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Tuesday, June 10, 1997

Bullock has cut larger-than-life figure in Texas politics

By MOLLY IVINS

AUSTIN - For years now, whenever Bullockians - those who study Texas' most amazing living politician - have gathered, the scholars have always ended by asking the same question: "Who's gonna write the book?"

Someone has to. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson has there been another pol who could so dominate everyone around him by sheer force of personality. Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who this month announced his retirement, is probably the smartest person I've ever known, which is partly what makes both the good and the bad of him so outsized.

We won't lose Bullock for a while yet, but we are certainly losin' a tall tree here. At 67, he has had part of one lung removed and bypass surgery, did untold damage to himself with alcohol, is slightly deaf and is manic depressive - and he still works harder, thinks faster and knows more than anyone else in Texas government. And maybe in Texas.

Some facts about the lieutenant governor:

n He sleeps about four hours a night. His staffers are all accustomed to the 2 a.m. phone call: What about this? Did we get that done? Let's try it another way.

n His most notable personal characteristic is loyalty: If you're a friend of Bullock, you're a friend of Bullock no matter what you do or what happens to you. If you wind up in prison or in the gutter, he'll still be there for you. One thing he cannot tolerate is disloyalty.

n You haven't really worked for Bullock unless he's fired you at least once. If you're any good, he unfires you promptly.

n He has the greatest wicked chuckle you have ever heard.

n He comes to his office every morning at 6:30 a.m. and spends an hour working on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

n Abner McCall, a longtime figure at Baylor University, gave him a D in ethics in law school.

n Best thing that ever happened to Bullock: In 1985, Jan Teague, showing great courage but only arguable good sense, agreed to become his fifth wife. (Actually, Bullock remarried his first wife, Amelia, the mother of his children, after his second marriage, so there have only been three of them if you don't count the annulment, but it's a little complicated to explain.)

n Brains and hard work are only two of the sources of Bullock's power; the other is that he's a bad man to cross. You don't want the man as an enemy because he will get you - he will pay you back. He's far more mellow these days than he used to be, but there was a time when Bullock could be meaner than a skilletful of rattlesnakes.

A saga, not a story

Heart attacks, grand juries, DWIs, divorces: Bob Bullock doesn't have a story - it's a saga. Of course, there is a difference between Bullock in his drinking days and Bullock today; he's not quite a different person, but he sure is easier.

He went off to "Whiskey School" in California in 1981. Six weeks later, he returned to Austin in the middle of the night, sober and alone. Only one person came out to the airport to meet him: Ann Richards. He has never forgotten that kindness.

Just a couple of stories from the drinking years:

One night, Bullock and his pal Nick Kralj (Bullock used to have any number of reprehensible friends) got bad drunk, went into the basement of Kralj's nightclub and proceeded to shoot roaches with pistols. They claimed it took great skill.

On another occasion, one of Bullock's early wives kicked him out of the house one night, presumably for good cause. So, he went to crash with his friend Carlton Carl, who was himself out drinking. Unable to get into Carl's apartment, Bullock crawled into the back seat of Carl's car, which was parked in an alley, and passed out there.

Unfortunately, it wasn't Carl's car; it just looked like it. When Bullock woke up the next morning, he was being driven along Interstate 35 by a total stranger who had no idea anyone was in the back seat. After pondering his options, Bullock sat up and said to the unsuspecting citizen: "Hi there, I'm Bob Bullock, your secretary of state." Poor guy almost drove off the road.

As a public official

Bullock as a public official: Only twice in 30 years as a political reporter have I seen an official completely remake a government bureaucracy. Ann Richards did it at the treasurer's office by slowly winning the trust and confidence of the employees. Bullock did it at the comptroller's office by kicking rear ends from here to yonder. He terrified those poor state employees - fired a lot of them, too.

Under Bullock's relentless, driving energy, the comptroller's office started collecting taxes that had been allowed to slide for years. You paid your nickel to Bullock or he'd come down on you like a gully-washer.

He was such a tax-collecting demon that the Lege used to give his office more money so he could go out and collect more and they wouldn't have to raise taxes. That worked until the mid-'80s.

I once ran across an Arizona official who assured me, in the reverent tones normally reserved for the Lord, "Bob Bullock is a legend in comptrolling circles." I assured her he was a legend in many others, as well.

When Bullock became comptroller in 1975, he inherited several thousand employees, but not one of them above the level of janitor was black. Bullock was determined to change that.

Recruited blacks

He soon learned he couldn't attract the top black graduates of the University of Texas Law School with a state salary. So, he went around to every little black college he could find and personally took out the professors in accounting, computers, management - all the skills he needed at his shop - and convinced them to send him the names of their top five graduates every year. The state has gotten some incredibly fine employees that way. Now, that's affirmative action.

After 16 years as comptroller, Bullock understood the state's tax system - both where the money comes from and how it's spent - better than anyone alive. You add that knowledge to the power that comes from his current office - under the Texas Constitution and the state Senate rules, the Lite Guv has more power than anyone else in state government - and you've got the juggernaut that is Bullock.

As far as I know, Bullock has no ideology. He is a pragmatist, a problem-solver and a deal-maker. Although no one would call him scholarly, Bullock studies public policy all the time.

He reads, he picks people's brains, he is hungry, he is avid for information. He also uses it for political advantage.

His Texas patriotism is legendary, and there is nothing phony or political about it. He ends every speech with "God bless Texas" and means it. When Bullock returned from the Korean War in the '50s, he got down on his knees, kissed the soil of Texas and swore never to leave it again - a vow he kept for about 25 years until curiosity drew him to Mexico. Jan has made him into something of a traveler.

Bullock is one of the greatest natural Texas speakers I have ever known. He uses the inherited sayings frequently: "lookin' wise as a treeful of owls," "slicker 'n bus station chili." But he also invents his own metaphors and similes, most of them unprintable. Bullock off-the-record is politically incorrect about 70 dozen times a day.

'Manly man'

Bullock is what feminists sometimes refer to sarcastically as "a manly man." (Bullock calls feminists "them hairy-legged wimmin," but he also has a good record on women's issues.) The drinking, the fighting, the hunting, the cussing, the woman troubles - if this guy were starting out in politics today, he couldn't get elected inspector of hides.

What we now call "the character issue" would keep him out of office.

But think of the loss that would be to this state. When you compare Bullock to today's crop of blow-dried, priggish, goody-two-shoe, suburban bores, it's enough to make you homesick for the old Texas.

But I think the real difference between Bullock and a lot of pols today is much more than style. This is a man who has sought power and knows what he wants to use it for. Look at the poll-driven pols, scratching around for a popular issue they can ride to higher office.

Bullock has always known what he wanted to do: get power, use it to help people (and run over some enemies), especially people who don't get dealt much of a hand to start with, and make the state a better place.

God bless Texas.

Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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