Check out Book Beast, our new page for coverage of hot titles, authors and excerpts.
George W. Bush is out of office, conservatism is out of fashion, and the oilmen have lost their clout. Bryan Burrough tracks the rise and fall of the ornery, loudmouthed state. Plus, read an excerpt from his new book, The Big Rich.
The passing of the Bush Administration means the end of many things, from water boarding to Darrell Hammond’s awesome Dick Cheney impersonation, but one of its least-noticed implications is the end of a half century of Texas political power, not to mention the death of one of our least-cherished cultural icons, the mighty Texas oilman.
For 28 of the last 48 years, going all the way back to Lyndon Johnson’s acceptance of the vice presidency in 1961, there has been a Texan in the White House. And all three of the Texans who ultimately won the presidency—LBJ and both Bushes—surfed to victory on a tsunami of Texas oil money. Wealthy Texans were among the loudest voices during the tumultuous birthing of postwar American conservatism during the early 1950s, and without all that hollering, and all the millions behind it, it’s doubtful whether conservatism would have experienced the resurgence of the last four decades.
The most visible Texas politician in America right now is Ron Paul. Ron. Frickin. Paul. Jesus.
Well, conservatism has now gone badly out of fashion, and with it, the power of Texas oilmen and politicians has sunk to prewar levels – pre-World War II, that is. George W. is gone, as is his father, as is Tom Delay, Dick Armey, Phil Gramm and a dozen other Texas troublemakers. Now, with Bush out of office, all that’s left of Texas political power is a sullen Boone Pickens and fifty-odd Congressmen no one’s ever heard of. Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The most visible Texas politician in America right now is Ron Paul. Ron. Frickin. Paul. Jesus.
And that’s a shame. Because love ‘em or hate ‘em, few American archetypes have entertained us for as long as the ornery, loudmouthed Texan, especially in its superwealthy version. It is a caricature whose birth can be specifically dated. In fact, it sprang almost fully formed from an April 1948 issue of Life, when the magazine’s editors ran a photo of a Dallas oilman named H.L. Hunt and asked the question, ``Is this America’s richest man?’’ It seemed a ridiculous question. No one outside Texas—and few inside the state—had ever heard of Hunt, much less his closest peers in oil wealth, Hugh Roy Cullen of Houston, Clint Murchison of Dallas and Sid Richardson of Fort Worth. Within weeks, however, all four men would board a decade-long media merry-go-round in which they took turns being crowned the nation’s wealthiest man.
The image of modern Texas, of loud, boastful, wealthy rightwingers who owned private islands and championship football teams and schemed to take over vast international markets, is almost solely a product of the media fascination with these four men and their colorful offspring. Between the bigamous Hunt’s three separate families, Richardson’s schemes to evict Richard Nixon as Eisenhower’s vice president, Murchison’s partnership with the red-baiting Joe McCarthy or Cullen’s calls to impeach the Supreme Court, the Texans reliably filled the notebooks of American reporters and writers busy for nearly fifty years. And that’s not to mention the escapades of their children, whether it was Bunker Hunt throwing away $5 billion trying to corner the silver market in 1979 or Clint Murchison Jr. sleeping his way through squadrons of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. I mean, you just couldn’t make this stuff up.
The Big Rich’s real legacy, though, has been its contribution to the growth of American conservatism. Modern Texas conservatism sprang from the intersection of two disparate events, the discovery of massive Texas oilfields by individual oilman during the Depression, and the simultaneous growth of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Texas oilmen hated everything about the New Deal, and oil money gave them the power to do something about it. When the young William F. Buckley and his peers began weaving the threads of conservative thought into a single school of political thought, his loudest—and wealthiest—adherents were men like H.L. Hunt, Roy Cullen and Clint Murchison. Both Cullen and Hunt tried to form conservative media empires of their own and Hunt actually succeeded for a time, generating a series of print and radio reports dubbed Facts Forum. It was Cullen, in fact, whose money helped gradually build the Texas Republican Party into a political superpower.
All these men are long gone now, but their legacy, from Lyndon Johnson and John Connally to George W. Bush and Tom Delay, lived on for many, many years. Now? Well, now we’re left with Boone Pickens and wind power and Ron Paul. Folks seem to be listened to ol’ Boone for a moment last year when oil prices leaped into the stratosphere. But now that they’ve fallen back to earth, no one in Texas is talking too much about windmills. I have no doubt Texas and its politicians will rebound here one day, but for now, the diminution of Texas power is kinda sad.
Well, a little anyway.
Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of five books, including the bestseller “ Barbarians at the Gate” (written with co-author John Helyar). His last book, “ Public Enemies,” has been turned into a motion picture by director Michael Mann. It will be released this summer by Universal Studios, starring Johnny Depp as the legendary bank robber John Dillinger.