Ben Barnes was once a rising star in Texas politics, serving as speaker of the state House and lieutenant governor by the age of 30. He also was a protege of President Lyndon Johnson, who once declared that Barnes would be the next president of the United States. But the fallout from a bribery scandal, which he says was trumped up by Richard Nixon, cut short his thriving political career. He has since become a lobbyist and fundraiser.
Barnes, 68, has released a memoir called Barn Burning Barn Building. He recently sat down for an interview with NPR. Here are some excerpts:
On Lyndon B. Johnson
Question: When you look at today's politicians, is there anyone who compares to LBJ? And what do you think you learned from him?
Answer: It's very difficult to make a comparison of President Johnson with today's U.S. senators and governors; they all have some similar traits. But Johnson probably understood the legislative process better than anyone in recent political history.
I learned from Johnson that politics is a contact sport that takes whole devotion to accomplish your goals. And that there's no substitute for personal contact, cajoling, and being willing to give and take on difficult issues.
Question: What was the scandal that brought you down? And when you say Nixon was involved -- how so?
Answer: The scandal that ended my political career was an investigation at President Nixon's request of a gentleman named Frank Sharp, and an insurance company and bank he owned in Texas. The speaker of the House and the governor were involved with Mr. Sharp and they bought stock with loans from his bank, and he then bought the stock back at a profit.
I never met Frank Sharp, and as you can hear at my Web site, Barn Burning, Barn Building, you can hear clips of Nixon's Oval Office tapes, where the president talks to his Attorney General, John Mitchell, about Sharpstown.
Attorney General Mitchell apologized to me after he got out of prison. The evidence has been clear that Nixon's primary goal in Texas politics was to end my political career -- which he succeeded in doing.
Question: In today's Reliable Source column, you imply that "Nixonian dirty tricks" brought your career down. How so? What would Nixon have had to do with things happening in Texas?
Answer: The U.S. attorney in Houston years later revealed to a friend of mine that he was put under tremendous pressure by the Justice Department to try to use his powers to involve me in the Sharpstown scandal -- or some other scandal. They wanted to bring my political career down, because at that time I was the strongest Democratic politician in Texas, and Nixon had lost Texas in the 1968 election.
Also, President Johnson had said about me in 1970 that I would be the next U.S. President to come out of Texas. That was a wonderful compliment coming from him, but it also put a big target on my back.
On Getting Bush Into the National Guard
Question: When you went on '60 Minutes' at the height of the 2004 presidential campaign, to say that George Bush hadn't served his Guard time, you also claimed it wasn't political. How can that not be political?
Answer: I remained silent about George Bush's National Guard service during his two campaigns for governor, and his first campaign for president. It was not until the Republicans raised military service in questioning Kerry's military service that I felt compelled to speak out.
I suppose it could be interpreted as political -- but what moved me to say that on '60 Minutes' was that it was wrong of me to help George Bush and many, many others get into Guard service and stay out of Vietnam. I should not have had that power, and I used it unwisely.
Also, I never said Bush didn't serve his Guard time. I said I helped him get into the Guard, which is true.
On Bipartisanship in Texas
Question: You talk about wanting a return to bipartisanship, but when you were in office, Texas had only one strong political party: the Democrats. You didn't exactly agitate for more bipartisanship then. So how can you do so now with a straight face?
Answer: I certainly advocated bipartisanship when I was in office. There was a great division in the Democratic Party between liberal Democrats and moderate/conservative Democrats. I worked with both sides of the party, and built a coalition of both liberal and conservative Democrats to push through good programs for our state.
The Senate was divided almost evenly among liberals and conservatives, but we passed through a lot of good legislation by being totally bipartisan.
On Barbara Jordan and the Good Ole' Boys
Question: Did you work with Barbara Jordan? What was she like as a legislator?
Answer: I worked very closely with Barbara Jordan and considered one of my dear political friends and allies. She was an incredible legislator. She really epitomizes that you ought to work with people of all political persuasions.
Barbara Jordan worked with members of the Senate regardless of their political persuasions, and in a short time she won the hearts and minds of her peers. She could get along with the "good old boys" in the Texas legislature, but she also had tremendous vision, and great hopes and aspirations for Texas and America. She was a wonderful person, and I miss her very much.
On the Kennedy Assassination
Question: I heard you were involved with the Kennedy trip to Dallas in 1963. True?
Answer: Yes, that's true. I was a member of the planning committee that made the arrangements for President Kennedy to come to Texas in 1963.
One of the points of controversy surrounding the trip planning was the parade in Dallas. It was not the safety of the president that was the issue. It was that we were crowding so many activities into that day that the Kennedy's were not going to have sufficient time to change clothes for the different events.
There were some who said that President Kennedy should not go to Dallas and have a luncheon that was purely a fundraiser, and not give the people of Dallas a chance to see the president. There were others who thought we should give Kennedy some downtime before the gala and receptions in Austin. Finally, Attorney General Robert Kennedy came down on the side of those who wanted the parade, and it was written in the schedule. I was opposed to it. And I've spent a lifetime wondering how history would have been changed if the parade had not gone forward.
George W. Bush and the Nat'l Guard