Ben Barnes on Barn Building

Selections from Barn Burning, Barn Building: Tales of a Political Life, From LBJ Through George W. Bush and Beyond, by Ben Barnes, with Lisa Dickey (Bright Sky Press, 2006).


On Bush and the National Guard

I did make the call to the National Guard on George W. Bush's behalf, and he did jump ahead of others in line. Considering how many young men were on the waiting list at that time, there is absolutely no way Bush could have gotten into the Texas Air National Guard so quickly unless he had special help. All those who claim that Bush got into the Guard without having any strings pulled on his behalf are just flat wrong. Those are the facts. …

[T]he uproar over the [CBS] documents obscured the much more important issue: Did George W. Bush really serve his full time in the National Guard? I believe it's clear that he didn't. And I also believe that, regardless of whether he fulfilled his service or not, he acted shamefully in letting his millions of dollars worth of pilot training go absolutely to waste, just because of his personal whims. …

With all that said, I want to mavke clear how ashamed I am of what I did. I thought at the time that I was simply doing political favors, but as I got older, I came to realize I'd been playing God. For every privileged boy like George W. Bush that I helped, another young man was shipped to Vietnam. In the years since, I've wondered about the fates of those anonymous men, who were possibly killed or injured in Vietnam because of the strings I pulled. No one should have that kind of power, and I'll always be sorry that I used it in the way I did.


On Barbara Jordan

Barbara [Jordan] became a regular at the evening sessions I held in the speaker's apartment, located right in the Capitol building on the House side. Like Sam Rayburn's old "Board of Education," I liked to have legislators over for a few drinks and political talk in the evenings. At first, I just wanted to make sure Barbara was included. But soon it was obvious to everybody that she was fitting right in – I guarantee you what, that woman could hold her own with anyone when it came to drinking scotch and swearing a blue streak. That wasn't all we did in those sessions, of course, but like any bunch of men in Texas, it's fair to say our company wasn't a place for anyone with delicate sensibilities. Barbara loved it. For all her lofty oratory and regal bearing, I never heard anyone fuggaw as loudly at a dirty joke as Barbara Jordan did.


On Old and New Texas Politics

I can't predict the [Supreme Court decision on redistricting], but I can tell you that, in my opinion, DeLay's redistricting scheme was not only unconstitutional, it was a slap in the face to the ideals of good governance. Those districts weren't redrawn to benefit the citizens of Texas – there were redrawn solely to benefit the Republican Party. I don't mind if Tom DeLay works his butt off to help his party, but when he messes with the rights of Texas voters to do it, that's just wrong.

Now some might argue that this is just sour grapes, or that the Democrats would do the same thing if we were in power. It's true that, throughout the decades when Democrats were the majority party in the Legislature, Republicans did challenge our redistricting decisions, sometimes successfully. But it's even more important to point out that when the Democrats held all the power in the Sixties – the White House, both houses of Congress, and most of the state legislatures and governorships – Lyndon Johnson didn't step out of line to bring his party more power. In fact, he did the opposite. He made moves in civil rights that he knew would damage the Democratic Party. But he made them anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

To me, that sums up the difference between Texas leadership then and now: Lyndon Johnson enriched minorities at the expense of his party, while Tom DeLay enriched his party at the expense of minorities. It's a measure of how backward our political system has become that politicians like DeLay now govern for the sake of their parties rather than for the people they represent.


On the Politics of "Moral Values'

It's time to reclaim the high road by swinging attention back around to the true meaning of "moral values." What good are false morality questions when the most basic rights of people in this country are being eroded every day? The basic values that we all hold dear are in jeopardy: the right to free speech and free assembly (threatened by the PATRIOT Act), the right to a secure retirement (threatened by the biggest federal deficit that's ever been run up). What good is this relentless focus on narrowly defined "moral issues" when our roads and bridges are crumbling, our children are uninsured, and our schools are falling apart?

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