EDDIE CHILES THE ANGRY MAN OF TEXAS
Fort Worth, Texas — Drive around Fort Worth and Dallas for a while, and you'll notice bright red bumper stickers that proudly proclaim, "I'm mad, too, Eddie!" But it isn't until you turn on your car radio and hear one of Eddie Chiles's "mad" radio commercials that you suddenly understand what they're angry about.
The commercials lead in with some fife-and-drum, glory- glory-hallelujah music (the type you used to hear in movie scenes in which patriotic heroes explained why America is great and could never be conquered by the forces of evil). Then a deep-toned Texan asks, "What are you mad about today, Eddie Chiles?
"I'm Eddie Chiles, chief executive officer of the Western Company, and I amm mad," answers an angry voice that has a sort of homespun conviction about it.
"When I was a kid growing up in Itasca, TExas, we used to swap marbles. When you got a good, straight shooter, you held onto it. Too many liberals in Congress are just swapping out playing games. They say, 'I'll swap you a federal building in Tennessee for a defense contract in California.' Or 'I'll trade you politics for energy.' Or 'How about another giveaway program in New York? We don't know yet what we'll swap you for that, but we'll dream up something.' And they say, 'I'll give you inflation for nothing.'
"It's ridiculous! Just plain ridiculous! I'll trade the whole bunch of liberals in Congress for some straight shooters who haven't lost all their marbles."
The tag line on the commercial tells you it was "sponsored by the Western Company of North America, serving the oil industry in acidizing, fracturing, cementing, and offshore drilling."
But really, the sponsor is Eddie Chiles, the former oil roustabout, roughneck , and merchant seaman.He built the Western Company from a struggling, one-shack, one-truck acidizing pumper for oil wells to a $216 million oil service business. It's a business that gushes up enough cash to build twin bronzed buildings in Fort Worth, supports an elaborate geological museum in the lobby of one of them, erects great ocean-topping offshore oil rigs, and still leaves enough cash in Mr. Chiles's pocket to pick up the Texas Rangers baseball team as a several-million-dollar hobby.
Now he's using some of that money for political purposes, springkling radio programs with commercials designed to support his own kind of politician and decry what he sees as the free spending of Washington liberals. He is a perfect specimen of a one-man corporate political-action committee, a behind-the-scenes political fund-raiser who has come to the fore as a public personality who is angry about the federal government.
When you catch him in the middle of his plush corporate world, Mr. Chiles doesn't seem to be particulary angry about anything. In fact, he looks downright contented, installed in his office overlooking broad stretches of north Texas landscape, with his comfortable, ranch-style home sitting demurely off in the distance.
And why not? Everybody around here says, "Howdy, Mr. Chiles," with a kind of reverent Texas friendliness when they see him. There is a dignified, almost serene portrait of him staring grandly across the acreage of the corporate board room around the corner from his office. And the faded 1930s vintage photograph of the original beat-up truck and weathered shack that started him in business provides a satisfying contrast with the polished splendor of his current digs.
sitting here at a polished marble-topped table, a good brisk walk across the carpet to his desk in this vast office, he talks about something he says we don't really need very much of: government, including the "liberals in Congress." and an equally pernicious group identified in his radio messages as the "byoo-ro-crats" (accent on the "yoo"), people who make regulations to keep themselves employed.
He says he's not "quite as far right as Howard Jarvis" of Proposition 13 fame , whom he knows personally and considers "a populist hero." He thinks the United States needs at least somem government, but he believes it has a lot more than it needs. He says that "ever since the days that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins invented the 'tax-tax, spend- spend, elect-elect' form of politics," Americans have been getting the kind of government overkill that makes him want to kick the furniture around.
And that's just what he doing in his office on day, when his advertising director asked him why he didn't make his thoughts known where it might have some lasting effect -- on the radio.
Three years and more than $2 million later, Mr. Chiles's political views have become well known on 650 radio stations in the Southwestern and mountain states where the Western Company does business. He is something of a folk hero among like-minded conservatives in this part of the world, which is noted for its America-first foreign policy views and its belief in rugged individualism as an economic philosophy.
But his campaign as a self-styled conservative radio vigilante has made Texas liberals as mad at him as he professes to be at the federal government. Several groups have even threatened to force stations to allow equal time for their opposing view, under the "fairness doctrine."
What does Mr. Chiles think of their contention that there are numbers of people who might believe that their food stamps are an important part of the social fabric, but who cannot afford to go on the radio and spend a million dollars a year to say so?
"Well, that's tough," he answers cheerfully. "That's just tough. I don't think everybody's got to be equal in this world. The world just doesn't work that way. I don't know anywhere it says that everybody has to always be equal. i don't think [the Declaration of Independence] says we're going to remainm equal all the rest of our lives. If that's the case, you don't believe in the free-enterprise system, you don't believe in Adam Smith's theory that the law of nature is the survival of the fittest."
Mr. Chiles may believe in Adam Smith's theories of lean government and powerful market forces, but he has been chided by local columnists and others for his double standard -- allowing the federal government to provide his company with substantial loan guarantees, worth millions in low interest rates, as well as deducting the cost of his radio commercials from corporate taxes.
but he shrugs off this criticism and maintains that "a public corporation should talk about what it thinks. We've received favorable responses from our customers, who have rewarded us with business." This is bound to be a beneficial project that should help stop the country's "progress into socialism," he adds.
Although he himself is not seeking political office, his coomercials, which are scheduled to run through November, do have a political purpose: to help elect fellow conservatives like Fort Worth's former Mayor Pro-tem Jim Bradshaw (for whom Mr. Chiles has raised "a considerable amount of money") into seats held by liberals like House majority leader James C. Wright Jr., a powerful Texas Democrat whom Mr. Chiles considers a personal enemy.
Jim Wright is not the only enemy Mr. Chiles feels he has. Democrats in the state Legislature briefly held up his appointment to the Board of Regents of Texas State University, because of his radio commercials. And then there are those local columnists, who also object that he is using his corporate wealth to influence the political process unfairly.
"That issue is just something my friend Jim Wright cooked up," he replies testily. "We're not taking a nickel of the government's money. And I hate to be criticized for a public-spirited move which hasn't benefited this company [as much as it has the general public]."
He explains that the real reason for his anger and the commercials is that he is mad about the government in Washington.
"I've been mad about [it] for a long time. Everybody should be mad. Because of the conditions of our nation, both internally and externally. Our nation is in trouble. We're in trouble in the world because of a weak military posture, and because we don't have any friends in the world anymore. If they are, I don't know who they are. Real, true friends."
The other side of the coin, he says, is the mess the economy is in. "What worse problem could we have than 20 percent inflation?" he asks.
"I'll quote you what I heard [economist] Milton Friedman say. He said, in these words, 'Inflation is manufactured in Washington.' And I believe that. Inflation is a product of deficit spending and an unbalanced budget. Part of inflation is due to energy, and part of it's due to other things, but if the federal government's budget were brought into balance, the inflation rate would go down to less tha n 5 percent in a very short period of time, and ultimately would probably go to zero.
"The federal budget must be balanced by spending cuts, and not by more taxes. Increased taxes does nothing but take more of the capital that should be made available to industry. so we've got to do something for the production side of our economy."
With fiscal views like these, it's a cinch to figure out that Mr. Chiles put his money into the presidential campaign of former Texas Gov. John B. Connally, rather than that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
"The American people didn't seem to want Governor Connally," he laments. "He lived here in Fort Worth for many years. I knew him when he was not in politics. . . . And I knew him very well, then. In my opinion, he is the best- qualified man who has offered his services as president of the United States in my lifetime."
To Eddie Chiles, it borders on sacrilege to compare John Connally with Democrats like Lyndon Johnson.
"Don't even mention those two men in the same breath," he pleads, as though you had just scratched your fingernail across a blackboard. "Lyndon Johnson had very few qualifications for the job, and he showed it when he became President."
After Mr. Connally dropped out of the campaign, it was only natural that Mr. Chiles should follow the path the former Texas governor commended to all his supporters and the lone delegate he won in his $12 million campaign. He pledged allegiance to Ronald Reagan, who had, after all, spent the night in Mr. Chiles's house once, although he says. "I don't know him like I know John Connally."
The people Mr. Chiles does know and support in politics could make a sizable ocean liner list to the right just by boarding it. He is a longtime friend and supporter Texas Sen. John G. Tower (R), as well as a number of other conservative Texas politicians; and he says that he is on nodding acquaintance with "most of the conservative Republicans," although he does acknowledge that "certainly all the people I know do not wear white hats."
Wearing a blue suit, blue tie, and pale blue shirt himslef, all of which go marvelously with his intelligent blue eyes, and offset the golden glimmer of his cuff links and tie bar, Mr. Chiles doesn't look as if he'd feel out of place in a meeting of the conservative Business Roundtable (an association in which the chief executive officers of some 200 major corporations focus and act on public issues). But his tough, craggy face and large, weathered hands tip you off to the fact that he got his political philosophy in a more rugged environment than a corporate board room.
In fact, Eddie Chiles's political bent is about as indigenous to Texas as anything you'll find here.
After growing up in small-town rural Texas -- when rural really meant isolated and untouched -- he toiled as a roust- about, "about the lowest job you can get on the work gangs," in the rough-and-tumble Texas oil fields, as well as spending a year or two on the high seas as a common seaman and "kicking around a little bit."
He hitchhiked from the oil fields to Oklahoma University and a degree in petroleum engineering before coming back to his home state and starting an oil well acidizing business in 1939 with a partner, whom he later bought out.
He says that, contrary to reports in the local press, he did not pioneer the acidizing process. (Acidizing entails pumping hydrochloric acid into limestone pocketed with oil. This dissolves the limestone and forces up the oil, a highly important process in this part of the world, where much of the oil is trapped in limestone caverns.) Forty years later, Mr. Chiles's family is worth at least $ 140 million, and probably much more. On his table is a bronze replica of an offshore oil drilling rig, a symbol of his company's newfound wealth. It began to drill for oil just when domestic exploration began to heavy up, and in 1973 its profits skyrocketed when the foreign suppliers banded together and forced prices out of sight. This year, "God willing, we'll make $375 million," he predicts.
His life may make an all-American Horatio Alger story, the kind Richard Nixon used to love to tell ("Nixon had some basic flaws in his character," Mr. Chiles observes about the former President, "and he wasn't a very good President; in fact, he probably wasn't a good conservative or Republican, either"). But Mr. Chiles's story is one that he fears will not be repeated in this day and age, when "the liberals in Washington are working overtime to destroy the American dream."
He expounds on this theme in one of his radio messages:
"Let me tell you why I am mad. Forty years ago, I started the Western Company, and under the free-enterprise system I was able to build that company into an international organization with some 4,000 employees. Today, I'm afraid the opportunity I had no longer exists. During the last 50 years the liberal philosophy practiced by Congress has literally turned the American dream into a nightmare. And this makes me mad. Fighting mad. I love America, and I'm determined to fight to get our freedoms back. The free-enterprise system has been good to me. I want to give something back. I'm not seeking any political offices or awards of any kind."
All he wants to do, he says, is reverse "the progress to socialism in this country," and return the country to the kind of government it had under the last President he thought worthy of the job: Dwight David Eisenhower.