New book looks at maverick West Texan Williams, TX
AUSTIN (AP) _ Wildcatter, rancher, multimillionaire and more, West Texas businessman Clayton Williams may be best known for his run for governor in a campaign sunk by his gaffes.
The 1990 governor’s race was his to lose. And that’s what he did, propelling liberal Democrat opponent Ann Richards to the state’s top office. The Republican’s outrageous remarks and multiple missteps are considered the textbook for how not to wage a political campaign.
“If the Lord wanted me to be governor, he wouldn’t have brought in that storm,” Williams says of the comments that lost him votes and drew international attention to the race dubbed “Claytie and the Lady.”
A new authorized biography, “Claytie,” by Texas author and former Associated Press correspondent Mike Cochran, chronicles not only Williams’ brief political career, but also his highs and lows in the oil and gas industry, cattle ranching and the communications business. It portrays him as more clever and caring than his ham-handed campaign might allow.
Open and natural, for better or worse, are descriptions often given of Williams, and the book coming out this month casts his story as “the roller-coaster life of a Texas wildcatter.” Cochran calls Williams a “remarkably unsophisticated and charmingly flawed West Texan.”
“Yes, indeed, with Clayton Williams Jr., what you see is what you get, and then some, for he is many things to many people, which is part of his magnetism, part of his enigma,” he writes.
The book suggests Williams’ 1990 loss set the stage for George W. Bush to launch his bid for the presidency. Had Williams won, businessman Bush probably wouldn’t have run for governor in 1994, when he defeated Richards, and wouldn’t have had the platform to run for president.
Williams commissioned the biography, published by Texas A&M Press. Cochran, a senior reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before retiring to write books and freelance pieces, said “Claytie” is based on multiple interviews with Williams and 200 others who know him, worked with him or watched him closely through the years.
Several chapters are devoted to Williams’ life before his gubernatorial campaign _ his upbringing in Fort Stockton, experiences at his beloved Texas A&M University, assorted business enterprises, and devotion to his children and wife, Modesta.
The book doesn’t hold back in describing Williams’ financial setbacks or his wild ways. It’s peppered with Williams’ sayings, like when he was accused of courting the so-called “Bubba” vote: “Hell. I am Bubba!”
Known by his nickname “Claytie,” Williams, now 75, was a colorful Texas character long before plunking down $8 million of his own money to run for governor.
He’s shown to be hard-driving risk-taker in business, regardless of good times or rising debt. He climbs mountains and hunts big game. He’s known for his big grin, his love of a good drink, occasional barroom brawls and a fondness for belting out songs in Spanish.
He learned Spanish as a teenager working alongside Mexican farm laborers, and he openly uses the disparaging label “wets” in one of his journal entries quoted in the book.
His race against Richards drew worldwide attention to Texas politics with his cowboy image, his promise to introduce young drug offenders to “the joys of bustin’ rocks” and his infamous remarks about women, the weather and rape.
Williams invited political reporters to his ranch near Alpine to watch him round up cattle to prove he was a working cowboy.
It was a cold, rainy day and the reporters overheard Williams compare the weather to rape: “If it’s inevitable,” he said, “just relax and enjoy it.”
A well-worn story, but the book sheds new light on the journalists’ private dilemmas about how to report the brash comment.
Williams apologized, but the damage was done.
John Gravois, then a reporter for the Houston Post and now political editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recalls in the book that Williams showed no hard feelings at dinner that night with the reporters, even though he knew they had filed stories on his comments.
“The guy was not oblivious to what had happened and he knew it was very serious ... but he sits down and eats steak with us and acts just as calm and natural,” Gravois said.
The biography also recounts Williams’ admission that he visited such brothels as “Boys Town” in Mexico as a young man to get “serviced.”
It examines Williams’ indecision over whether to follow the advice of campaign strategists that he refuse to shake Richards’ hand at a joint appearance in Dallas.
Quoting his media travel aide, Todd Smith, the book says Williams felt uneasy about that advice and at one point just before the appearance decided to ignore it. Then at the last minute he capitulated. He rejected Richards’ outstretched hand and called her a liar as the news media looked on.
That episode turned off voters and likely sealed his election doom.
Williams’ softer side comes through when the biography tells of five friends and colleagues who died when a turboprop plane owned by Williams crashed near Abilene early in the 1990 election season.
And when he recalled praying for help because he was overwhelmed by his son’s drug addiction and the possibility of going broke. And when he wrote his old political rival Richards a kind letter after she was diagnosed last year with esophageal cancer. Richards died in September 2006.
Cochran said he was surprised by Williams’ willingness to acknowledge his shortcomings.
“He is honest,” Cochran said. “He shoots from the lip. But he takes responsibility for the things that go wrong. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t try to hide things.”
On the Net:
Texas A&M Press at www.tamu.edu/upress
Kelley Shannon has covered Texas politics and government based in Austin since 2000.