Texas has been blessed—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with some of the quirkiest and most brilliant politicians the world has ever seen. Standing tall among those is the late Bob Bullock, who served as Democratic secretary of state, comptroller of public accounts and lieutenant governor, ending his political career in 1999.
Journalists Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson have written a definitive, humorous and brutally candid biography (Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas, University of Texas Press, 2008) showing the Hillsboro native in all his brilliance, quirkiness and craziness.
No one who worked with, for or against Bullock was immune from his mercurial temper. “He was an active volcano, and the eruptions were always intense, usually brief, and wholly unpredictable,” according to McNeely and Henderson.
Former State Sen. David Sibley of Waco recounted to the authors one of his early days in the Senate, when he tried to get recognized by then-Lieutenant Governor Bullock, who was gaveling bills before senators could debate them. After many futile waves toward the podium, Sibley finally got Bullock’s attention. “The chair recognizes the crybaby from Waco,” Bullock grumbled.
Later Sibley visited parliamentarian Bob Johnson seeking advice on how to get along with Bullock and the Senate. The lieutenant governor burst into the room, ranted at Johnson, one of his closest friends, then fired him and exited.
“Wait a minute,” Sibley said. “What just happened here?”
“I get fired probably twice a day,” Johnson explained. So it went with most of the people who were willing to put up with Bullock. The payoff was that he knew more about state government than anybody, and he knew how to get things done.
No matter what mood he was in, Bullock usually got the best of a bargain. Take the year telephone deregulation was being considered by the Legislature. House Speaker Pete Laney suggested that an upgrade in rural communications be used as a bargaining chip in negotiating with AT&T, which sorely wanted deregulation. Laney and Bullock agreed that telephone companies should pay for fiber-optic cable to aid schools and libraries.
According to McNeely and Henderson: A House bill was prepared that called for the industry to pay $75 million a year over a six-year period, and the industry was prepared to accept that.
The head of AT&T met with Bullock and Laney, believing they would seal the deal.
“How much do you think the industry should pay?” Bullock asked.
“Oh, how about $75 million a year for six years,” the executive said.
“One hundred and fifty million,” Bullock shot back without hesitation. “For 10 years.”
Laney watched as the executive swallowed hard and, also without hesitation, said, “Okay.”
The fund has greatly assisted education and telemedicine in rural areas.
Perhaps Bullock will be best remembered for his love of the state—his motto was “God Bless Texas”—and his devotion to Texas history. He was the driving force behind the Texas State History Museum in Austin, which is named in his honor. One of his final efforts as lieutenant governor was to remodel the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
“Bullock was fascinated with cemeteries, so much that when he was courting his fifth and final wife, burial grounds were common dating destinations,” according to the authors. In 1994, after attending a funeral at the state cemetery, Bullock summoned the heads of several state agencies and told them to start sprucing up the resting place. Bullock began devoting his lunch hours to inspection tours of the cemetery. After deciding the cemetery roads needed to be improved, he called the Texas Department of Transportation. At 6:30 a.m. the following Monday, several TxDOT trucks were lined up outside the gate, waiting for someone to let them in. McNeely and Henderson report, “One road was quickly repaved, but it got another update a year later, after it was declared State Highway 165 to qualify for federal funds.” It was the “shortest state highway in Texas,” according to the project manager.
What Bob Bullock wanted, Bob Bullock got. He was interred in a choice plot at the Texas State Cemetery June 20, 1999, two days after his death at the age of 69.
The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum is at 1800 N. Congress Ave. in Austin, or go to www.thestoryoftexas.com.
For information on the Texas State Cemetery, go to www.cemetery.state.tx.us.