Yarborough, one of Rapoport's distinguishing characteristics is his diligence and unceasing labor in the face of unforgiving odds. Rapoport grew up poor in San Antonio to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He worked his way through UT during the Great Depression and founded American Income Life Insurance Company in 1951; it's now a multi-million dollar business. Rapoport emerges in this memoir-cum-profile as one of the state's most intriguing philanthropists: He is both a cunning businessman and an activist who has routinely taken political stances that seem inimical to a profit-making enterprise. Carleton has interspersed Rapoport's recollections with the observations of politicians and colleagues who know him well, which makes for a vibrant, bracing narrative. end story

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