The Magazine

The Texas Way

There once was a Democrat who worked with George W. Bush.

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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Bob Bullock

God Bless Texas

by Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson

Texas, 328 pp., $27

There's a side of me that wants to say that George W. Bush never would have become president without Bob Bullock. But that's taking things too far. What is true is that Bob
Bullock put George Bush on the path to becoming president. Before he died in 1999, the Democratic power broker served as a state representative, comptroller of Texas's public accounts, and lieutenant governor. It was in that last position where he became part of American history in a way that neither he nor Bush could have envisioned in 1994.

As veteran Texas reporters Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson tell it in this biography of the mercurial, profane, Machiavellian, compassionate, devoted son of Texas, Bullock and Bush met up in the summer of 1994 when George W. Bush was trying to unseat Ann Richards as the popular Democratic governor of Texas. The pair had a clandestine get-together at Bullock's house in Austin, where the inexperienced Bush made it known he wanted to work with the legendary veteran.

And work they did, once Bush became governor and Bullock won a second four-year term for lieutenant governor, which in Texas is arguably the more powerful post. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, determining which bills survive, making all committee assignments, and sitting on the influential Legislative Budget Board. David Sibley, a former GOP state senator, describes the Bush/Bullock era as a golden period in Texas politics. And it was.

During Bush's first year as governor, the legislature passed all four parts of his agenda: a new education code, revised liability laws, tougher penalties for juveniles, and an overhaul of welfare laws. Lieutenant Governor Bullock was right there with him, as were Democrats such as House Speaker Pete Laney. Bush later wrote to the Dallas Morning News to suggest the newspaper had given him too much credit: The Democratic leaders deserved it, too.

The Bush/Bullock relationship wasn't always pacific. Bullock's moods could turn volcanic--and instantly, as the authors describe in detail. Bush had to learn to let him vent. Sometimes the venting would help. Senator Sibley tells of overhearing a profane Bullock outburst at the governor, then watching Bush go cut the legislative deal that Bullock suggested was the right thing to do. Some Texas Democrats think Bullock was too taken with Bush. Maybe he was. He signed onto a property tax cut that he probably didn't care that much about. And he didn't just sign on; he helped sell it. Former GOP state senator Bill Ratliff tells of senators being called in to see Bush and Bullock in a room off the governor's office, where both men pitched for a big cut in the spring of 1997: "It was extraordinary seeing a Republican and Democrat calling in folks," Ratliff recently remembered, as we talked about that period.

McNeely, who covered politics for the Austin American-Statesman for 26 years, and Henderson, who wrote for the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Chronicle, tell their own stories. The book includes one about Bush getting up and kissing Bullock for shock value after Bullock threatened to--how shall we say?--mess with one of Bush's priorities. And given how rich this period was in Texas's history, and eventually the nation's history, I'm surprised more Bush/Bullock stories weren't included. Readers could have benefited from additional reporting about this unique twosome. After all, it was one reason Bush could point to his experience in Texas as his reason for being considered presidential material.

Before he left office, Bob Bullock came to see the Morning News's editorial board. During the interview, he got tears in his eyes and said George W. Bush could become president. I remember being surprised at how choked up he was getting, and how interesting it was that this prediction was coming from the state's most powerful Democrat. Whether he would have liked the way the Bush presidential years turned out, especially Washington's partisan divisions, is a guessing game in Texas. But Bullock certainly made it possible for Bush to make one of his strongest selling points in 2000: that he knew how to work with both parties.

Beyond George W. Bush, Bob Bullock was an interesting figure for another important reason, one that others in state governments would do well to remember. He was a modernizer. For a small-town son of the raw days of Texas's past, when good old boys ran the state and rural lawmakers kept a tight grip on the purses, he constantly pushed the state to recognize its future. McNeely and Henderson detail how Bullock, who went to Texas Tech and Baylor Law School, brought a very antiquated comptroller's office into the 20th century when he first won that post in 1974. He hired professional staff, employed new technologies, showed Texans where their money was being spent, and chased down tax cheats.

His legacy as a modernizer, though, went far beyond the comptroller's office. Bullock hated that the state had so poorly funded its schools and mismanaged its prisons that the courts had stepped in to have the final say. In the same way you could hear him ask what's best for Texas whenever a subject came up, you could hear him argue that legislators shouldn't duck the state's challenges. The people's representatives should own up to the problems; they shouldn't need a bunch of judges to force them to act responsibly.

Bullock's most important legacy was the water planning process he launched in 1997, his last session as lieutenant governor. Given today's droughts in Texas and around the country, his ideas seem visionary. At Bullock's behest, legislators passed a plan that would look 50 years into the future. Texans previously had ignored water plans because the experts in Austin dictated them. Knowing that, Bullock insisted that locals around the state come up with their own ideas for water supplies. Those local plans now serve as the guides for 16 different regions of the state. No offense to the people in such drought-stricken states as Georgia, but they would do well to come up with an approach like this.

Bullock also had the audacity to propose a state income tax. The idea went nowhere in a state where having no income tax is considered sacred. But he understood that Texas couldn't fund itself through the tax equivalent of bailing wire. His fallback position was to get the legislature to fund a new business tax to fund schools. Like Governor Bush, he knew that the state could only rely so long on property taxes to support schools. (For the record, Governor Bush adamantly opposed an income tax.)

One of my favorite Bullock stories, which McNeely and Henderson recount, is how he persuaded the state's telecom executives to invest more than $1 billion in a fund to wire the unwired parts of the state. Basically, this meant the rural areas of Texas, and the CEOs didn't blink when Bullock told them that the billion was the price of getting the state to deregulate their industry.

To be sure, some Americans may want to push Texas aside for a while after the Bush years. But what happens politically in megastates such as Texas, California, New York, and Florida ultimately matters to the rest of the nation. And politicians like Bob Bullock can have an enormous say without becoming household names. Bullock was one of those rare pols who liked it that way. He never embraced national politics; he would send fundraisers to collect money for him in Washington, he so hated going there. But the proud Texan understood his state had the responsibility to govern itself. While the rest of the nation paid attention to the Clintons, Gingriches, Reagans, and Kennedys, he stayed close to home. He loved signing all his letters with "God Bless Texas," and handing out little bumper stickers that said the same. A love of place can get you past a lot of partisanship. Of course, George W. Bush is not without blame for the political divisions of the last eight years. But he surely misses having Democrats like Bob Bullock with which to whom, putting country above party.

A final note about Bullock: His journey showed that you can come back from horrible personal failures and still make a difference. That's almost impossible to comprehend in the antiseptic environment of today's politics. He had five marriages (twice to the same woman!), was a recovering alcoholic, and, according to biographers, suffered bouts of deep depression. There's been controversy among Bullock loyalists about whether McNeely and Henderson present too dark a picture of their late leader, who notoriously would fire aides and rehire them the next day. But it paints the portrait of a complex Democrat who loved his state, and who particularly liked the Republican governor he served alongside.

William McKenzie is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News.