Once colorful, politics has turned gray

They came to town, did what they wanted, said what they felt, and voted without consulting polls. They were state politicians at a time when colorful personalities were the best ticket to getting elected - and staying that way.

But those colorful days are fast fading, not just in Texas, but around the country. Walk through the halls of your nearest statehouse these days, and you'll mostly find gray men and women in charcoal suits sifting through colorless issues like tax reform and electric deregulation. This is the work of wonks.

"It's true, there are fewer people in politics whose highest and best use is humor," says Sam Kinch, a political journalist from Austin. "Some of the real characters in politics just didn't produce either offspring or imitators. As people allegedly take public life more seriously, the people who run for office are becoming more ordinary. They're more like the people who actually vote."

It's a trend that has its roots both in the migration of Americans from their home states and in the way modern campaigns are fought and won. Big personalities may have been necessary in the days when campaigning took place on the back of a pickup truck or on the top of a tree stump.

But in today's TV campaigns, even nontraditional politicians like Minnesota Gov. Jesse "the Body" Ventura are toning it down. (Governor Ventura now prefers to be called "the Mind.")

This gives rise to a new generation of politicians who win not so much for being plainspoken as for being just plain.

"It's a generational change," says George Christian, former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson. "The approval of politicians is different. Even in Louisiana, things have changed." He chuckles to himself. "They used to call that place the 'northernmost banana republic.' "

But if there is anyplace to see the shift away from the politics of personality, it's here in Texas.

Sure, the state legislature is still a hothouse of strange ideas. One lawmaker has suggested lowering the death penalty age to 11. Another wants to abolish the capital city of Austin and turn it into a Washington-like entity called the District of Travis.

But these exceptions pale in comparison with the outsized personalities that stalked the pink-granite halls of power in the Texas State Capitol.

Consider Gov. James Hogg, a Texas Democrat elected in the 1890s: He named his daughter Ima (bless her heart). Or Pappy Leo Daniels, a rich flour magnate who got elected governor mainly because he hired country music legend Bob Wills to play backup during his campaign stops.

Political reporters may pine for those good old days, but some political observers maintain that today's duller politics can lead to better, less excitable government.

"Lyndon Johnson, [Sen.] Ralph Yarborough, and [Texas Gov.] John Connally, those figures well represented the cultural stereotypes of Texas, but I'm not sure to what extent colorful figures have a real rapport or connection with people anyway," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.

Texans may still love characters and populists, but they don't necessarily elect them anymore. "Texas has never trusted government, and they still don't," says Mr. Buchanan.

Old-time politicians say they could see the good times ending way back in the 1960s and '70s, when they helped push through a number of government reforms to open up their records and their meetings to the public, and opened their doors to more women and minority candidates.

This openness acted like a welcome disinfectant. Lawmakers could no longer take bribes openly, tell off-color jokes at the podium, or show up for debates half-drunk.

But it also ushered in a different culture to the legislature, something that not everyone welcomed. "When I got there, you could order a hamburger on the floor of the House, with your secretary taking dictation by your side," says Carl Parker, a former Democratic state senator who now runs a political consultancy in Beaumont. "You can't do that anymore."

BUT Mr. Parker says he did his part to keep the proceedings light. He recalls the time the legislature passed a law requiring teachers pass an eighth-grade reading test each year. Teachers were outraged, and they stormed Parker's office, even though he had voted against the bill. One teacher pointedly suggested that lawmakers be forced to take an IQ test.

"I told her we couldn't do that," the senator recalls. "I said, 'If we got all the ignorance out of the legislature, it would no longer be a representative body.' "

He pauses. "I found out she had no sense of humor."

Some old-timers say the politics have changed because the rhythms of life have sped up.

Babe Schwartz, a former state senator from east Texas, remembers making speeches out in the relentless summer sun, while his audience sat in the shade, eating chicken. In these conditions, a little humor goes a long way.

"If you do all your politics in the sunshine, you will have to speak louder and make sure your audience is entertained. It's a shame nobody has the opportunity to mature that style anymore."

But the Texas statehouse is not devoid of mischief and humor altogether.

"There's just as many off-color jokes, but oddly enough, they're usually told by women," says state Rep. Glenn Maxey, a Democrat from Austin. "Humor does become the way you break into a crowd, and these kinds of relationships become extremely important later on."

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