AFTER MANY YEARS of lobbying for the job, I finally convinced the Houston Post to agree to make me a columnist for the paper in the summer of 1990.
I had been working as a Washington correspondent for The Post when I moved back to Houston to begin writing a column that was supposed to run on the front page of the Metro section three times a week.
(My column was later moved to the op-ed page and reduced to twice a week, but that’s another story for another time.)
My first week as a columnist proved a bit rocky because the paper’s editor was not pleased with my efforts even though I was getting plenty of positive feedback from readers.
His main complaint was that, as a Metro columnist, I should be writing about local and state issues, and he wanted me to do some reporting, not just opining. I actually was. I wrote my very first column after visiting the AIDS quilt at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
The editor didn’t think that was hard-hitting enough. So, for my second column, I wrote about the GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams’ refusal to debate his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards.
In the column (below), I called him a chicken and a spoiled brat and wrote that the real reason he didn’t want to debate was not, as he claimed, because Richards refused to sign a pledge to play nice but rather because he knew he could not control what came out of his own mouth.
The next morning when I picked up my paper, there was my column, splashed across the top of the front page! Not the front page of the Metro Section, but the front page of the entire paper.
That raised a lot of eyebrows, including mine. As much as I liked the exposure my column was getting, I was a firm believer in the theory that the front page of a newspaper should be reserved for news, and that opinion pieces should go inside the paper.
Of course, the content of the column was also controversial. Williams’ supporters thought it was unfair while Richards’ voters loved it.
Predictably, the column was widely circulated around the state.
THAT AFTERNOON, at a luncheon by the Dallas Crime Commission, to which both candidates were invited, Clayton Williams famously declined to shake Ann Richards’ outstretched hands, telling her, “I’m here to call you a liar today.”
That was pretty much the end of the Williams campaign. The man who had led Richards by 11 percentage points late in the summer ended up losing to Richards in November.
Many years later, I heard from an acquaintance who had been a Richards campaign worker that Williams had just finished reading my column before he arrived at that luncheon, and that its content had pissed him off so much that he ended up pulling his childish stunt.
The campaign worker didn’t tell me how she knew Williams had been reading my column and I was too much in shock to think of asking. Since then, I’ve asked others familiar with the Richards campaign and none has confirmed what my acquaintance claimed.
But I do find it interesting that at the luncheon Williams attacked Richards for lying about her primary opponents, former Gov. Mark White and former Attorney General Jim Mattox, echoing words at the end of my column in which I reminded readers of how badly she had mistreated the two men. (I wrote that she had “played dirty” against White.)
SO, DID MY column alter the course of the race? It’s hard to tell, even if many political experts agree that Williams’ refusal to shake Richards’ hand was the turning point in the election. Unless somebody in the Williams campaign comes forward to say that Williams had indeed just read my column (or that he hadn’t), we’ll never know.
I’m enough of a journalistic romantic that I want to believe that it’s true. And who knows, maybe by the time I die, I will go around babbling that it indeed was true!
There’s a big problem, though. If I want to take credit for Richards’ victory, I must be willing to also take the blame for some of the events after the 1990 election. Chief among them would be the election of George W. Bush as president.
How do I figure that? It’s simple: had Williams won, he would have been an incumbent in 1992 and it would have been highly unlikely that Bush would have run for governor against his fellow Republican. And if Bush had never been elected governor (or if he had been elected later), would he have run for president in 2000?
And if Bush had not been elected president would 78-year-old Harry Whittington been shot by the vice president while quail hunting at a South Texas ranch?
And if …?
That’s a lot of ifs. I’m not sure I want to go there.
Here is the column:
HOUSTON POST | Page 1 | October 11, 1990
Voters can see through Williams-Richards debate debacle
I SUPPOSE Clayton Williams and his campaign coterie think they’ve found the ideal way to handle his refusal to debate Ann Richards, but they’re fooling no one.
Williams is sitting on a nice lead and apparently sees no reason to give her a chance to score points against him. That would be fine if Williams were upfront about it. But it’s obvious the real reason is that, for all his bluster about how tough he is, the man is a chicken.
Williams is throwing up a lame excuse for refusing to meet Richards face-to-face to answer real live questions from real-life reporters on a real live show.
If Richards won’t promise to be nice to him for the rest of the campaign, he tells us, he won’t debate her.
Williams sounds like a spoiled brat, hiding behind Mommy Manners’ skirts and complaining that Mean Ol’ Annie just won’t play fair.
Fair? This from the man who casts not-so-subtle aspersions about Richards’ private life by questioning whether she’s running for governor of Texas or mayor of San Francisco.
This from the man who sees nothing wrong with questioning whether recovering alcoholic Richards is again hitting the bottle. This, also, from the man who won’t raise a finger to stop the negative radio ads against Richards by the GOP.
Maybe Richards ought to call his bluffand sign the stupid pledge. After all, we all know that political promises mean nothing. (Just read George’s lips.)
Of course, if she were to give in to such an inane demand, Williams would come
up with another silly excuse.
He ought to take a lesson from fellow Republican Phil Gramm, who doesn’t insult us with phony excuses for not wanting to debate.
Gramm’s response is that Hugh Parmer’s campaign can hardly be called credible and therefore he’s not going to waste his time dealing with it.
Not too generous, but at least he’shonest. Besides, no one can ever accuse Gramm of being scared he’ll say the wrong thing in public.
Williams, on the other hand, can’t open his mouth without stuffing both his West Texas boots in it. And. oh what big boots they are.
I covered two of Williams’ trips to Washington. During the first, he claimed Mexican Americans would vote for him because he met his wife at a Mexican restaurant, loved Mexican music and hunted in Mexico. Back in South Texas, we used to have a word for such patronizing Anglos: fools.
On his second trip, Williams claimed that as a result of his visit, the White House had decided to ease gas pipeline regulations. This was the week the secretary of energy had said the administration would do just that. The man was either lying or he was ignorant. Either way, it doesn’t say much for the man who wants to be our next leader.
And these are just his Washington statements. You already know what he’s said here.
The Williams folk would like us to think he’s just a good ol’ boy with an occasional slip of the tongue. It’s more like a persistent brainslide. Williams has ample reason to fear a debate. He is obviously petrified the voters will see that his primary qualification to be governor is his ability to buy the GOP nomination and maybe the office itself.
Please don’t interpret this as an endorsement of Richards, for it is not. Her inept campaign is matched only by the ineptness of her message: vote for me because I’m not crazy like the other guy.
She is obviously not a good student of Texas political history. We’ve always elected crazy people governor — the loonier the better. It doesn’t help her any that she did play dirty in the primary against former Gov. Mark White, thus giving Williams the ammunition he thinks he needs to avoid a debate. And her arrogant avoidance of Jim Mattox in the runoff makes her less than pure when it comes to debates, but at least the voters got a chance to see both in debates before the first election.
Williams is denying us that chance now. He should not be allowed to do that.