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Profiles in Power

Profiles in Power
Twentieth-Century Texans in Washington, New Edition

Profiles in Power offers concise biographies of fourteen twentieth-century Texans who wielded significant political power and influence in Washington, D.C.

Series: Focus on American History, Don Carleton, series editor

April 2004
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388 pages | 6 1/8 x 9 1/4 | 22 b&w illus., 4 tables |

Profiles in Power offers concise biographies of fourteen twentieth-century Texans who wielded significant political power and influence in Washington, D.C. First published in 1993 by Harlan Davidson, it has been revised and updated with new chapters on John Nance Garner and Henry Gonzalez and expanded chapters on Lyndon Johnson, Barbara Jordan, Ralph Yarborough, Jim Wright, and John Tower. Demonstrating the validity of a biographical approach to history, the book as a whole covers all the major political issues of the twentieth century, as well as the pivotal role of Texans in defining the national agenda.

  • Introduction (by Michael L. Collins)
  • Edward M. House (by Robert C. Hilderbrand)
  • Morris Sheppard (by Richard Bailey)
  • John Nance Garner (by Patrick Cox)
  • Jesse Jones (by Walter L. Buenger)
  • Tom Connally (by Janet Schmelzer)
  • Sam Rayburn (by D. Clayton Brown)
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson (by Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr.)
  • Ralph Yarborough (by Michael L. Collins and Patrick Cox)
  • Barbara Jordan (by Vista McCroskey)
  • John Tower (by George N. Green and John J. Kushma)
  • Jim Wright (by Ben Procter)
  • Lloyd Bentsen Jr. (by Michael L. Collins)
  • George Bush (by Dorothy DeMoss)
  • Henry B. Gonzalez (by Julie Leininger Pycior)
  • Notes
  • Contributors
  • Index

Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr. is Hardin Distinguished Professor of American History and Chair of the Department of History at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.

Michael L. Collins is Professor of History and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.

Patrick Cox is Assistant Director of the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin.


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Texans have long wielded a disproportionate influence in national and international affairs. It is an undeniable fact. From the days of President Woodrow Wilson and World War I, when a "new world order" was taking shape, to the administration of President George W. Bush and the War on Terror, leaders from the Lone Star State have played prominent roles in affecting the course of modern American history, both at home and on the world stage.

As early as 1913, a Texas power elite emerged in the nation's capital, with Colonel Edward House, once labeled the "little gray man" from Austin, establishing himself as President Wilson's most intimate adviser, and three Texan members of House's inner circle accepting appointments to the cabinet—Secretary of Agriculture David Houston, Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson, and Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory. Following World War I, the Texas congressional delegation slowly emerged as arguably the most powerful on Capitol Hill. In time, owing to both the seniority system and the patience and persistence of the irascible Speaker of the House and later vice president John Nance Garner (he said once that the vice presidency was not "worth a quart of warm piss"), an entire generation of Texas politicians rose through the ranks of the House of Representatives. By 1933, no less than eight representatives from Texas chaired major standing committees in the House, thus allowing the Lone Star bloc to handle and therefore influence virtually every piece of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. During the desperate years of the Great Depression, Vice President Garner ("Cactus Jack") surfaced as one of FDR's most stubborn critics, while Garner's pupil, Representative Sam Rayburn, ascended as one of Roosevelt's most loyal and effective lieutenants in the Congress, first as House majority leader, then as Speaker of the House. At the same time, another Texan, Houston financier Jesse H. Jones, the powerful head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, towered over the federal establishment as one of the czars of the New Deal. So influential was the RFC chairman in directing billions of dollars of federal funds that Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace once called him "the second most powerful man in Washington." On the eve of World War II, as issues of world peace and national defense intensified in significance, the state's two senators chaired two of the most important committees in the upper house—Tom Connally (Foreign Relations) and Morris Sheppard (Armed Services).

Following World War II, Texans continued to exercise an enormous influence in the back rooms and corridors of Congress. While the shrewd and sagacious Rayburn—a masterful parliamentarian and a brilliant cloakroom diplomat—ruled the House as Speaker longer than anyone in U.S. history, his ambitious protégé, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was rising to the position of Senate majority leader, all the while learning well from "Mr. Sam" both the written and the unwritten rules of legislative strategy. During the Cold War decade of the 1950s, the personal and political partnership between the two Texans produced one of the most powerful and fruitful alliances in the history of the U.S. Congress. Together, Rayburn and Johnson reigned like lords on Capitol Hill during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.

Of course, the domination of these two giants from Texas over the institutions of Congress was no simple accident of the seniority system. The tremendous clout that they wielded was a reflection of the growth and maturity of Texas as a major economic force within the United States. With the emergence of the powerful oil and natural gas interests, the increasing importance of Texas-based commercial and industrial aviation, and the growing influence of defense industries in Texas, the economic well being of the Lone Star State became inexorably linked with the prosperity and security of the entire nation.

Perhaps it was altogether fitting that the brash and grasping figure of Lyndon Johnson came to symbolize, indeed to personify the rich and powerful state he represented. For in many ways his ascendance to the presidency typified Texas's rise to "superstate" status. No one, not even those who despised LBJ, could deny that he embodied the same characteristics that made so many Americans admire and so many others loathe Texas. Nor could anyone deny that the Great Society programs marked, for better or for worse, a major milestone in the making of modern America. Even today, the long shadow of Lyndon Johnson still looms over Texas politics and over those who represent Texans in Washington. His legacy—both the War on Poverty and the wrenching conflict in Vietnam—still profoundly affects our national life.

It may be true that as Texas's economic clout diminished in the 1980s so too did the influence of the state in national affairs. The Senate rejection of President George Bush's nomination of John Tower for secretary of defense; the resignation of Speaker of the House Jim Wright amid a firestorm of allegations regarding alleged violations of House ethics rules; the free fall and defeat of George Bush following the Persian Gulf War; the termination of defense contracts so vital to Texas; the closing of military installations, such as Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth—all seemingly reinforced the argument that Texans no longer represented the epicenter of national power.

But it was likely that these developments were simply the result of national and even global trends. Whether it was the swift and unexpected conclusion of the Cold War, the alarming decline in America's industrial base, the dizzying escalation of the national debt and the resulting reassessment of all federal spending, or the acrid, stridently partisan political climate that contributed to the loss of public confidence in "the system," the Texas experience seemed to parallel the national experience.

The events of the past two years have proved that those pundits who predicted the demise of Texas's influence in the national arena were at best premature in their forecast. With Governor George W. Bush's election to the presidency in 2000, albeit in a bitterly disputed contest that concluded with the now-infamous Florida recount, yet another Texan assumed the nation's highest office. But the case could be made that the incoming Bush team, which included longtime personal friend and confidant Don Evans in the office of secretary of commerce, resembled past Republican administrations more than a Lone Star cast of players.

In 1961 author John Bainbridge commented that, in many respects, "the epitome of America is Texas." He even observed that the Lone Star State is a "little civilization—the United States in microcosm." Although his study, entitled The Super-Americans, focused mainly on Texas millionaires, moguls, wildcatters, and wheeler-dealers, the book's thesis deserves to be restated here. To be sure, while in some ways Texas is unique among all the states (some might even use the word "peculiar") in that it is both southern and western in character, it is in many respects a mirror, albeit an oftentimes exaggerated image, of the larger American Republic.

In the following fourteen biographical essays the reader will glimpse the central themes running through twentieth-century America: the trials and lessons of two world wars; the "noble experiment" of prohibition (Senator Sheppard authored the Eighteenth Amendment); and the ordeal of the Great Depression, and the New Deal, which changed America forever; the transition from a rural to an urban society; the chilling tensions of the Cold War; the national soul-searching experience of the war in Vietnam; the agonizing struggle for racial justice and human dignity during the civil rights movement; the trauma of Watergate (who could ever forget the inspirational words of Houston congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who spoke so eloquently about a "government of laws, not of men"?).

The following portraits of Texans in Washington also reflect major currents in modern Texas history. The rise and recent decline of the powerful petrochemical industry; the brawling and oftentimes gaudy nature of Texas politics; the emergence of a two-party state (in 1961 John Tower became the first Republican to be elected to a statewide office since Reconstruction); an agrarian society giving way to the white-collar culture of today; the tug-of-war between the state's populist and progressive political traditions on the one hand and what some like to define as Texas's "conservative" heritage on the other (the career of Ralph Yarborough underscores this ongoing battle for the political soul of Texas): these threads are woven into the fabric of Texas and into the lives and careers of the fourteen leaders from the Lone Star State represented in this book.

For some inexplicable reason, people from throughout the United States have always exhibited a particular fascination with Texas. Maybe the almost mythical qualities of the state explain that powerful allure. Perhaps it is the vast and diverse land, the rich and magnificent heritage, and the seemingly larger-than-life individuals who have produced so many popular legends. Novelist John Steinbeck said it best:

I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think that it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And it is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox.

This book was designed to supplement any Texas or U.S. history text and to provide an excellent core or corollary text in specialized courses in political science. Furthermore, this book was produced to appeal to general readers in the Lone Star State and the United States. So whether you love Texas "with a passion," or just "love to hate it," the following essays will illuminate the Texas experience and cast additional light upon the story of twentieth-century America.

Despite George Bush's defeat in the 1992 presidential election, Texans continued to play vitally important roles in shaping national policy in the administration of President Bill Clinton. Former Chairman of the National Democratic Party Robert Strauss of Dallas served as ambassador to the former Soviet republics; longtime federal Judge William Sessions of San Antonio continued for a time as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Senator Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., arguably one of the most respected elder statesmen on Capitol Hill, assumed the post of secretary of the treasury; and former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros headed the Department of Housing and Urban Development, at least until personal and public scandal ended his political career. It could even be argued persuasively that the meteoric rise of Dallas billionaire Ross Perot as a formidable independent candidate in the 1992 presidential campaign contributed to a Clinton victory (Perot garnered 19 percent of the popular vote, and many of his supporters were purported to be independents, "Reagan Democrats," or disillusioned Republicans who defected from the Bush camp).

Eight years later, when George W. Bush prevailed in the contested "overtime" recount in Florida by some 900 votes, and in the largely partisan legal battle waged in the United States Supreme Court by a mere two votes, he became the first governor of Texas to attain the presidency. Thus, following one of the most dramatic electoral "cliffhangers" in United States history, he entered the presidency under less than auspicious circumstances. But not even his harshest Democratic detractors (who refer to him as "George II" and "Dubya") can deny that the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, and the ensuing War on Terror have placed the Midland native in the center of one the greatest national crises in modern American history. Only time will provide testimony to his achievements, or lack of success, in meeting the challenges of the new millennium. The opportunities for greatness and the prospects for failure both lay before him and the country. And contemporary opinion matters little when viewed through the long-range lens of history.

In sum, if the American odyssey is, in the words of FDR, a "story without an end," so too is the story of Texans in Washington. Readers might question why this collection of essays did not include former secretary of state James Baker, former ambassador Robert Strauss, or former senator Phil Gramm. Or for that matter, former secretary of the navy, secretary of the treasury, and governor John B. Connally, a genuine Texas legend in his own right; or long-standing chairman of the House Banking Committee, the combative Wright Patman. We make no claim that the fourteen individuals included in this book compose a definitive list of the "most important" Texans who have served in Washington in the twentieth century. What we do contend, however, is that, in each case, they made major and sometimes colossal contributions to the development of the United States. Their stories presented here, it should be remembered, are selective biographical profiles—profiles in power.



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