One drawback to reading John F. Kennedy’s classic “Profiles in Courage” at a young age is that it left me forever skeptical of politicians. In more than 40 years as a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, I’ve encountered precious few who took unpopular stands for the greater public good and persevered through threats, vilification and almost certain electoral calamity.
Recent examples include the three Republican senators who this summer bucked party and president to kill a health-care reform bill that, afterward, even the bill’s Republican supporters conceded was a fraud. One of these three mavericks, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkoswki, endured threats from Trump administration lackeys. Another, war hero John McCain, only last week saw his vote against the health-care bill attributed to his suffering brain cancer by a Republican Senate colleague.
Yet another profile in courage — one with whom I was personally acquainted — is former Democratic Texas Gov. Mark White, an attorney and proud Baylor University alumnus who died last weekend at his Houston home of a heart attack at age 77. His political courage is so striking it defies the forgetfulness of passing years. It contrasts sharply with political pandering and posturing gone amok in Austin and Washington today. He served but one term in office, at least partially because he pressed inconvenient solutions to complicated problems.
“It’s something you know going in you are not going to be there forever, so you treasure every moment of it,” White told the Houston Public Library’s Oral History Project in 2009, reflecting on his remarkable if brief gubernatorial tenure from 1983 to 1987. “You try to do as much as you can because you do not know how long you will be there. And I am very proud of the record that we set in the four years that we were given to serve the people.”
That’s a different approach from the political priorities of today: Spend your first term building up campaign coffers for re-election and delivering short-term fixes to complicated societal problems. You’re careful to keep your political base fat and happy while telling yourself you’ll muster the statesmanlike fortitude to tackle serious challenges later. And somewhere along the line the problems endure and any potential you had for greatness has drifted down the river of time.
As former President George W. Bush noted in his eulogy Wednesday, White will go down in state annals as the driving force behind enduring but controversial public education reforms, wrapped up in House Bill 72 — a law long cited with disdain by some. Passing this bill meant incurring the wrath of a reliable Democratic constituency — the once-powerful teacher advocacy groups, whose leadership was insulted at the very idea classroom teachers would have to take a competency test.
The affair demonstrates just how short-sighted teacher groups were then. My wife, a classroom teacher, was the first one out of a school cafeteria full of teachers taking this much-hated test. She said the test should have been a breeze for anyone with a middle-school education. In return for this supposed indignity, teachers and students benefited from smaller classroom sizes, a generous pay raise and the overdue shifting of school priorities from sports to academics.
“I was talking with a member of the Legislature not too long ago about the education part of all that,” said John Fainter, who served as first assistant attorney general under White during the latter’s tenure as state attorney general and as secretary of state under White as governor. “I said, ‘You ought to pay teachers like coaches, based on success. We don’t have any trouble paying a coach $100,000 or more a year if he’s a successful coach and you don’t have any trouble firing him if he’s not successful. Shouldn’t that apply to teachers?’”
The irony is Gov. White undertook all this in an uphill bid to win classroom teachers a significant pay hike. Some legislators and other state officials balked at the proposal of hiking taxes to pay for the raises, agreeing only if the raise was part of a package of comprehensive education reforms. To undertake these, White assembled the Select Committee on Public Education, chaired by Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, a Republican. The committee met during late 1983 and early 1984.
And after the education committee produced its recommendations, White pushed its reforms hard, including bitter pills such as the infamous “no-pass, no-play” provision that originated with Perot and kept students from pursuing sports or other extracurricular activities if they didn’t keep their grades up. This angered school sports boosters, players, coaches and even parents with a screwed-up sense of priorities. White drolly recalled how, for years afterward, whenever a school lost a Friday night football game, he got the cussin’.
“I got blamed for every loss,” he said more than once, “and got no credit for the wins.”
Former state Rep. Stan Schlueter, a fellow Baylor alumnus who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee at the time and oversaw the tax bill to fund what White touted as the largest increase in teacher pay in modern state history, says today the reforms “still are noted among the greatest education reforms in the United States. Mark fought for the package as he never had before, but it cost him the next election against [former Republican Gov.] Bill Clements after he told the taxpayers to ‘blame him’ for the tax increases and the reforms.”
Some indeed did, Schlueter noted: “No member of the Legislature was defeated as a result of the tax bill or the reforms.” White alone paid the political toll.
“Gov. White lost his re-election because he had the courage to say a quality education was more important to our state’s future than even Friday night football,” said former Congressman Chet Edwards, a fellow Democrat who served in the Texas Senate representing Waco at the time of White’s tenure. “He paid the political price, but it was a price he was willing to pay and that’s why I respected him.”
A few years after losing to Clements in 1986, White recalled the matter with his typical wry humor: “A lot of teachers thought they were going to lose their jobs over the [teacher] test. I think I’m the only one who lost a job over it.” He could also laugh about the vitriol over “no-pass, no-play” — he once observed it gave cover to a lot of coaches with teams that already had losing records — but he never expressed regret about passage of House Bill 72.
White also was the governor who rankled a lot of Texans by signing into law a bill compelling all drivers to wear seat belts. It was especially unpopular in West Texas where, he once quipped, one can drive for miles and miles without even seeing another motorist. Despite the complaints, there’s little doubt the legislation saved countless lives. White told me once how someone had the temerity to complain that wearing a seat belt rumpled his suit. The governor reminded him how rumpled he might be after a traffic smashup without seat belts.
And White was the governor who committed sacrilege during the desperate oil bust of the 1980s by stressing that Texas’ future required business and economic diversification, which seemed unimaginable to some rooted in the oil patch. As Edwards noted, White “played a key role in making Texas a magnet for high-tech jobs. He led the successful fight to bring the highly coveted Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation to Texas, which was a major catalyst in attracting high-tech investments and jobs to Texas.”
I interviewed the governor a number of times about issues such as seat belts and water — the latter a priority in parched West Texas, where I spent my early career — but I only got to know him well the last few years. I saw him desperately seek peace and understanding between the warring Baylor Alumni Association and Baylor University in 2013 and remember the column he wrote for us to prevent their disunion: “History is replete with examples of avoidable tragedies where men of good conscience, when faced with a Rubicon decision, might have secured a peaceful resolution of differences had they only paused a few days more to seek a real alternative.” More recently, I saw his outrage as he spearheaded Bears for Leadership Reform in pressing the Baylor Board of Regents for more accountability regarding a sprawling scandal involving sexual assaults.
“This is the most difficult day Baylor University has ever had in its existence,” he told me late last year. “Never before has Baylor University been threatened with the question of its integrity and that to me is most important. One thing you can’t get back is your reputation. That’s tough to do for a person or an institution.”
“He was always a good, decent and honest man and his comments as a member of our Baylor reform group will always be very memorable and on point,” Schlueter told me. “He was deeply hurt by the actions of the Board of Regents and their silence, which he believed were destroying the school. I told him after his presentation in our initial public meeting in Waco that, had he given a speech like that in his last campaign, he would have been elected governor for a second term.”
White was an enthusiastic BU alumnus but one who understood that, as former Baylor president Robert Sloan once told me, independent-minded Baptists love to fight. Example: Beloved Baylor Chancellor Abner McCall caused a flap in denigrating then-Gov. White in a Trib Q&A in 1984: “I didn’t vote for Mark White. I got out and campaigned against him. I thought he was elected largely on phony issues ... I wouldn’t give him an A and I wouldn’t give him an F. I’d put him in the middle somewhere, C-plus. That’s the kind of grades he made at Baylor.”
Gov. White declined to confirm whether McCall’s comments prompted him to cancel his appearance at Baylor’s homecoming, but he did note: “I think a C-plus from Abner McCall is higher than he gave me before. During the election, he probably gave me an F. I’m moving up.” And when a reporter asked White to grade McCall as a political scientist, White replied: “Let me answer it this way — he never taught that course.” (McCall acknowledged voting for Clements’ re-election as governor in 1982, the election that catapulted White to victory.)
More to do
White in some ways was a throwback to an earlier age in Texas, one where the best of our state leaders displayed guts, intellect and wit. Some of a certain age will recall his telling an audience in College Station how Alaska’s tourism industry was effective but that he didn’t know why “anyone would want to go to a cold, barren place like that.” Alaskans responded by writing insulting songs about White and sending him a small white rat, which they described as a “Texas polar bear.” One ditty, sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”:
“He can talk about his oil wells and ’bout the Rio Grande,
“But nothing can compare to our great Alaska land.
“The biggest thing in Texas, that small state way down south,
“The biggest thing to see there is Gov. Mark White’s big mouth.”
For all the humor with which White accepted defeat, no one should imagine that he didn’t lament the lost opportunity to do more — or that broad appreciation for the reforms and policies he pushed didn’t come sooner.
“I think he never felt we had completely solved the education problem and that it needed constant attention to make sure we stayed current,” Fainter told me. “There are fewer and fewer positions where you can make a living with your back anymore and you’ve got to keep education current. It’s one of those things that he always kept focused on. There’s never a politician who expects to lose a race and there’s never a politician who doesn’t regret losing and there’s always some second guessing. But I never heard him complain about making any of the big decisions that political analysts would say cost him the election.”
And there’s the example he set for others, something Bush, another former Texas governor who championed public education, noted during last week’s eulogy at Houston’s Second Baptist Church: “Now look, anybody who understands Texas and the football culture of our state knows that saying to a coach or the school boosters, ‘I expect that boy to read, else he doesn’t play,’ takes courage. Mark White had courage.”