Setting The Record Straight
Remarks prepared for the recent 50th anniversary of The Texas Observer, an independent newspaper in Austin, Texas.
The 50th anniversary of The Texas Observer is a double celebration for me. Your first issue appeared one week before Judith Davidson and I were married in December 1954. We had transferred here to the University of Texas as juniors and were renting a garage apartment that has now totally disappeared along with the block on which it stood. So many landmarks of our lives have disappeared that it’s a joy to come back to Austin and find one that stubbornly and gamely remains true to its mission. Although many people would wish The Texas Observer had also been buried under the rubble of time, a good idea is as hard to kill as a good marriage. And this little newspaper was a good idea.
As Ronnie Dugger reminds us in his epilogue to Fifty Years of The Texas Observer , there was silence in Texas in those days about racism, poverty and corporate power. The state ranked dead last among major states and next-to-last in the South in education, health care, and programs for the poor. “We were as racist, segregated, and anti-union as the Deep South from which most of our Anglo pioneers had emerged,” Dugger writes. ”Mexican Americans were a hopeless underclass concentrated in South Texas. Women could vote and did the dog work in the political campaigns, but they were also ladies to be protected, above all from power. Gays and lesbians were as objectionable as Communists. And the daily newspapers were as reactionary and dishonest a cynical gang as the First Amendment ever took the rap for.”
Into that atmosphere rode a band of journalists determined to poke a thumb in the eye of orthodoxy. Dugger summed up their mission in his lead editorial in that very first issue:
We will have a good time and we hope you do. We will twit the self-important and honor the truly important. We will lay the bark to the dignity of any public man any time we see fit. Telling the whole truth is not an exercise to be limited to children before they reach the age of reason. It is the indispensable requirement for an effective democracy. If the press and the politicians lie to the people, or hide those parts of the truth which trouble the conscience or offend a friend, how can the people’s falsely-based decisions be trusted? Here in the Southwest there is room for a great truth-telling newspaper, its editor free, its editorials cast in a liberal and reasonable frame of mind, its dedication Thoreau’s ‘The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.
I wish I had written those words. I wish that I had served them all my days as Ronnie Dugger has. But at the time I wasn’t even thinking such thoughts. Back then I was still in the elementary grade school of journalism. I had transferred to the University for one simple reason: LBJ offered me a job on Lady Bird’s station paying $100 a week, and that meant Judith and I could afford to get married. KTBC was the first in Texas to buy a station wagon, paint it red, and christen it—what else?—Red Rover. Charlton Heston churning a backlot in Hollywood in pursuit of Rome’s glories never had more fun than I did in that four-wheeled chariot, careening around Austin in style, broadcasting from crime scenes and accidents and the state legislature, which of course was the biggest crime scene in town. My boss, Paul Bolton, the crusty old news editor of KTBC, would look at the goings on in the Texas House of Representatives and sigh: “If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents.”
No argument there. McCarthyism was a raging plague in the 1950s and the virus rampaged across Texas like tumbleweeds in a wind storm. The legendary Maury Maverick Jr. was in the legislature at the time, one of the “Gashouse Gang” that fought bravely against the poison of the era. He said these were “the worst years” in his life. “The lights were going out” and few voices were raised in protest. The low point, said Maverick, came when the state Senate passed a bill to remove all books from public libraries which “adversely” reflected on American and Texas history, the family and religion. Even the state teachers association endorsed the bill, in exchange for a pay raise. Maverick voted against it, but walking back to his apartment that evening he was suddenly overwhelmed by the evil of what was happening, and he “vomited until flecks of blood came up.”
That was the lay of the land in the 1950s. And Democrats were in charge, remember? That’s right: Texas was a one-party state; Republicans were as scarce in high office as Democrats are today. No matter the players, one-party government is a conspiracy in disguise.
In that rocky soil and toxic climate, Frankie Randolph and Ronnie Dugger and a fistful of fellow dissenters launched The Texas Observer . I wasn’t among them. I had yet to work myself out beyond the cozy confinements of an insular East Texas Baptist culture where you could be well loved, well churched and well taught and still be unaware of the reality of other people’s lives. I belonged in those days to that category of journalists described by George Bernard Shaw as “unable to distinguish between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.”
So Judith and I graduated and left town. The Texas Observer stayed: stayed to live out Dugger’s dare to tell the truth about the oligarchy that governed Texas. What kept that original band of scribblers going remains a mystery to me. For sure they made up in irreverence what they lacked in financial security. At that very time, in faraway Washington, D.C., I.F. Stone was also afflicting the comfortable. In his little I.F. Stone’s Weekly, he would pour through the government’s own official documents to catch the government’s lies and contradictions. Amid the thunder of his battle with Potomac dragons he boasted, “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.” Here in Austin, Dugger and friends were also just a laugh away from jail or bankruptcy.
It took me a long time to catch up—to realize that what matters in journalism is not how close you are to power but how close you are to the truth. I had gone on to seminary, was catapulted into the Washington maelstrom, and then wound up as publisher of Newsday in New York, where I started to get my feet on the ground again.
Back at home, The Texas Observer was doing what journalism does best: setting the record straight. This, said the late Martha Gellhorn, is the reason we exist. Gellhorn spent half a life observing war and politicians and journalists, too. By the end she had lost her faith that journalism could, by itself, change the world, but she had found a different sort of comfort. “Victory and defeat are both passing moments,” she said. “There is no end; there are only means. Journalism is a means, and I now think that the act of keeping the record straight is valuable in itself. Serious, careful, honest journalism is essential, not because it is a guiding light but because it is a form of honorable behavior, involving the reporter and the reader.”
Honorable behavior is what this newspaper was exhibiting here in Texas. The journalists who embodied it included Ronnie Dugger, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Larry Goodwyn, Kaye Northcott, Jim Hightower, Geoffrey Rips, Lou Dubose, Michael King, Nate Blakeslee and Molly Ivins (whose wit should have prompted her arrest long ago. Who else makes us laugh so hard even as we read about the betrayal of democracy?)
Then there were the writers whose creativity and courage buoyed many an article and essay: J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, Walter Prescott Webb, Bud Shrake, Garry Cartwright, Larry King, Larry McMurtry, Bill Helmer, Billy Porterfield, Elroy Bode, Amado Muro and Katherine Anne Porter, to name a few.
Just sample the legacy:
In these pages 40 years ago, Dugger called on liberals to remember our commitment to personal liberty, personal love, personal joy and pain. He urged us to listen to the critique of big government—“It is big, it is impersonal, it is confused” —and to be vigilant in the name of the lone individual: “We must test our system, not by whether we get to the moon, but by whether a man [or woman] can freely and fully express himself here on earth; not by whether we are ahead in weapons, but by whether we are ahead in real room to be free and alive…to be ourselves.”
In 1960, Dugger wrote that Lyndon Johnson “might be a great liberal president—might transcend his thin education, his rural bias, his evident dislike of city-industrial liberalism, his mottled record in civil rights and civil liberties, his relative ignorance in foreign policy—might lead the nation to great new public works and world service.” This made LBJ think a little more kindly toward “that fly in Austin that keeps swimming in my soup,” as he once described Dugger & Company. But it was also the fiercely independent Dugger who, six years later, challenged the escalation of the war in Vietnam and cried out against bombing “the men, women, and children in Hanoi” in order to force our will on them. The president, he wrote, “has already scarred his place in history” by bringing to the war “a West Texan’s simplistic frontier ideas about man-to-man relationships and how to behave in a fight with the enemy.”
Some things never change.
In these pages, Lou Dubose predicted early on what would happen when the chickens of Reaganomics and (Phil) Grammonomics came home to roost, Robert Sherrill anticipated the rapacity of corporate greed in a new Gilded Age, and James Ridgeway imagined a perversion of populism that could serve multinational corporations even as they moved their operations offshore to exploit poor countries for cheap labor and raw materials, costing American workers their jobs.
In these pages, Larry Goodwyn ruminated on the difference between “a politics of the present” and “a politics of the future,” urging liberals to think hard about whether their strategy meant a winning coalition 10 years down the road. Would the election next spring, say, of a “given liberal candidate in Dallas have any real meaning in altering the caste system under which the people of Dallas live?” The headline above that essay read: “Caste and Righteousness.” It was a startling headline at the time, and it still fits today, alas. As The Texas Observer continues to remind us, Texas in 2005 is run by the rich and the righteous, producing a state of piracy and piety that even the medieval papacy couldn’t match.
Consider the scene just a few weeks ago when your Gov. Perry, surrounded by cheering God-folk, showed up at a pep rally in Fort Worth for yet another cleverly staged bashing of gay people, contrived to keep the pious signed on for the culture war so they won’t know they are losing the class war waged against them in Austin by the governor and his rich corporate patrons. The main speaker was none other than the Rev. Rod Parsley of Ohio. Keep your eyes on Rev. Parsley. He is the new incarnation of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, that devout duo who channeled Elmer Gantry into a new political religion driven by an obsession to punish people on account of sex. Parsley runs a multimillion-dollar-a-year televangelism ministry based in Columbus, Ohio, with access worldwide to 400 TV stations and cable affiliates. He describes himself as neither Republican nor Democrat but a “Christo-crat” —a gladiator for God marching against “the very hordes of hell in our society.” But he shows up with so many Republicans that he has been publicly described as the party’s “spiritual advisor.”
The “advice” he offers is the same old stuff peddled by Robertson and Falwell in their own rise to the top of the dung heap of religious bigotry and bile. Parsley demonizes other faiths (“The god of Islam and the god of Christianity are not the same being”) and rouses the partisan faithful to fever pitch by tossing them the red meat of radical disinformation: “The church in America is under oppression.” “The separation of church and state is a lie perpetrated on Americans—especially on believers in Jesus Christ.” So intense is his scapegoating of gays that one cannot help but think of the 1930s when the powerful and the pious in Germany demonized Jews and homosexuals in order to arouse and manipulate public passions. Watching the two of them together, you have to wonder if Gov. Perry and Rev. Parsley have ever read a history book detailing how Heinrich Himmler organized a special section of the Gestapo to deal with homosexuality and abortion, exhorting his country to remember that “Germany’s forebears knew what to do with homosexuals. They drowned them in bags.” You want to believe the governor and the preacher are surely ignorant of such horrors, horrors you know they would never condone, but you want to grab them by the lapels and shake them and tell them their loathing of other people is the kindling of evil.
Ohio newspapers report that Parsley has launched Reformation Ohio to bring “spiritual revival and moral reformation” to the Buckeye state by using pastors and their churches to register at least 400,000 new voters motivated by “Bible-based values.” It’s a familiar agenda: deny women freedom of conscience in the difficult personal choices affecting pregnancy, discriminate against gay people who seek the commitments of marriage, outlaw stem-cell research no matter the lives it might save, and overturn a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits non-profit churches from endorsing political candidates. (At one recent rally, Parsley and former U.S. Sen. Zell Miller delivered “fiery speeches” as more than 1,200 pastors were handed thousands of mail-in petitions to spread among their congregations urging the Senate quickly to confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court.)
Rev. Parsley is a master of mass psychology. He sees the church as a sleeping giant with the ability and the anointing from God to transform America. At a rally in July he proclaimed: “Let the Revolution begin!” And the congregation answered: “Let the Revolution begin.”
So what was it that brought Rev. Parsley to Austin recently to meet with Gov. Perry? Both showed up for a “Pastors’ Policy Briefing” sponsored by the Texas Restoration Project (not to be confused with Reformation Ohio, unless you think of kissin’ cousins). Once again the aim is to sign up “Patriot Pastors” who will call on their congregations to vote the Lord’s will on Election Day. Also present in Austin was Ohio’s secretary of state, Ken Blackwell. You will remember him as the overseer of the election process in Ohio last year when a surge of conservative Christian voters narrowly carried Bush to victory there. Yes, the same Ken Blackwell who had modestly acknowledged that “God wanted him as secretary of state in 2004” because it was such a critical election. Now, apparently, he has been divinely designated for higher office. One wonders what Blackwell, Perry and Parsley were really talking about when they got down on their knees here in Austin. We will never know, because the praying and preaching and politicking were closed to the press, as befits the stealth salvation they are plotting for Texas.
Who paid to bring preachers from all over the state to town for this politically religious camp meeting? That, too, is a big secret. Two Texas oligarchs were spotted at the closed-door sessions—James Leininger and Bo Pilgrim— and they may have dropped something into the offering plate. But no one will say who put up the half million shekels it cost to bring the brethren to town and provide for them more than a few loaves and fishes.
Some years ago the classicist scholar, William Arrowsmith, writing in The Texas Observer, described the “worst of Texas attitudes—the rock-bottom conviction, expressed in stone throughout the state and in the hearts of politicians, that what counts is always and only wealth, that everything is for sale and can be bought.” Including now the Faith of Our Fathers, the Old Time Religion, the Rock of Ages. Right-wing religion provides the political and corporate forces running America a cloak of “moral values” with which to camouflage the plunder of America. It is the Texas machine duplicated many times over. For, as The Texas Observer once put it, “The men who run the Lone Star State, through a tacit but powerful interlocking directorate of politicians and corporation executives [joined now by preachers] are perpetrating and perpetuating a monstrous deception on the public” —namely, the illusion of self-government.
Everything President George W. Bush knows, he learned here, as the product of a system rigged to assure the political progeny needed to perpetuate itself with minimum interference from the nuisances of liberal democracy. You remember liberal democracy: the rule of law, the protection of individual and minority rights, checks and balances against arbitrary power, an independent press, the separation of church and state. As governor, Bush was nurtured by the peculiar Texas blend of piety and privilege that mocks those values. With the election of 2000, he and his cohorts arrived in Washington like atheists taking over the Vatican; they had come to run a government they don’t believe in.
The results have been disastrous: reckless tax cuts, a relentless assault on social services, monumental debt, pre-emptive war, an exhausted military, booming corporate welfare and corruption so deep and pervasive it has touched every facet of American government.
Much has been made of the president’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina. His early response was to joke the fun he had as a frat boy in now-grieving New Orleans. When a reporter pressed him on what had gone wrong after the hurricane struck, he sarcastically asked: “Who says something went wrong?” His attitude would surprise no one who read the 1999 profile of Bush by a conservative journalist who reported how the then-governor had made fun of Karla Fay Tucker’s appeals to be spared the death penalty. The journalist—a conservative, remember —wrote that Bush mocked and dismissed the woman, like him a born-again Christian, as he depicted her begging him, “Please don’t kill me!” But this is not what she had said. Bush made it up.
Such contempt for other people’s reality is embedded in a philosophy hostile to government except as an instrument of privilege and patronage. This is the crowd, remember, that was asleep at the switch in the months leading up to 9/11 when the intelligence traffic crackled with warnings about terrorist attacks (look it up in the official commission report). It’s the same crowd that made a mess of the occupation of Iraq—and then awarded themselves Medals of Freedom for the wreckage they had created. Their mentality was well summed up by Donald Rumsfeld, who, after Baghdad’s libraries and museums were sacked, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Stuff happens.’
Hurricane Katrina uncovered what the progressive advocate Robert Borosage calls the “catastrophic conservatism” of the long right-wing crusade to denigrate government, ‘starve the beast,’ scorn its purposes and malign its officials. We are seeing the results of an economic policy focused on top-end tax cuts and deregulations to reward private investors, as opposed to public investments in the country’s vital infrastructure. On the day that Katrina struck the coast, the census bureau reported that last year, one million people had been added to the 36 million Americans living in poverty. A few weeks earlier, the Labor Department had reported that while incomes had grown impressively last year, the gains had gone mostly to the top—the people with stocks and bonds and income other than wages. But the 80 million people who live paycheck to paycheck barely stayed even. It took a natural disaster to expose the stunning inequality and poverty produced when people are written off and shoved to the margins. And to remind us, as Borosage writes, of the dearth of basic investment in the boring but essential public works vital to civilization—schools, public transport, water systems, public health, and yes, wetlands and trees.
We are seeing now the results of systemic and spectacular corruption and cronyism and the triumph of a social ideal—the “You get yours/I’ll get mine” mentality—that is diametrically opposed to the ethic of shared sacrifice and responsibility.
Consider the story of the president’s buddy, Joe Allbaugh. When he was appointed head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration—FEMA—he described the agency as “an oversized entitlement program” and told states and cities to rely instead on faith-based organizations. Not surprisingly, the first in line at FEMA’s front door in the aftermath of Katrina was the televangelist and tycoon, Pat Robertson. Although he had only recently called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and had prayed in public for God to open some Supreme Court vacancies “one way or the other,” Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing—sic—got one of the first faith-based grants for relief work on the Gulf Coast. As a Christian magazine has now informed us, Robertson used some of those tax dollars to help rush 80,000 Bibles to the stricken region.
Joe Allbaugh, meanwhile, was already on the scene—but not as head of FEMA. He had returned to “private life,” as the term is laughingly used among Washington lobbyists. Having failed to prepare his agency to cope with disaster, he carefully prepared himself to exploit disaster when it strikes. It had not escaped him that the invasion of Iraq opened splendid opportunities for gain among the well-connected of Washington who ha cheered it on. Setting up a lobbying firm near the White House, he was soon facilitating business for contractors in Iraq and running another company that provides security for private companies operating there. Allbaugh house his entire complex at the Washington lobbying and law firm of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. The ‘Barbour’ in that lineup is none other that the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour. The ‘Rogers’ is Ed Rogers, Barbour’s partner, who is also—hold your breath—one of Allbaugh’s vice presidents. Haley Barbour, having enriched himself as an influence peddler, went back to Mississippi and ran for governor, which means he is playing a big hand in passing out your tax dollars for reconstruction. Lo and behold, on September 1, the Pentagon announced a major contract for repair of Naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, whose chief lobbyist is… Joe Allbaugh. What a lucky coincidence. Or as Shakespeare might put it: ‘Merit doth much, but fortune more.”
This is what you get from people who don’t believe in government except to aggrandize their own privilege. It wasn’t the lack of resources that prevented the administration from responding effectively to the disaster. The Washington Post’s Bill Arkin, among others, reminds us that the federal government had water, medicine, food and security at hand, in addition to the transportation needed to get it down to the coast in a hurry. The problem was “leadership, decisiveness, foresight.” And this goes to the core of the radical right’s atheist-in-the-Vatican philosophy: Denounce the government you now run, defang its powers and dilute its responsibilities, and direct the spoils of victory to your cronies in the private sector.
This predatory convergence of corporate, political and religious power has taken the notion of our commonwealth —the ‘We the People’ in that magnificent preamble to the Constitution—and soaked it in the sanctimony of homegrown Ayatollahs, squeezed it through a rigged market, and then auctioned it to the highest bidder for private advantage, at the expense of working people, their families and their communities.
When the right-wing apostle of no government, Grover (“Starve the beast”) Norquist appeared on my broadcast last year, I told him that I regretted having announced my retirement. With the corporate, political and religious right now exercising a one-party monopoly over Washington, I said, we are going to see such a spectacle of corruption that muckraking journalism could yet produce a new Golden Age of investigative reporting.
Sure enough, not a day passes that I don’t wish we could clone The Texas Observer, plant it smack dab in the center of the nation’s capital, and loose the spirit of Thomas Paine. Paine was the journalist of the American Revolution whose pen shook the powerful and propertied, challenged the pretensions of the pious and privileged, and exposed the sunshine patriots who turned against the revolutionary ideals of freedom, equality and justice. That spirit permeates The Texas Observer . Thanks to your Nate Blakeslee, the wrongly accused in Tulia are finally out of jail. Thanks to your Jake Bernstein and David Mann, “The Rise of the Machine”— the stunning account of modern political corruption in Texas that is the basis of Tom DeLay’s power—has begun to topple the dominoes. Just imagine how such fearless journalism in Washington today could probe deep into the political machinations behind our nation’s shocking inequality, expose the corruption of our public life, and reveal to Americans just how the regime in power is hollowing out the middle class, punishing working people and shackling future generations to runaway debt.
I read The Texas Observer and am reminded of the Irishman who comes upon a street brawl and asks, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?” You never let us forget that democracy is a public fight. For half a century now, you have covered that fight like no other journalists in the state. From Marshall in East Texas to El Paso in the far west, from Dallas to Corpus Christi, from Bastrop County to Deaf Smith County, you have reported on the men and women who struggle against much larger forces—sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of others, knowing that whether they succeed or not, they had to make a fight of it, had to take a stand, if justice is to have a chance in Texas.
So you richly deserve tonight’s rousing celebration of the difference a free press can make. I am honored to be with you. But the evening will soon end, and just outside those doors the fight is waiting for us. Good luck—and may the dollars rain down on you from good folk far and wide, to make possible another 50 years of independent, courageous journalism.