Texas provided training ground for Clintons

By Wayne Slater

The Dallas Morning Newsa

AUSTIN, Texas — Bill and Hillary Clinton’s presidential partnership began 35 years ago with an impossible task in an improbable place — Texas.

She was dispatched by the Democratic Party to register voters in the Rio Grande Valley, where she didn’t speak the language.

He was picked to run the Texas campaign of George McGovern, who didn’t have a chance.


"The political outcome wasn’t very good," Clinton recalled in a recent interview.

But the experience, she said, was invaluable, and it shapes her own presidential bid to this day. Among the lessons she cited: How to form personal connections with voters. The importance of recognizing the culture of a place when asking for votes. And the logistical nightmare that a White House campaign can entail.

"I saw in an up-close way what goes into a presidential campaign, and I feel like those lessons are ones I took with me," she said.

In the summer and fall of 1972, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were a pair of 20-something law students, he with bushy hair and cowboy boots, she with oval glasses and a penchant for brown corduroy.

They were new to national politics. Texas was their training ground.

"I had never spent time in Texas before, so everything from South Texas and crossing the border to eat goat to hanging out in the Hill Country" was new, Clinton said.

The McGovern campaign operated out of a brick storefront in Austin. When the young staffers weren’t at the headquarters, they were at Scholz Beer Garten, a favorite after-work spot for the city’s political progressives, and the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music hall that famously catered to both rednecks and hippies.

"A lot of serious campaign decisions were made at Scholz’s," Clinton said. "And we occasionally got to blow off some steam and go to the Armadillo. I remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis there, which was one of the highlights of my time in Austin."


But the fun came at a time of high political tension, too. The Democratic Party was sharply divided along conservative-liberal lines, and much of the elected hierarchy had little use for the party’s anti-war nominee, who would lose all but one state to Republican incumbent Richard Nixon.

Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen declined to be McGovern’s campaign chairman. Gubernatorial nominee Dolph Briscoe wouldn’t appear in public with the candidate. Former Gov. John Connally was leading a group called Democrats for Nixon.

"We knew we were going to lose, but we didn’t talk about that," said former Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong, one of the few statewide officeholders who did support McGovern. "At the time, I thought I was committing political suicide."

Garry Mauro, then a 22-year-old University of Texas law student experienced at campus voter drives, recalls the Clintons’ baptism that year in the slaughterhouse politics of the Lone Star State.

"This woman named Hillary Rodham calls and says, "The (Democratic National Committee) is sending me down here. I’m supposed to coordinate all voter-registration efforts and get-out-the-vote efforts. Can we meet?"’

A couple of weeks later, she introduced him to two friends from Yale Law School dispatched by the McGovern campaign to run the Texas operation, Bill Clinton and a mustachioed anti-war organizer named Taylor Branch.

"Bill was a late-night owl even then. He’d come in at 3 or 4 in the morning," said Julius Glickman, a Houston lawyer, who shared an apartment with three Yalies south of town.

"We’d have sessions in our apartment, and people would come in from out of state or out of town and stay with us," he said. "You’d be up until all hours of the night."


Bill Clinton’s job was to coordinate the campaign’s disparate alliances — Austin liberals, South Texas Hispanics, black voters in the cities — and to cultivate the state’s sparse network of sympathetic Democratic moneymen.

On occasion, former President Lyndon Johnson would call Bill Clinton at the campaign office, looking for the latest news and offering advice.

From time to time, gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson would show up. Armstrong recalled that, considering his frenetic dispatches for Rolling Stone, Thompson was remarkably well-behaved.

Hillary Clinton was mostly on the road encouraging voter registration, usually riding shotgun in Mauro’s two-door Ford Fairlane.

"There was no place she was unwilling to go, no neighborhood she was unwilling to go into," Mauro said.

Hillary Clinton laughs now at the memory of long days driving to the farthest precincts of Alice and Donna and Edinburg.

"I went into places where people were not just bewildered, but shocked to see me," she said. "I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. I didn’t understand what I was doing, to be really blunt about it. But I found so many good guides along the way."

One night, she, Bill and a labor organizer named Franklin Garcia headed across the border to Matamoros for an evening at a Mexican dive.

In her memoir, she recalls the beer, the cabrito (barbecued goat) and the mariachi band. Clinton, in his own book, remembers something else — "a halfhearted stripper."

The details are lost to history. Asked about the evening, Clinton burst into a loud, full-throated laugh. "All I can say, I’m certainly glad I wasn’t well known in those days," she said.

As for the campaign, it was not exactly a well-oiled machine, nationally or in Texas.

Vice presidential pick Tom Eagleton of Missouri withdrew abruptly after it was revealed he had twice received electric shock treatment, and his replacement, Sargent Shriver, rattled the troops. Bill Clinton spent inordinate time dealing with squabbling Democratic officials, volunteers and campaign workers. Campaign events ran notoriously late.

Shriver arrived so late for a rally in Texarkana that most of the crowd was gone. Media chief Roy Spence shot film of thousands of people from earlier, then spliced it with Shriver’s post-midnight arrival to suggest a cheering throng greeting the candidate.

"I saw how difficult it was to run a national campaign," said Hillary Clinton, who was responsible for a rally at the Alamo with Shriver near the campaign’s end.

She remembers how the advance team from the national campaign arrived to "hot dog it and big foot it over everybody."

"I never forgot those lessons because I was on the receiving end of it when people flew in from the national headquarters and started ordering everybody around," she said.

At a Houston fundraiser, Waco insurance executive Bernie Rapoport, one of the party’s most important financial benefactors, said Shriver’s wife, Eunice, issued detailed instructions on how to run the campaign.

"I told her, ‘Wait a minute,"’ Rapoport said. "‘You’re smarter than we are. But this is Texas. You have to be a little different."’

Sarah Weddington was running for the Texas House in 1972 with a shoestring campaign whose staff included a woman named Ann Richards.

"There was a point within a month of the campaign when (McGovern’s wife, Eleanor) came to Austin and her people were trying to figure out what to do with her — in a sense, how are you going to get a crowd for this woman," Weddington said.

"They discovered I was doing a fundraiser and they called and said, ‘We know you’re going to have a big crowd. Could she come to your fundraiser?"’

Despite the foibles — or perhaps thanks partly to the lessons learned — figures from the era would go on to big things.

Weddington would win her race and become the lawyer who successfully argued Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.

Richards would become governor.

Taylor Branch, co-coordinator of the Texas campaign, years later would write a trilogy on the civil rights movement and win the Pulitzer Prize.

Armstrong would become an assistant interior secretary under Bill Clinton. Mauro would be elected land commissioner and later lose a governor’s race to George W. Bush.

And, of course, Clinton and Rodham would marry and settle in Arkansas.

McGovern lost Texas, 67 percent to 33 percent.

But around the headquarters that year was a sense that there was more to come. Armstrong recalls how a friend, who had dubbed Bill Clinton "The Kid," would say, "The Kid is going to be president some day."

Now, said Armstrong, maybe the other one will be, too.

What To Read Next
Caitlin and Jason Keck’s two-year term on the American Farm Bureau Federation committee begins next month.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission met on Jan. 5, 2023, to consider the application for Summit Carbon Solutions.
Qualified Minnesota farmers will receive dollar-for-dollar matching money to purchase farmland.