Revered by many Texans and other Americans as "the People's Senator," Ralph Webster Yarborough (1903-1996) fought for "the little people" in a political career that places him in the ranks of the most influential leaders in Texas history. The only U. S. Senator representing a former Confederate state to vote for every significant piece of modern civil rights legislation, Yarborough became a cornerstone of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs in the areas of education, environmental preservation, and health care. In doing so, he played a major role in the social and economic modernization of Texas and the American South. He often defied conventional political wisdom with his stands against powerful political interests and with his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet to this day, his admirers speak of Yarborough as an inspiration for public service and a model of political independence and integrity.
This biography offers the first in-depth look at the life and career of Ralph Yarborough. Patrick L. Cox draws on Yarborough's personal and professional papers, as well as on extensive interviews with the Senator and his associates, to follow Yarborough from his formative years in East Texas through his legal and judicial career in the 1930s, decorated military service in World War II, unsuccessful campaigns for Texas governor in the 1950s, distinguished tenure in the United States Senate from 1957 to 1970, and return to legal practice through the 1980s.
Although Yarborough's liberal politics set him at odds with most of the Texas power brokers of his time, including Lyndon Johnson, his accomplishments have become part of the national fabric. Medicare recipients, beneficiaries of the Cold War G. I. Bill, and even beachcombers on Padre Island National Seashore all share in the lasting legacy of Senator Ralph Yarborough.
As the sun cast its final golden rays on a warm, muggy evening in 1993, more than a thousand people gathered on the grounds of the picturesque, white colonial Texas governor's mansion to spend a few moments with a political legend. Senator Ralph Webster Yarborough, whose decades of public service dated to the 1930's, smiled and patiently greeted well-wishers. The once spry, seemingly unstoppable campaigner now wore a hearing aid and sat in a lawn chair with his walking cane propped nearby. Opal Yarborough, his wife and greatest supporter since their 1927 marriage, sat beside him in the shade of the green-and-white tent next to the mansion. Although his once great voice had grown weaker, his eyes still sparkled. His enthusiasm seemed just as strong as during his campaigns for governor and senator. As his admirers greeted Ralph and Opal, they talked about politics and the "good old days" that covered his nine decades in Texas. A few of his oldest friends called him "Judge" in recognition of his tenure on the bench in Travis County. Although he won only three of nine statewide races during his long career and never attained his cherished goal of presiding over the state from the governor's mansion, Ralph Yarborough inscribed a record of achievement during his fourteen years in the U.S. Senate that may never be equaled by any other Texan.
"The People's Senator" best describes Ralph Yarborough. He is the acknowledged "patron saint of Texas liberals." In spite of his prominent position in modern Texas and national politics, Yarborough remains in the shadow of his more famous counterparts, Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn. How Yarborough became the successful, modern champion of Texas liberals is a story that originated in rural East Texas and followed a career which spanned nearly the entire twentieth century. His ascent in the liberal wing of the Texas Democratic party began prior to his campaigns for governor during the 1950's and lasted through his last race for the U.S. Senate in 1972. With the exception of Jim Ferguson, no Texan, not even Sam Houston, ran more statewide campaigns than Yarborough. His legacy influenced and inspired others long after his final campaign.
Yarborough charted his own path, apart from his contemporaries. His rivals included Lyndon Johnson, Lloyd Bentsen Jr., and governors Allan Shivers, Price Daniel Sr., and John Connally. A host of other modern Texas leaders made up the rest of the mix. Yarborough began developing his political philosophy with his work as a young assistant attorney general to James Allred. Antitrust law and protection of public lands and natural resources became the focal point of his public career in the 1930's. These early pursuits revealed Yarborough's evolving belief in the necessity for government to play a role in protecting "the little guy" against unethical and dishonest practices.
World War II interrupted his promising political career. The postwar conservatism that replaced the New Deal reform movements never influenced Yarborough. His three unsuccessful races for governor in the 1950's merely increased his desire for elective office. His popularity increased with each loss, but the fruits of victory always seemed to be just out of reach. Others would have quit—but not Yarborough. The governor's office might have eluded him, but victory finally came after the hard-fought 1957 special election for U.S. Senator.
Yarborough's social and economic views more closely resembled those of national Democrats of this era rather than those of traditional, conservative southern Democrats. His frequent clashes with the Texas congressional delegation sometimes damaged his effectiveness. But during his fourteen-year tenure in Washington, D.C., Yarborough sponsored more legislation than any senator who served the state of Texas in our nation's capitol. Nearly all of President Lyndon Johnson's initiatives that involved public schools and universities, veterans of the armed services, the environment, health care, and many other domestic issues carried the name of Yarborough as a sponsor or earned his active support. If LBJ was the grand architect in the design of the Great Society, then Yarborough earned the title of chief engineer. His legislative work and tireless commitment steered a major portion of the president's programs through the political process into law.
Yarborough's contributions to the political culture of Texas rival his legislative accomplishments. In more recent times, Texas has developed the reputation of producing only conservative political leadership for the highest levels in state and national government. Yarborough never fit that mold. He followed the strong populist, antiestablishment streak that has been present since Sam Houston in the early days of the state. Along with preserving this legacy, Yarborough inspired two generations of Democratic officeholders. His large following rivaled that of Lyndon Johnson. A litany of conservative leaders that included Allan Shivers, Price Daniel Sr., John Connally, and countless others sparred with Yarborough on everything from major policy issues to mundane, personal matters. However controversial Yarborough's politics were, few questioned his integrity or his sincerity. Had he replaced Adam in the Garden of Eden, Eve would still be holding the apple while Yarborough defiantly argued with the serpent.
Yarborough's life offers a window into the dramatic changes in Texas and the nation during the twentieth century. He is an excellent study of a regional political figure devoted to traditional democratic ideals: the restoration of fairness, justice, and economic opportunity for Americans. His vision of economic liberalism combined the ideals of Jefferson and FDR to include a vibrant economy based on small farms and businesses, a well-educated and organized work force, and a strong government presence as referee and rule maker. He was also a man of action and impatience who believed that his knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm would overcome all obstacles and serve him well in his aspirations to elective office.
Along with his distinctive, modern philosophy, Yarborough cloaked himself in the populist-styled traditions of the pre-television political era. A common element of this leadership style was its ability to entertain people while transmitting a political message. Yarborough's evangelical style resembled that of twentieth-century Texas governors James "Farmer Jim" Ferguson and W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, the controversial yet dominant politicians of their respective generations. Yarborough's speaking ability together with his keen mind for decades enlivened and energized his whirlwind campaigns that often seemed more like old-time religious revivals. However, he differed politically and personally from Ferguson and O'Daniel. Yarborough provided true leadership and results on plain pocketbook issues whereas they had merely lined their own pockets at the expense of meaningful reform.
Beneath the public persona was a man driven by the urge to succeed and implant his vision on Texas and the rest of the nation. His intense devotion and desire sometimes exposed a temper that stung his closest advisors and staff members like a whip. Even his closest friends threw up their hands and lost their patience. Yet Yarborough always offered a courteous greeting and friendly nod to all. Whether he met a constituent in his Senate office or talked with a family who stood for hours in the sun to shake his hand, Yarborough displayed a genuine compassion for people. Campaigns and public appearances became like oxygen to him. He never tired of driving the back roads of Texas making speeches and shaking hands. The internal drive that propelled him forward through rough political waters often swamped his devoted followers along the way. His obsession with hard work and his willingness to take on seemingly insurmountable tasks continued throughout his career. His determination and hands-on approach to all issues, no matter how small, reflected both his legal training and his domineering personality. He never wanted to be outworked by anyone. He firmly believed that any disadvantage, most often a lack of money for his political campaigns, could be overcome by his hard work, unsurpassed knowledge, and power of persuasion.
Ralph Webster Yarborough, "The People's Senator," was one of a kind. He made a difference during an time of monumental change in the state and the nation. His remarkable story makes him a true Texas legend.