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The Points Section Points Away from Unpleasantries
by Jerome Weeks 3 Aug 2009

For its latest book club selection, Points — the Dallas Morning News‘ Sunday editorial section — chose Bryan Burrough’s vivid and worthwhile history of Texas oil families, The Big Rich. And on Sunday, a half-dozen writers — including Burrough himself — filled up more than two pages of the section with thoughts about the Hunt, […]


For its latest book club selection, Points — the Dallas Morning News‘ Sunday editorial section — chose Bryan Burrough’s vivid and worthwhile history of Texas oil families, The Big Rich. And on Sunday, a half-dozen writers — including Burrough himself — filled up more than two pages of the section with thoughts about the Hunt, Cullen, Murchison, Bass and Richardson families, what their gung-ho-for-oil era meant to Texas in general and America’s energy industry in particular, what it meant for the popular image of fat-cat Texans, what it meant for Dallas as a can-do kind of city.

As one might expect, there was a lot of nostalgia for inspiring, larger-than-life, world-changing Texas characters, the usual mythic stereotypes. And there was a very strong hankering for Dallasites to Think Big again. Actually, a strong case can be made that “thinking big” is what has often gotten Dallas into trouble.  Consider the Trinity River project, Victory Park or  the Convention Center hotel.  In Frontburner, Wick Allison — hardly a small-is-beautiful liberal — argues that what we need with the hotel is not another bleached-concrete megalopolis but a lot of little stuff, what urban planners call “fill-in.” I would expand this argument to include most of downtown, especially the Arts District. It’s the bookstores, dry cleaners, cafes, trees, bakeries, walkways, affordable and accessible (non-gated) housing that make a city livable and attractive.

But back to Points. It’s revealing that the Points writers fill up more than 100 inches of column space but never once mention certain subjects by name, including: the rise of the hard-right conservative movement, particularly Christian conservatives, in the Republican Party, the Dixiecrats bolting the Democratic Party and taking all the diehard Southern segregationists, Joseph McCarthy and his demagogic anti-Communism, the promulgation of cheap petroleum as the world’s primary (and dwindling) energy source and finally, regular political influence-buying for the wealthy and the huge expansion in presidential campaign contributions.

If our Texas oil rich didn’t start these, they helped bankroll them all in a major way. One could argue that several of these phenomena would never have reached the national level (or would have taken a lot longer to do so) without the influx of millions from our own big boys. Regardless of one’s political stand on these matters, it’s a fact that the petro-wealthy have been huge players on the national scene, having had a hand in electing most of our presidents the past fifty years — from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush. America’s energy policy has been directly shaped by these Texans.

None of this got a real airing on Sunday.

Of course, Burrough wrote The Big Rich partly to give the oil millionaires a more balanced portrait, something beyond that long-running favorite, H. L. Hunt as the right-wing crank case who supposedly bankrolled the Kennedy assassination. But Burrough does not shrink from dcoumenting, say, the Big Rich’s livid segregationist ideas and influence, even as he extols these families’ efforts in transforming a poor, backward state into a major economic engine on the world stage.

To be sure, columnist William McKenzie, for one, does note that the Big Rich’s “views on minorities — racial and religious — were atrocious. The Texas culture that dominated was perverted and distorted.” But these remarks are mostly in the service of his argument that that’s no longer our Texas, the Texas of the future.

In short, Points generally didn’t disappoint when it came to framing a fascinating, complex, sometimes ugly and still-highly pertinent history — in pretty much the anodyne way one might expect from the section.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Jerome, nice thread. I suspect the POINTS book club will have other opportunities to discuss some of the valid points you mention here….but yes, intriguing that was otherwise fallow on Sunday. Stay tuned.
    But per the real aside you brushed; re; Dallas thinking big again…….. I grew up here and I recall hearing what a folly it was to be building (what then was) the world’s largest airport ‘in the middle of nowhere’. I heard the same derision in the late 1970s when DART Rapid transit rail was voted upon. I hear it now regarding the massively diverse Trinity project issues which seem to be largely regarded as pertaining to the toll road etc. despite my home of 25 years being at the northeast corner (2 blocks away from) what became in 1999 the largest forest of any American city at 8000 acres. God bless former Mayor Ron Kirk for thinking big enough to push that 1998 bond election that made that privately held massive stretch of land I use to yearn to explore into my backyard that I now traipse daily with my 2 dogs while being no farther from Downtown than SMU.

    I guess my point if I have one is…that Dallas thinking big is what brought me back here in the late 70s after living hither and yon, including abroad. As painful as it is for me to think, I believe the thinking small began after a lot of people who moved here showed no genuine sense of how ridiculously impossible the Texan dreams can be and how real they can become.

    When my Dad’s family moved to (then) Mexico in the late 1700s near Austin, old family letters showed how stupid it was said to move to ‘a place even God had never seen.’ My mother’s side of the family came later in the earliest 1800s…. Growing up I never heard the word ‘practical’ applied to Texans’ dreams. Today, even before the economic downturns, it was all I heard and hear today regarding the city’s potential. Most of the people I meet still a decade later have no idea even HAS a forest. It’s insane for me to be explaining constantly that yes, there are 14 miles of kiosk-ed nature trails within a mile of my home and at most only 2 miles south of Lakewood, 3-4 miles say from where I grew up off what became known as Knox-Henderson.

    On the other hand, I heard all my life growing up about plans to hopefully make the Trinity River usable for transport to Houston. This was lampooned despite it having been a river widely used for transport in the 1800s and beyond. But the time had come and gone when that reality could be worth the risk. But meanwhile, that state-of-the-art airport larger than Manhattan island literally put Dallas on the map. And DART rapid rail is going to give Dallas a leg up while Austin and even Houston, etc. go begging in this century, having yet to even begin.

    If a massive city waits too long to look into the future, they become a victim of change where they might have capitalized upon it. Meaning—A town that thinks small stays marginal. And it’s amazing to me how many people today….in Dallas…. see being ‘practical’ as the wise reality check to be cashed. I miss Texans who never thought that way. I was raised by people that thought larger than life was the right proportion.

    • Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Rawlins.

      I’ll be the first to concede that DART, whatever its weaknesses, presents a very strong case in favor of thinking big. So, too, with the DFW airport, although a huge opportunity was lost with its pedestrian architecture and sprawling layout.

      But I would add this major reservation about Dallas’ nostalgia for its age of big men with big ideas: A lot of times their plans got implemented because they didn’t have to listen to the concerns of the “little people” in the way. The levees didn’t have to extend to the black neighborhoods in Cadillac Heights. We built the West Dallas projects on polluted soil. Some of the apartment owners in the way of the Bush library had to go to court to get their side heard. And so on.

      We get frustrated nowadays because every project seems to inspire objections, roadblocks, nitpicking hearings, special interests with their pet councilmember asking inconvenient questions, etc. “Thinking small,” in other words. But it’s in the best interests of a democracy to thrash these things out in public. Too often, the appealing alternative is having another Robert Moses bulldoze through neighborhoods for a cross-town expressway. I was here for much of the start of DART, and if it’s testament to the transforming power of big ideas, it’s also a testament to years of argument and controversy leading to a collective act of will on the part of a city to go forward. Ditto the wonderful decision in Fort Worth to move I-30 south several blocks and re-integrate a large piece of downtown.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Well I hope we’re talking about two different things when we talk about thinking big and being a sociopathic opportunist.

    The thinking small I reference for instance is Dallas’ total ignorance of the Forest in general …and if they’ve ‘heard of it’ acting as if it’s on the outter most island off Guam. What potential for that projected park and features this wonderful land offers us that I enjoy, as I said, daily.

    Per the horrible things done in the name of racist indifference, that is hardly who I refer to but your refresher course is well taken. We still have low life entitled sorts afoot but what saddens me is the suspicion that we have lost our larger than life visionaries. This city has become a city that is full of people who only know what they know about where they live, and trip over their own myths in the process of daring beyond their immediate comfort zones. I know because I write about Dallas a lot and the emails I get would take your breath…as if I am Marco Polo rather than a guy who simply uses the city in all its parts rather than limiting my options/opportunities.

    Only the other night I had a very charming a literate fellow discussing crime, asking me about my part of the city , unaware that his very expensive part of this city (which I know well and enjoy) had a higher violent crime rate than the much maligned Pleasant Grove which is immediately south of me. When I mentioned that….backed up with no few stats based on an op-ed I had written (about the amazing and noble Deputy Police Chief of the Southeast Division, Patricia Paulhill…)and in-depth research involved, he left in a huff. Never let the truth get in the way of an ingrained perception aka sterotypical jingoism.

  • Bill Marvel

    I sniff a stereotype.
    I’m no expert on Texas oilmen and their politics. (Ask me about Colorado coal men sometime.) But when we hear that they were rabidly right-of-center, supporters of racism, and so forth, we all tend to nod our heads. Yes, yes. That sounds about right.
    But is “sounds” enough? Lacking a thorough scholarly study of these matters — did oil really bankroll the Klan? — I suspect that they shared the general culture here, and were not shapers of that culture, and may have been less culpable than other groups. Small businessmen, for example, the Baptist Church, developers and real-estate interests.
    My point is that a quick and dirty read of Texas politics and culture and how they got this way is no better than mindless acceptace of Big Oil, Big Dallas, or Big anything.
    The strands of politics and culture are subtly woven together. Interpretations by the Left are usually no more reliable than those of the Right.
    (I learned this the hard way writing about a major labor war.)
    So go easy on Points. At least they’re all reading a book.

    • Bill, you’re right. I don’t think I’ve read anything about the Big Rich bankrolling the Klan, but then I never mentioned such a thing. I did mention the Dixiecrats, though, and Texas’ oil millionaires were instrumental, even crucial, in trying to promulgate their hardline segregationism and their angry, anti-New Deal zealotry.

      As for whether the Big Rich were simply reflecting their cultural attitudes or trying to shape them, I’d say that launching a new political party to elect a president — or sway an entire presidential campaign with the influence of such a party — goes a long way toward shaping things, especially when your national convention, covered by the media, opens with speakers standing beneath the Confederate battle flag, opposing a federal anti-lynching law as an “infamous tyranny” and denouncing FDR as an outright Communist who slept with blacks.

      To that end, we can add their attempts to shape or even create the media — from individual radio programs, think tanks and syndicated columnists to an entire radio network (in his book, Burrough describes this as an early effort to develop something akin to FOX News). There was also their enthusiastic backing of anti-Communist media blacklists.

      One could say that many of these efforts represent the Big Rich simply trying to get their voices heard — at a time when American culture was much more centralized and filled primarily with Eastern- seaboard attitudes. But far too often, the Texas oil wealthy felt that getting their voices heard entailed silencing others — either through segregation, blacklisting and virulent anti-Semitism (one published a book in support of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and regularly referred to the New Deal as the ‘Jew Deal’).

      And they didn’t have to be like this. As Wiliam McKenzie noted in his Sunday column, Sid Richardson didn’t care who was in power, what their politics were. Of course, he befriended them out of sheer, pragmatic self-interest, but as McKenzie notes, that has to be better, more open-minded than angry, ideological purges.

      What McKenzie said he liked most about Burrough’s book was that ‘he tries to get past the knee-jerk animosity many modern folks have toward the [oil] industry.’ True. Burrough paints these Texans as boyish, lively, energetic, adaptive, often brilliant, particularly when it comes to transforming their hardscrabble environment into a financial center. But what irked me about the Points’ coverage was that it seemed to tilt far too much the other way — conveniently (or skittishly) overlooking how, for decade after decade, these men gave that “knee-jerk animosity” plenty of good, ugly reasons to jerk.