The Texas liberal

Sam Smith – When I started out in journalism there was still a political subspecies known as the Texas liberal. My first bosses were two Texas liberals — radio station news director Joe Phipps and his assistant Bob Robinson. Short and bald, Phipps appeared a bespectacled and ambulatory small mouth bass. When excited his eyeballs almost rubbed against his glasses. His voice ebbed and flowed between 1950s broadcast fog and full-blown southern oratorical eruption. Robinson, on the other hand, had an unflappable Texas drawl. A tall man with white hair, Robinson was as imperturbable as Phipps was instantly reactive.

I already knew that Texas liberals were special people; Tom Whitbread, the poet and Harvard tutor, had introduced me to the Texas Observer, newly started by Ronnie Dugger. The Observer was a remarkable voice of sense and liberty in an era turning dogmatically dumb and mean. In the first issue, Dugger quoted Thoreau: “The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.”

Beyond their politics, I liked that Texas liberals seemed to enjoy themselves and that even the worst election brought a new batch of stories. Such as the one about the freshman state legislator being advised that the best way to stay honest was to sell out to one interest group fast; that way the rest would leave you alone. Or the Texas trial lawyer who stole from the rich . . . and gave approximately half to the poor. I liked the tales of Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough — the yin and yang of the Texas senatorial delegation. Even the names that cropped up — like Creekmore Fath or Cactus Prior — were fun.

Fath – both a character and a man of character – was in his 50s then; I was 19. Yet this senior Hill staffer was happy to help me discover the mysteries of the capital. When he died, the Washington Post wrote:

Twenty-three years old and unfamiliar with the ways of Washington, Mr. Fath didn’t know that he had signed on to work for a select committee slated to disband when a new Congress convened in 1941. When he found out, he suggested asking first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to testify before the committee as a way to generate publicity and keep the committee in business. He reminded committee members that she had expressed concern in her newspaper columns for the Okies and other Dust Bowl migrant workers.

“Okay, Creekmore, you take care of that,” Tolan said. The veteran lawmaker laughed, and his fellow committee members laughed with him. They knew, as Mr. Fath did not, that no first lady had ever testified on Capitol Hill.

The next morning, Mr. Fath called the White House and talked to Malvina Thompson, Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary. “I told her I desperately needed to use Mrs. Roosevelt at a hearing in December, that I wanted to use her as the gimmick,” he recalled.

Mrs. Roosevelt invited him to tea at the White House the next afternoon, and, after clearing it with her husband, she agreed to testify. The panel stayed in business, in large part because of her endorsement of its work.

Later, Thompson told Mr. Fath that Mrs. Roosevelt agreed to meet with him because he was the only one who had ever admitted that he wanted to “use” her. . .

I didn’t realize it then, but being a Texas liberal in the 50s could be hazardous. Folk humorist John Henry Faulk found that out when CBS fired him after he became a target of the red-hunters. Unlike a lot of eastern liberals at the time, Faulk struck back, suing the group that had accused him. Nonetheless, it still took years on the broadcast blacklist and the legal assistance of Louis Nizer to prove that he was a good American.

Through it all, Faulk kept his sense of humor, telling stories like the one about Totsie who was hit by the Katy Flyer express train. Totsie’s remains were so well distributed that the family rented 300 acres for the funeral — just to be on the safe side. The minister said it was the largest funeral he had ever preached — acreagewise.

Faulk also told of being born in a village so small it only had four houses, and they weren’t exactly downtown. He claimed to have been one of triplets and that his father had come to the hospital and asked his mother, “Well, which one you gonna keep?” “That,” recalled Faulk, “is when I learned how to swim.”

Then there was LBJ. He didn’t start out as a liberal but he got more liberal legislation passed in less time than any president. The LBJ Library reports:

He talked about those politicians who were always against everything new: “We used to have folks like that around the store in Johnson City,” he said. “We called them dyspeptics. When they put the railroad through town for the first time, one old man stood there and looked at it and said, ‘They’ll never get the damn thing started.’ The girl came up with a great wine bottle and hit it across the snoot of the locomotive and it started going out about 15 or 20 miles an hour. And they went up to him and said, ‘What do you think now, Uncle Ezra?’ And he said, ‘They’ll never get the damn thing stopped.’ ”

 

 

 

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