For the Record 08/20/07

Posted

If you could pick the next president of the United States, who would you choose?

What qualities would you want that individual to have? You would certainly want this person to be long on brains, honesty and guts.

What else? We want our president to have great leadership ability, don’t we? We want him or her to have a vision for our nation and its people and to be able to communicate that vision. We want him or her to be self-confident and to make us feel confident in our futures. And don’t we want this person to have a great respect for the law, not just the letter of the law but also the spirit of the law?

How about this quality? Fairness. Can we have a good president who doesn’t treat everyone fairly?

You can probably think of a number of other qualities you would like a leader to possess. I have one in mind. When I was growing up more than half a century ago, one of the finest compliments that could be paid to anyone was to describe him or her as “self-made.”

A “self-made” man who “wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth” and who “didn’t let his success go to his head” was held up as an example of someone we should admire.

A man with all of these qualities and more was born in the Texas Hill Country in 1888. His name was Coke Stevenson.

Because of his family’s poverty, Coke went to work on neighboring ranches building fences and digging irrigation ditches at the age of 10 for a dollar a week. He had a total of 22 months of formal education. By the age of 14 he knew he wanted to be a rancher. At the age of 16 he used his savings to buy a wagon and six horses to haul freight 70 miles to and from the nearest town with a railroad. There were no roads and there were seven streams to cross. When it rained, mud made it almost impossible to travel. On one occasion his wagon became stuck so badly it took him 11 days to get it out. His business flourished because his customers knew he was dependable.

At nights after Coke took care of his horses, he would read and taught himself bookkeeping. When he was 18 he took a janitor’s job at a bank in the hopes he could work his way up. When he was 20 he was named cashier. While working as cashier he began studying law and five years later was admitted to the practice of law and a year after that bought the ranch of his dreams.

It was also while working at the bank that he married his wife Fay, who was to become immensely popular in her own right and who encouraged Coke to run for office. They were very close and shared a love for the ranch.

Coke’s first public office came when neighbors asked him to take the county attorney’s job to put a stop to cattle rustling. He took the job on condition he could quit when the rustlers were caught; they were caught and convicted and he did quit, only to take another job, this time as county judge (commissioner) to head up a road-building campaign. He agreed to the job with the understanding he would not take a second two-year term. He saw that the roads were built and stepped down after the end of his term.

For the next eight years Coke practiced law and built a reputation as one of the best lawyers in Texas. “Sincerity” was his hallmark. Juries believed him and so did his opponents. His success gave him an opportunity to start a new bank, which he did, but the owners of the old bank insisted that he continue to represent them, because they knew he was so honest he would never do anything improper.

With all of the time Coke spent practicing law and looking after his investments, he managed to spend a lot of time at his ranch, which he eventually built from 500 to 6,000 acres. Most of the work he did himself, including building the house, building fence and working the cattle.

With all of this work, Coke did an enormous amount of reading. He got up most mornings at 4 o’clock, and read until daylight while drinking strong coffee. His reading convinced him government had the potential to render great injustice and strip people of their freedom and he became politically very conservative. He disliked debt personally and did not want government to go into debt. He spent his own money efficiently and expected the same of government.

In 1928 the state representative’s seat became vacant and fellow ranchers asked Coke to run. The only other candidate was a free-spender and that convinced Coke to run and he won the race. When he took office in 1929 he quickly became a leader. He saw waste in state government and proposed an office of State Auditor, which was created. Prisons were in a mess. He visited every prison in the state, slept in cells with the convicts and made reform proposals that were adopted. Prisons were improved at a fraction of the cost of the governor’s proposals.

Coke Stevenson hated debt. The highway lobby—the oil companies and road-builders—wanted a $300,000,000 highway bond issue to be passed. Coke argued pay-as-you-go would be cheaper than paying interest on the debt. A two-thirds majority was needed for approval—100 of the 150 House members. With all the pressure they could apply, the lobbyists could only muster 99 votes. They never made it to 100. Coke Stevenson’s stature continued to grow.

After four years in the House, Coke was elected Speaker. Once, while there was what was described as a “rukus” on the floor, someone asked him why he did nothing to quiet it down. “As long as they’re not voting,” he replied, “they’re not passing any laws. And as long as they’re not passing any laws, they’re not hurting anybody.”

In 1935 after two years as Speaker and a total of six years in the House, Coke decided not to seek reelection and return to his Hill Country ranch. The Texas governor then was a New Dealer and was proposing to push through a host of New Deal reforms. Coke originally supported the New Deal but thought the worst of the Depression was over and wanted government to return to its former role and therefore opposed the reforms.

Even knowing this, Coke was still going to step down, but then he learned the governor was using federal money to buy support for the governor’s choice for Speaker. Because of this he ran again and was reelected Speaker, the only man in Texas history to succeed himself as Speaker. Two years later more than 100 members of the House asked him to serve a third term. He turned them down, although he did serve a final two-year term in the House as a Representative without any leadership position. He did this to support legislation that would benefit his Hill Country district. After this he planned to go back to his ranch.

This plan never materialized because Coke was drawn into the race for lieutenant governor because the leading candidate was proposing a unicameral (one-house) legislature for Texas, an idea that Coke strongly opposed. He felt that with two houses of the legislature it was easier to defeat bad legislation. During the campaign Coke refused to issue a platform or make campaign promises. He had no loudspeaker and none of the customary signs or bumper stickers. He would go into small towns and talk to small groups of people. His message was that he had brought economy to government and that government should do only what the people couldn’t do for themselves.

There was more to the story. Coke Stevenson had a magical appeal to the people of Texas. As one person put it, “That face was so tough, but with a faint smile and that little sparkle always in his eye. The way he carried himself: erect, that big chin up. The strong, silent type—that was him. Coke Stevenson going into the Courthouse was John Wayne walking into the saloon. Here’s The Man. Here’s our leader.”

Coke won that race by 46,000 votes.

While Coke was running for lieutenant governor, a man named Pappy Daniel was running for governor and getting elected by a huge margin. Daniel had a flour company (Hillbilly Flour) and was well-known before the race. He was always accompanied by his band, the Hillbilly Boys. He was a great campaigner but as governor he was a buffoon. The state deficit soared to $34,000,000. Coke Stevenson, as lieutenant governor, was given credit for keeping the state government afloat.

Coke was elected to his first term as lieutenant governor by 46,000 votes. In 1940, campaigning in his own way, he received 797,000 votes to 113,000 for one opponent and 160,000 for another. He outpolled Daniel, who was running for reelection and was still very popular, by 100,000 votes.

In 1941 Daniel ran for the U.S. Senate and was elected and Coke became Governor on Aug. 2 of that year. His wife Fay had to be carried to the inauguration and died shortly after that. A year later he ran for Governor in his own right and received 68.5 percent of the vote, the highest percentage ever recorded in Texas in a contested Democratic primary.

In 1944 Coke ran again. One of his opponents, the state attorney general, ran harsh attacks against him. Coke never responded. His eight opponents received a total of 15 percent of the vote. Coke received 85 percent, breaking his old record.

When Coke Stevenson stepped down in 1946—refusing to consider running for a third term—even newspapers that had opposed his policies spoke highly of his time in office.

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If you find this fine man’s life half as inspiring as I do, then I’ve done my job. Everything in the above segment came from “Means of Ascent,” the second volume of Robert A. Caro’s three-volume biography of the life of Lyndon Johnson. Coke’s public life did not end in 1946. He went on to run for the U.S. Senate in 1948 and literally had the seat stolen from him by Lyndon Johnson and his cronies. Why would Caro devote 34 pages to describe Coke Stevenson’s life? I can’t answer that. But I’m delighted he did, because this demonstrates how low Democrats will stoop to win an election. It’s one thing to steal votes from a Republican the Democrats have vilified—Richard Nixon or George Bush or Newt Gingrich, for example.

But how can the Democrats justify stealing an election from a fellow Democrat? They can’t and that’s why Caro’s book is such an embarrassment to Democrats. Please read it. Until you do, you are uninformed. It’s available at the library and it’s also available in paperback for $20.

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It will probably take at least two weeks to explain how Lyndon Johnson and significant elements of the Democratic Party, including a U.S. Supreme Court judge, stole the election. Caro devoted 400 pages to the task. To condense Caro’s work into something short enough people will take the time to read is going to be difficult. Please stay tuned and let’s see what turns out.

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