Why would anyone read a book about a Texas politician whose political career, which never reached higher than lieutenant governor, spanned a total of 12 years from 1960 to 1972? First, Ben Barnes is a Texan, which means he can spin a hell of a good yarn. Second, his friendships with national political leaders during one of the most dramatic periods of political change in the nation’s history put him at the center of the controversy. Third, he continues to be active in the political arena - former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle once called him the "51st Democratic Senator." And, finally, in a manner similar to that described in J. Brian Smith’s John Rhodes, Man of the House, Barnes practiced the true spirit of the bipartisanship before it became just another rhetorical tool to undermine one’s opponents.
Co-authored with Lisa Dickey, Ben Barnes’ Barn Burning, Barn Building is a tale of the fall of the Texas Democrats from almost complete control of the state to the status of a minor party and links that to the fall of the national party. "Where once the names Johnson, Rayburn, and Connally were synonymous with political power, the 21st century brought us Bush, Rove, and DeLay."
Democrats are still asking, "How did we get to this point?" and "Where do we go from here?" In response, Barnes begins when Democrats ruled the roost and shows how events, large and small, created cracks in what was once thought an unshakable foundation. The value of the book is that he largely succeeds. (Ironically, many of the cracks in the Democrat’s apparently invulnerable foundation seem to be appearing today in the Republican Party.)
The Democratic rise to power began with Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential victory in 1932, and Texans were in power virtually everywhere - including getting one of their own, John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, elected Vice President. It also didn’t hurt that Texans headed eight of the major House Committees. Sam Rayburn emerged as one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, starting his run as the longest-serving Speaker of the House in 1940. When Lyndon Johnson took over the leadership of the Senate in the 1950s, it was hard to imagine how the Texas or national Republicans could ever recover.
Barnes came somewhat late to the game in 1959, at 22 winning a seat in the Texas State Legislature. Born on a central Texas farm in Comanche county, he grew up thinking long hours and hard work were simply the way everyone lived. His first experience with the power of government came during the Depression, when Roosevelt forced through the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to the farms in rural Texas. "From then on," he writes, "I thought of government as something that helped make people’s lives better." He also cites Sam Rayburn who said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one... These days there’s a lot more barn burning in politics than barn building." Barnes was determined to be a barn builder.
He was brilliant, pragmatic, and, most of all, driven to succeed. "That first year I made it my goal to visit every single of the other 149 members of the house." He’d shake their hands, admit to being young and wet behind the ears, and told each how much he’d appreciate them letting him know if he screwed anything up. He asked for advice and offered help on their legislative programs.
However, the Democratic dominance in Texas had long carried the seeds of its own destruction, dating back to the early 20th century and the battle over prohibition with liberals against it and conservatives - mostly from dry counties - for it. Over time, the conservatives gained the advantage by positioning themselves as pro-business as the oil, gas, aviation, and other industries flowed into the state, and, as is almost always the case, with money comes power and influence. The liberals focused more on social issues. The irony is that the same seeds that were growing into thick weeds in Texas were also affecting the national party.
Barnes had a knack for making powerful friends, including John Connally (who as governor was riding in the car and injured when John Kennedy was assassinated,) Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Strauss, Barbara Jordan, and a host of other powerful D.C. pols. But by 1960, when there was no external enemy against whom to rally the troops, the internal dissention flared. The two factions - liberals versus moderate/conservatives - had maintained an uneasy alliance, "but absolute power is a dangerous thing."
A major rift occurred in 1952 when conservative Texas Democrats suddenly found themselves more in alignment with Republicans than their own party. Then Texas Governor Allan Shivers, furious over the Truman’s administration’s position on mineral rights issues in the Gulf Of Mexico, started "Democrats for Eisenhower in 1952 and '56." The state twice voted for a Republican president.
As the dissention continued, the potential for healing it came in 1960 with Lyndon Johnson’s presidential run. It wasn’t to be, and Johnson accepting the number two slot turned out to be "so divisive, in fact, that some have argued that the downfall of the Texas Democratic party can be traced to that moment." Johnson’s allies as well as many others couldn’t believe that he would support someone perceived as so liberal; in addition, they didn’t think Kennedy had a chance of success.
The Kennedy/Johnson victory didn’t help, although it temporarily covered over problems as the Democrats nationally and in Texas dominated the political landscape. But the underlying issues were growing more divisive. "This was the essential mistake the Texas Democratic party made during these years... They’d start to devour each other in fits of spite, allowing the Republicans to gain vital footholds in the state," such as the election of Republican John Tower as a Texas Senator and the beginning of the exodus of Texas conservative Democrats to the enemy.
Barnes’ climb up the political ladder was as impressive as it is instructive. Taking bipartisanship to heart, he got along with almost everyone, although not without making a few costly mistakes along the way. He also treated every event as a learning opportunity. After the assassination of John Kennedy, a meeting with now President Johnson and Connolly, where they fought over what to do about Bobby Kennedy, "pointed up the continuing problem... of ill feeling between the liberals and moderates."
The tragedy is that, even though Johnson took up Kennedy’s legislative agenda — in particular, civil rights — and succeeded where the latter had failed, that did nothing to ease the intense dislike between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and their respective camps. Soon after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law, Johnson told Barnes, "Ben, I’m proud of these Civil Rights bills, but they’re going to hurt the party in the long run." This anecdote is just one of many that make this book so valuable: Johnson, the consummate power-hungry politician, sacrificing his party for a nobler cause.
He was right. Southern conservative Democrats began a shift that eventually turned the south into a Republican stronghold, when, despite Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, Goldwater carried five deep-south states.
Throughout the ‘60s, Barnes gives credit to Governor Connally for holding the Texas Democrats together despite the ongoing feuds. By then Barnes was the 26-year-old Speaker of the House and supported both Johnson and Connally in their progressive agendas to build bridges between the business community and the progressive side of the party. "This is another element of the party’s strength that we’ve lost today; we need to find and cultivate business leaders who care about more than just profit, and who’ll work with us to improve the state." The same applies nationally.
On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for president, and that "immediately changed everything about the game, both nationwide and in Texas [which] for the first time in decades, lack a national leader in Washington." Connally had already announced he wasn’t running for governor again. Texas Democrats were on the verge of meltdown. And when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated just over two months later, on June 5th, there was no national Democratic leader of his stature to take over.
The Vietnam War was tearing the country apart, Martin Luther King’s assassination just four days after Johnson’s announcement, inflamed both blacks and whites, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year was a disaster for the party. Nixon’s campaign created the new Republican playbook that’s still in use today: "Divide and conquer, using the rawest, most emotional issues in American life as a bludgeon and wedge." While the Texas Democrats did well in the 1970 elections, they didn’t know that Nixon had already targeted them. Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, illegal IRS audits, and Justice Department investigations not only took down Barnes, but, as he says, "Nixon had orchestrated the destruction of Texas Democrats." The infamous Nixon tapes verify Barnes’ claim.
Nationally and in Texas, the Democrats were in freefall. Connally became a Republican, partially to run for president but also because of his disgust with the ’72 convention that nominated George McGovern.
Barnes concludes with an analysis of the difference between Texas and the country under Republicans and Democrats, and, given what he’d gone through, one can excuse excesses such as when he says of the 1988 Bush/Dukakis race, "For the first time in American politics, a candidate ran primarily on a platform of tearing down his opponent."
But he is right that, "Today, that kind of negative politicking is everywhere you look." Both sides have demonized the other, and "political discourse...has turned into little more than name-calling." As a politician with the ability to skillfully maneuver the shark-infested waters of government, he also believed that government had a responsibility to the people, and he demonstrated that over and over. "Today’s politicians too often govern with an eye on the next election, rather than on the future, and the people they represent are suffering as a result."
Barn Burning, Barn Building is an important book. In an era of cynicism and distrust, it reminds us of a time when government and politicians believed in more than their own self-aggrandizement.