Tuesday, June 10, 1997
Bullock has cut larger-than-life figure in
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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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