Renowned for his "brilliant legislative mind" and political oratory—as well as for bicycling to Congress in a rumpled white linen suit and bow tie—U.S. Congressman Bob Eckhardt was a force to reckon with in Texas and national politics from the 1940s until 1980. A liberal Democrat who successfully championed progressive causes, from workers' rights to consumer protection to environmental preservation and energy conservation, Eckhardt won the respect of opponents as well as allies. Columnist Jack Anderson praised him as one of the most effective members of Congress, where Eckhardt was a national leader and mentor to younger congressmen such as Al Gore.
In this biography of Robert Christian Eckhardt (1913-2001), Gary A. Keith tells the story of Eckhardt's colorful life and career within the context of the changing political landscape of Texas and the rise of the New Right and the two-party state. He begins with Eckhardt's German-American family heritage and then traces his progression from labor lawyer, political organizer, and cofounder of the progressive Texas Observer magazine to Texas state legislator and U.S. congressman. Keith describes many of Eckhardt's legislative battles and victories, including the passage of the Open Beaches Act and the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, the struggle to limit presidential war-making ability through the War Powers Act, and the hard fight to shape President Carter's energy policy, as well as Eckhardt's work in Texas to tax the oil and gas industry.
The only thorough recounting of the life of a memorable, important, and flamboyant man, Eckhardt also recalls the last great era of progressive politics in the twentieth century and the key players who strove to make Texas and the United States a more just, inclusive society.
Part I: The Eckhardts of Texas
1. The German Texas Pioneers
2. Bobby Eckhardt in Austin
3. Student Eckhardt on the Forty Acres
Part II: Lawyer Eckhardt
4. Eckhardt's Shingle and Pen
5. Civil Rights and Labor
6. Eckhardt in 1940s Texas Politics
7. Brother Eckhardt Goes to Houston
8. Eckhardt, the Texas Observer, and Yarborough Come of Age
Part III: Pygmies, Giants, and Knights at the State Capitol
9. Freshman Legislator of the Year, 1959
10. The Veteran Legislator
11. Readying for Congress
Part IV: Bob Eckhardt: Americans' Second Congressman
12. Inside Congress, Inside Washington
13. The Veteran Congressman
14. Public v. Special Interest: Environmental and Consumer Policymaking
15. The Oil and Gas Wars
16. The 1980 Election
17. Congressman Emeritus
Robert Christian Eckhardt: A Chronology
Of all the things that are politics, one of the more obvious is that it is a never-ending battle between competing centers of power. Politics is also biography, and these two approaches to understanding politics come together in the life of Bob Eckhardt. He was a fascinating, colorful individual who spent his career fighting to wrest power from the economic centers and likewise to use public office to empower labor unions, to strengthen citizens against corporate power, and to invigorate environmental and consumer interests. He stood proudly and strongly with those centers that competed throughout the twentieth century against the economic centers of power. As a lawyer, state legislator, and congressman, Eckhardt made a lasting mark on public policies, breathing life into progressive politics in Texas and the nation and leaving a legacy of lawmaking.
And, oh, what a personality. Bob Eckhardt was truly a memorable character. Maury Maverick Jr. described him as "a delightful combination of 98 percent genius and 2 percent village idiot." To speak of Bob Eckhardt is to conjure images and memories of his ever-present bow tie, his horses, his bicycle, his drawing, his Texas twang, his wit. He wore a big hat, sometimes dirty with the wear. When asked why, he replied, tongue in cheek and with a twinkle in his eye, "A man with a hat like that and a drawl like this couldn't be a liberal." Eckhardt was a keen observer of his world, and his pen sketched cartoons that will long endure as a window into twentieth century politics.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, he was a leading figure in Texas political and legislative battles, aligning himself with labor unions, civil rights and social welfare causes, the reemerging populist wing of the Texas Democratic Party, and Ralph Yarborough. More than forty years later, people still talk about Eckhardt's spellbinding oratory on the floor of the Texas House.
Then, what Yarborough was to the U.S. Senate in the 1960s, Eckhardt was to the U.S. House in the 1970s: champions of progressivism. Yarborough's defeat in 1970 was a severe blow to progressive politics; in 1980, the New Right won a sweeping victory, taking out Eckhardt and hosts of others. Yarborough was distressed that Eckhardt had lost. He wanted others to know Eckhardt's story. "Tell the world," Yarborough wrote to Eckhardt. "Tell us about it. Let Texas and the Nation know that there was once a Congressman from Texas."
To fully appreciate the importance of Bob Eckhardt, one must reconstitute that rich political, artistic, and intellectual stew that he stirred, and this book attempts to do that. Could one understand Texas and U.S. politics of that era without knowing of or understanding Eckhardt's role? Surely many do; after all, Eckhardt never became governor, senator, or president. Yet those who came to know of him only when he was in Congress missed the crucial and colorful contributions that Bob Eckhardt made before he ever reached there. He was such a fixture in Texas political lore of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s that he would have warranted a book had he never made it to Congress. But he did make it there, and he left his mark of liberalism and constitutionalism on environmental, consumer, labor, and war powers policies.
For four decades, Eckhardt appeared to be everywhere, present for all kinds of amazing and significant historical events. This, then, is a biography, a history, and a work of political science: An analysis of the workings of power in the political economy and in policymaking. A history of German immigrants and the four Texas congressmen the Kleberg-Wurzbach-Eckhardt families produced. A history of twentieth-century Austin and Houston. A history of the nation's postwar "Good Neighbor" policy, of labor politics in Texas and the United States, of Texas Democratic Party factionalism, and of state legislative battles over taxing the oil and gas industry. It is a history of a society divided by race and war in the 1960s, of the birth of the environmental movement in Texas in the 1960s and 1970s, and of the beginnings of the consumer movement nationally. This is a history of the congressional creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, of the mammoth battles over President Jimmy Carter's energy policy in the 1970s, and of the passage of the War Powers Act in 1973. It is a history of the changing political landscape in Texas, of the rise of the New Right and of a two-party state.
And it is the story of the life of Robert Christian Eckhardt, who was born in 1913 in Austin, Texas, and died there in 2001. Eckhardt was engaged in all those battles, and he was one of the most intelligent, articulate voices in the public discourses. An honest and thoughtful biography must be somewhere between hagiography and kiss-and-tell. This book attempts to describe not only the public life of a public man, but also the character, the flamboyance, of Bob Eckhardt—all the characteristics that triggered admiration, loyalty, friendship, and exasperation. It was both his personality and his intellect that fashioned his ideas, speech, and writings and that made people sit up and listen.
Eckhardt's story is tied to the explorations of the Texas frontier and to the populist groundswell of the 1890s; his is the story of the linkages from a Texas past of Sam Houston and Jim Hogg through the resurgence of popular democracy with Jimmie Allred and Maury Maverick to the next generation of liberals that included Ralph Yarborough, Creekmore Fath, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, Frankie Randolph, and Bob Eckhardt. Eckhardt was from an oil and gas state, yet he was a national leader for democratic control of energy policy, rather than laissez-faire political economics. He weathered repeated campaigns against him, fueled by the oil and gas industry, at the same time that he was a national leader on energy policy. In 1980, columnist Jack Anderson listed Eckhardt among the "Most Effective Members of Congress" and he was featured in the New York Times Magazine.4 Yet in that same year, oil and gas opposition combined with the emerging New Right and religious fundamentalism to bring about his narrow defeat.
In a 1962 interview with Willie Morris, Bob Eckhardt made a seminal statement describing what he saw as the three major ingredients in his brand of liberalism:
First, altruism. Second, pragmatism—the kind of experimentation and modification that was implicit in the New Deal. Third, respect for individual freedom and dignity—a kind of broad tolerance for individuals. In that sense, I consider myself a liberal. I believe in respect for the individual as an individual.
He told Morris that, first, there was a need for "panzer troops," like the 1940s Texas Spectator and 1950s Texas Observer crowd of which he was an integral part, "setting down a conscience." Second, Eckhardt contended, we need the political organizer, like Frankie Randolph, who "holds people's feet to the fire," and third, we need the politicians, who must stand for something but must also win. "It's honorable and necessary for the panzer troops to set a standard to shoot at, and for the political organizer to devise a platform worth winning on, but the man in the position of the practicing politician has got to have at least the practical possibility of winning his race. He misrepresents his role unless he thinks he can win."
Eckhardt was often optimistic. "The longer view," he said, "is always in favor of the liberal. The liberal candidate may not win, but the conservative candidate has got to become more liberal. The drift of humane society is in that direction. The liberal trend is inevitable." But by the time of his defeat in the Reagan election of 1980, then by the time of his death shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the ensuing militarization of America, the country was clearly going in the other direction. Eckhardt is gone; others must lead the way back to democracy, constitutionalism, and progressivism.
Bob Eckhardt's story is that of a man you would want to have a drink with, to ride a horse with, as you explore the fascinating world of democracy in America. His is a story of social and cultural turmoil as the nation went through wrenching changes from the 1940s into the 1980s. Whether Bob Eckhardt's belief that tolerance, social justice, and liberalism will prevail in "the longer view" is something we must all ponder late in our own lives, and hand down to the next generations of democrats.
By Gary A. Keith
Gary A. Keith is Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
"More than anything, this story of the life of Bob Eckhardt provides a model of public service. It shows us what politics was like before the poisoned era that we find ourselves in today. It shows us the passion and sense of social justice of a man who used his considerable skills and talents on behalf of workers, consumers, environmental protection, and constitutional rights. And, in his story, perhaps we will find the way back—the way back to politics of optimism and hope, of caring for the commons and for the common man."
—Al Gore, from the foreword
Finalist, 2008 Violet Crown Award Writer's League of Texas
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