August 16, 2022

Tales from the attic: Learning from Texas liberals

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith - My bosses at my first job – as a newsman at DC’s WWDC radio - were two Texas liberals:- news director Joe Phipps and his assistant Bob Robinson. Short and bald, Phipps appeared a bespectacled and ambulatory small mouth bass. When excited his eyeballs almost rubbed against his glasses. His voice ebbed and flowed between 1950s broadcast fog and full-blown southern oratorical eruption. Robinson, on the other hand, had an unflappable Texas drawl. A tall man with white hair, Robinson was as imperturbable as Phipps was instantly reactive.

I already knew that Texas liberals were special people; Tom Whitbread, a poet and Harvard tutor, had introduced me to the Texas Observer, newly started by Ronnie Dugger. The Observer would be a remarkable voice of sense and liberty in an era turning dogmatically dumb and mean. In the first issue, Dugger quoted Thoreau: "The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth."

Beyond their politics, I liked that Texas liberals seemed to enjoy themselves and that even the worst election brought a new batch of stories. Such as the one about the freshman state legislator being advised that the best way to stay honest was to sell out to one interest group fast; that way the rest would leave you alone. Or about the Texas trial lawyer who stole from the rich . . . and gave approximately half to the poor. I liked the tales of Lyndon Johnson and Ralph Yarborough -- the yin and yang of the Texas senatorial delegation. Even the names that cropped up -- like Creekmore Fath or Cactus Prior -- were fun.

I didn't realize it then, but being a Texas liberal in the 50s could be hazardous. Folk humorist John Henry Faulk found that out when CBS fired him after he became a target of the red-hunters. Unlike a lot of eastern liberals at the time, Faulk struck back, suing the group that had accused him. Nonetheless, it still took years on the broadcast blacklist and the legal assistance of Louis Nizer to prove that he was a good American.

Through it all, Faulk kept his sense of humor,. telling stories like the one about Totsie who was hit by the Katy Flyer express. Totsie's remains were so well distributed that the family rented 300 acres for the funeral -- just to be on the safe side. The minister said it was the largest funeral he had ever preached -- acreage wise.

Faulk also told of being born in a village so small it only had four houses, and they weren't exactly downtown. He claimed to have been one of triplets and that his father had come to the hospital and asked his mother, "Well, which one you gonna keep?" "That," recalled Faulk, "is when I learned how to swim."


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