Of all the Bob Bullock stories told and retold during the last four decades of the 20th century, one seems the most adequate abstract of his long and improbable career in Texas politics. It was not a tale of the profane tirades that became the essential body of Bullock lore; not of the drunken fistfights or illegal gun-toting or grand-jury investigations that would have ended the public service of less audacious and complex men; not of the bizarre, impulsive, and occasionally irrational behavior that caused many of his political cohorts, while acknowledging his genius, to speculate that he was, in fact, locked up in his own madness.
Unlike those treasured gems, this was a story not about what Bullock did, but what he was. And it was told by a future president of the United States who owed his political prosperity, in no small part, to the man he eulogized in the summer of 1999 as having a tongue "that should have been registered as a concealed weapon" but a man, nonetheless, who was "the largest Texan of our time."
"Everybody has a favorite Bullock story," said Gov. George W. Bush to the hundreds packed inside Austin's Central Christian Church that warm, drizzly Sunday. "The problem is, you can't tell most of them in polite company."
But there was one worthy of a G-rating and, Bush was confident, appropriate for funereal company. It concerned one of his earliest encounters with the mythology that had grown up around the man who lay before him in a casket at the altar—an encounter that surely guided his conduct as governor and lent him immeasurable upward mobility.
Bush arrived in Austin in January 1995, an experienced campaigner—he had worked in his father's two presidential races, his own failed congressional bid in 1978, and his recent gubernatorial victory—but with no experience in governing and, by his own account, possessing an incomplete understanding of the curious and often inscrutable political chemistry of the State Capitol.
Since reconstruction, Texas had been essentially a one-party state divided into two camps: conservative and liberal Democrats. In the 1980s, however, what had been a barely perceptible Republican trot to power became a full gallop, and Democratic fortunes were turning as arid as a Big Bend arroyo. By the time the newly elected Republican governor hit town, the GOP was approaching a majority in both houses of the Legislature, statewide offices were no longer won or lost in Democratic primaries, and the state's electoral votes had not gone to a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Given that trend line, it would not have been unreasonable for Bush, as head of his party and chief executive of his state, to assume he had the muscle to work his will with the agenda on which he had successfully campaigned.
Still, his advisors reminded him that two Democrats—House Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who presided over the Senate—still controlled the fate of legislation and that he would need a good liaison with both. With that in mind, Bush made a bipartisan hire: Cliff Johnson, a conservative East Texas Democrat who had served in the House, on the staff of Republican Gov. Bill Clements, and on the Texas Water Commission before turning to lobbying and consulting. He knew the legislative nuances and was friends with Laney and Bullock.
As Bush told the story, he noticed one day that Johnson had a Bullock campaign sticker on his pickup truck. After stewing about it for a few days, the governor approached his aide and asked, "Why do you have that Bullock sign on your bumper? I mean, after all, you work for me. Why not a Bush sticker?"
"Governor," Johnson said, "you're new here . . ."
"Yes, I am."
". . . and you just don't understand. In Austin, everybody works for Bullock."
Johnson may have mined hyperbole for emphasis, but it served its purpose.
"I quickly learned about power," Bush confessed.
How that power came to be is a compelling enigma.
By almost any measure, Robert D. Bullock would appear to have been a man marked for rapid political extinction. Ravaged by manic depression, sleeplessness, alcoholism, chain-smoking, chronic health problems, multiple marriages and divorces, ethical myopia, fits of fury that approached lunacy, and other demons that those around him could only imagine, he still pulled off an unprecedented political winning streak: Over four decades, he ran eight races for three different offices and never lost—never came close to losing—and accrued a measure of political power that a string of governors could only envy.
Bob Bullock somehow managed to navigate his way through some rapidly changing and politically dangerous state and national crosscurrents. He was born and began his political career when Texas and other southern states were still racially segregated. Yet he embraced the civil rights revolution that Lyndon B. Johnson engineered, after Johnson's landslide election in 1964 following President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
The escalating Vietnam War unleashed a fury on college campuses that led to the widespread feeling that if 18-year-olds could be drafted to die in foreign countries on behalf of the United States, they should be able to vote. As the state's chief election officer at the time, Bullock helped facilitate not only giving 18-year-olds the right to vote in Texas, but also to do so where they attended college rather than in their hometowns. That made him a hero to younger voters, who found their political voice over an increasingly unpopular war.
When the Sharpstown stock-fraud and banking scandal in 1971 rocked Texas government to its roots, with disclosures that Texas leaders got loans for sweet quick-profit stock deals in return for passing banking bills sought by Houston real estate and banking mogul Frank Sharp, Bullock somehow survived—even while his boss, Gov. Preston Smith, was one of those implicated and was subsequently defeated for reelection to a third two-year term.
Bullock was a fervent Democrat in the early 1970s, even an outspoken advocate for the doomed Democratic presidential ticket in 1972 of George McGovern and Sargent Shriver.
In 1974, the year the Watergate scandal in Washington forced Republican President Richard Nixon to resign, and again temporarily stalled Republican growth in Texas, Bullock was elected to his first statewide office as the state's tax collector. In that job, he was a pioneer for affirmative action in hiring women and minorities, even before it had a name.
Bullock also won the comptroller's office in the first election in which terms for most Texas statewide officials went from two years to four, and in non-presidential election years. That unhooked Democrats from the increasingly treacherous national elections. Every four years thereafter, Bullock was almost routinely reelected—even as the once monolithic Democratic Party began a steady decline. It was helped along by the fact that Texans named Bush were on the ballot in five of the eight elections from 1980 through 1994, which meant that for the most part, the national Democratic Party took a pass on competing in Texas, and left Texas Democratic candidates to fend for themselves. In 1990, Bullock sought and won promotion to lieutenant governor, a powerhouse position due to the Texas Senate's tradition of granting him enormous power as its presiding officer. Bullock's victory came even while Republicans were winning some other statewide offices above and below him on the ballot.
In 1994, the final time Bullock faced Texas voters, he was reelected easily, even while George W. Bush was winning his first election as governor by unseating popular Democratic Gov. Ann Richards. Bullock was the highest-ranking Democrat elected that year; Democrats have steadily lost every statewide election since. By 1999, when Bullock left office, Republicans had captured every statewide elective office.
Most of the time no one seemed certain where Bullock fit on the philosophical spectrum, and it didn't much matter. He began his career as a segregationist Democrat, evolved into a liberal populist who supported George McGovern for president, and ended his years embracing the fundamentalist Christian, tax-cutting, deficit-spending Republicans personified by George W. Bush. But no metamorphosis diminished his political power or popularity with voters. He never attained the state's highest office—in fact, he never officially strived for it. But from 1956, the year he first ran for public office and won election to the House, through 1998, when impending death from a lifetime of bad habits and reckless behavior forced his exit from the Capitol, Bullock cast a presence over state government that, some of his contemporaries would say, had not been seen since Sam Houston.
Significantly, his ascendancy and longevity spanned a period when political life expectancies in Texas were such that a talented, promising young pol could get through a career quicker than a runway model. The shift to a Republican majority, the changing demographics of the state's urban centers, the decline of the oil economy, and an accompanying drain on the state budget—those factors and others conspired against job security for officeholders. Brighter stars than Bullock's rose over the Capitol, but most flamed out and fell to the status of footnote.
As the new century arrived, not many old political junkies were found sitting around the campfires of their winter years swapping stories of Price Daniel, Preston Smith, Ann Richards, Dolph Briscoe, Bill Clements, or Mark White, let alone Bill Hobby or Ben Barnes. But Bullock's star lingered, and his ghost was equally persistent. For years after his death, it was a popular pastime in Austin for those who had worked for him, served with him, suffered through him, learned from him, loved him, loathed him, or puzzled over him to gather around each other, hoist a glass in his memory, and relive the days of genius and madness.
"All the Bullock stories you hear, most of them are true," Pete Laney once said, "and you don't have to embellish 'em."
A future president would not have eulogized him as the "largest Texan of our time" if his only contribution had been to supply conversational sustenance for the happy-hour crowd. Bullock stood out from the pack because he disdained the pack and gave it a one-finger salute at every opportunity. In a time when slick media imagery, consultant-driven campaigns, and poll-conscious, politically correct public posturing was turning the Texas governing class into a monochrome polyester blob of nervous, tepid conformity, Bullock at best was brash, driven, and impatient, practicing zero tolerance for indecision and inaction—or obstinacy when it abetted either. At worst, he was simply abusive, abominable, and all-around insufferable.
"He was the most atrocious human being who ever lived," said A. R. "Babe" Schwartz, a liberal Democrat who represented Galveston in the House and, later, in the Senate during the formative years of Bullock's rise to power.
Bullock did little to discourage such characterizations. He had the instincts of a gunfighter, and a personality to match. Early in his career, while speaking to reporters, he sardonically referred to one gubernatorial candidate (a fellow Democrat) as a "son of a bitch," an epithet he frequently invoked, as years later when, in the heat of an argument, he addressed the state's attorney general (also a Democrat) as "You skinny-assed son of a bitch." Scolding an African American state senator (a Democrat) who balked at compromise on a racially sensitive bill, Lt. Gov. Bullock firmly urged him to "show some leadership . . . you black motherfucker."
How did such atrociousness survive and prosper for so long? The short answer is because it worked. Other tactics probably would have served him equally well, but intimidation was Bullock's way. Though physically unimposing—5'9" in his prime and shy of 150 pounds—he was a bully, but not without redeeming qualities, if results can be considered redemption. He reformed election laws, initiated a performance review to periodically evaluate state agencies, was the first elected state official to establish an equal employment opportunity program, restructured school funding to equalize the revenue available to poor and rich districts, pushed through the Legislature a bill creating the state's first water conservation and management plan, and was one of the early officials to fully computerize his agency—to name a few.
Early on, Austin's best and brightest civil servants, mostly young, idealistic reformers, some of them graduates of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, were his eager subordinates and students, largely because they saw in him the drive and audacity to somehow make government better. His two terms in the Texas House of Representatives were scarcely distinguished, but in later years he revealed a flair—more like a compulsion—for taking relatively obscure political posts and pushing them to places they had never been before.
"He knows how to bring things together," said Ralph Wayne, a former state representative who later was Bullock's chief deputy comptroller for a while. "Sam Houston was that way. Sam Houston was a different person. He heard a different drummer. Sam Houston used to drink; Bullock used to drink. Sam Houston was creative; Bullock is creative. Sam Houston tried to forge a consensus, and Bullock is a person who builds consensus and gets things done. That's a great strength of leadership."
Until Bullock took the job, Secretary of State was a position that most Texans probably knew little about or had a clear notion of its function, except that it had something to do with counting votes and certifying elections. For some young pols, it had been a way station on the road to higher office, because it generated statewide name recognition and because it provided entrée to the state's political apparatus. It took Bullock only a few days into his tenure to lift that agency out of obscurity and onto the front pages of newspapers across the state. Stories abounded about the wars Bullock was fighting with both political parties and the changes in election laws, particularly to the benefit of younger voters, he was helping to bring about. Likewise, the office of Comptroller of Public Accounts. Before Bullock, few probably knew its purpose or even how to pronounce it. Within five months, he had loosed on the state his storied "Bullock's Raiders"—lawyers, accountants, and assorted other tax cops—who shut down businesses and confiscated inventories in the first serious effort in at least half a century to collect delinquent taxes. Millions poured into the state treasury, and Bullock became a bona fide folk hero.
The idealistic young reformers knew that signing on with Bullock was an opportunity and an education—if anyone in Austin knew more about state government, top to bottom, he or she had not yet been identified—but they soon learned that it was also a walk through the valley of the shadow. He drove his staff as hard as he drove himself, insisting that they be available to him around the clock. He flooded their inboxes with memos of criticism, praise, and demands. He set impossible deadlines, fired aides on a whim (often rehiring them just as quickly), read compulsively, thirsted for personal and bureaucratic gossip, worked while he guzzled whiskey at his favorite downtown saloons or in his office, and kept everyone around him panting from exhaustion.
Some, unable or unwilling to sustain the pace, drifted away and sought saner employment. Others were driven away by another Bullock hallmark, the tendency to make his own rules, the law be damned. He was targeted by a Travis County grand jury for improper use of the resources of the comptroller's office, was investigated by the FBI, and even admitted to illegal campaign fund-raising while he worked for Gov. Preston Smith—much later, of course. It was a quirk of his peculiar morality that allowed Bullock to believe that if his actions resulted in some public good, then the actions therefore were good, even if they were outside the law.
"Yeah, I'm a crook," he said after being caught using a state airplane for personal purposes, "but I'm the best comptroller this state ever had."
Sam Houston was not the only towering Texas historical figure to whom Bullock was often compared. Sam Rayburn, former Speaker of the U.S. House of representatives, was another. In a 1998 interview, David Sibley recalled his election to the state Senate in a special election in 1991 and his subsequent meeting with Bullock, who was presiding over that body for the first time. Bullock was already a minor legend in Austin because of his controversial years as comptroller, but Sibley, a Republican from Waco, 35 miles from Bullock's hometown of Hillsboro, found that watching him up close was more fascinating than he had anticipated.
"He can be the reincarnation of Rhett Butler, in every way a southern gentleman," he said. "He can be crude, he can be intimidating, charming . . . and he can do all that in a period of a minute and a half. It's extraordinary to sit there and watch him. People spoke of (how) Sam Rayburn (was) when he got mad. His whole demeanor would flush; he'd look almost dark—not red but dark. And when Bullock is mad, the same thing happens. His whole demeanor changes. It's like watching a storm blow in, the fury and the power of it all."
Most often, though, "the largest Texan of our time" was likened to the largest Texan of an earlier time: Lyndon Johnson. Both came from small towns and returned to their rural roots as often as possible—Johnson to his ranch on the Pedernales River, and Bullock to his retreat near Llano; both sought absolute control over their political environments, demanded and gave absolute personal loyalty, wanted to be loved but settled for being feared. Both understood the power of information and of the purse, the necessity of compromise and bipartisanship, and the ways of manipulating legislators. Both were bullying but thin-skinned, had bawdy senses of humor and explosive tempers, and engaged in obsessive, self-destructive behavior (Bullock continued to smoke even after the removal of most of one lung, and LBJ, who gave up smoking after a heart attack, resumed the habit once he was out of the White House); both were willing to risk their political fortunes on things they thought were right, things good for the country or the state. Johnson wagered his on a series of civil rights acts and the Vietnam War, and the repercussions ended his presidency after five years. Bullock persistently argued for a state income tax, a suicidal tack in tax-averse Texas. He lost the debate—Texas still has no income tax—but then carried out a slick reversal that stole the issue from Republicans who had hoped to use it to beat him.
Most notably, both were meticulously well-organized workaholics in a ceaseless race with the clock, as though driven by the dread that in the next instant the curtain might fall and the show would be over. "LBJ wanted to do everything yesterday," said his longtime aide and spokesman George Christian. Bullock was no less impatient. When his staff informed him that the comptroller had the statutory authority to seize the property of tax-delinquent businesses, he rejected the argument that it would take a couple of weeks to start the process.
"Let's start tomorrow," he insisted.
There were stark dissimilarities in the two men, and they help explain why Johnson went as far as his profession could take him, while Bullock—possessing many of the same skills, smarts, ambitions, mannerisms, strands of temperament, and visions—went no higher than a state-level second tier. Johnson's powers of persuasion were crude but smooth. "His way of doing things was a heck of a lot more sweetness than intimidation," Christian said. "Bullock would intimidate. He would just level your ass."
By dispensing with sweetness and niceties, Bullock sculpted a personal mythology that was not entirely accurate. He was feared because no one knew what form his wrath might take. He kept voluminous files on friends, enemies, contributors, lobbyists, bureaucrats, and legislators. Few of them doubted that he had the power to make their lives uncomfortable and send their pet bills to the shredder. He had the perverse curiosity of a gossip columnist. He knew the secrets—some of them, at least—of reporters, staff members, and other bureaucrats and was not averse to suggesting that he would use what he knew as payback for perceived criticism, disrespect, or disloyalty. But there is not an abundance of evidence to indicate that he truly coveted retribution. He had frequent opportunities to "get" those who had crossed him, but, with a few notable exceptions, he opted for magnanimity—after letting the offending party know he could have done them in, had he chosen to do so.
He also possessed a personal generosity that, while it could have been taken as a kind of Godfather affectation, appeared to be genuine. He offered jobs to the down-and-out, cash to the needy, sympathy and support to friends battling their own demons. When an aide lost a teenage daughter to a traffic accident, Bullock sent to his home a jumbo-screen television to help ease the grieving. When that same aide quietly retreated to Padre Island for a few days of solitude, Bullock tracked him down and showed up at his door to inquire about his well-being. When one of his journalistic antagonists, whom Bullock once denounced as "a goddamn drunk," checked into a rehabilitation clinic to dry out, Bullock called him daily to console and encourage him. He waged a long and bitter feud with former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, but when Barnes was forced into bankruptcy a few years after leaving office, Bullock dropped by his office with a $10,000 offering.
What drove Bullock, besides genius and madness? Growing up in Hillsboro, a dusty, central Texas cotton town, he was more of a troublemaker than the stuff of a future star. A notorious prankster, daredevil, and mediocre student ("I never got a grade higher than a C in my whole life," he once said), the young Bob Bullock showed little potential. Bright but bored by convention and hell-bent on raising hell, he appeared to his neighbors—and some family members—more likely to be destined for reform school than law school, much less the State Capitol. Even as a young adult, with a law degree and a fluctuating interest in politics, he was edgy and unfocused. "If you can change Bob Bullock, you'll be the first man who ever lived that could do it," his brother-in-law, Will Bond, told Lt. Gov. Preston Smith, who had just hired Bullock to help in his 1968 campaign for governor.
"Previous to being associated with me, he had one foot on gravel," Smith would say later, taking a large measure of credit for solidifying the ground beneath the fledgling young politician. In truth, no one ever changed Bob Bullock; Bullock merely changed venues. The difficult kid from Hillsboro became the difficult adult in high office. In government, he found his true calling, his life's focus. He made government better, but one foot was forever on gravel, the bad boy with him to the end.
As he lay dying shortly before his 70th birthday, he summoned longtime friend and trusted aide Tony Proffitt (whom he had fired and rehired numerous times) and asked a final favor. "I want you to go to your office and write my obituary," he said.
"Don't talk that way," Proffitt said, "It's . . ."
"No, it's time."
Proffitt returned later in the day with a lengthy exposition on his friend's life and career. Bullock read it, asked for a pen, and began crossing out phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs.
"What are you doing, Bob?" Proffitt asked. "Everything in there is true."
"I know it," Bullock groused, "but this is going to be a paid obituary, and I don't want the goddamn Austin American-Statesman to make money off of me."