Being a pal of Bob Hardesty’s was no job for a slacker.
Even casual chats over martinis carried an unstated insistence that even political banter should be accurate and precise and, hopefully, have a dose of drama. Hardesty could often be cutting in his own verbiage, but — rare for a political creature — he was more gentleman than partisan.
It was indeed his rhetorical flair partnered with fairness that led Lyndon Johnson, and many others over decades, to seek the Hardesty touch. Ranting and demagoguery did not spew from Hardesty’s typing machines. We said our final goodbyes to Hardesty on Monday. His death ushers his rare political breed closer to extinction.
Although Hardesty served men of significant ego, he’d take their self-serving baloney and run it through the meat grinders of accuracy, honesty and fairness before presenting his final product to his bosses, including LBJ.
Even his most brilliant employers knew Hardesty was at least as smart as they were. That might be why LBJ never turned his notorious verbal wrath on Hardesty.
It was not only Hardesty’s words, but his candor that separated him from some of the herd that surrounds every strong political leader and why Hardesty was one of two staffers LBJ brought to Texas when he left the White House. The second was Tom Johnson, 12 years Hardesty’s junior but another rare political professional of high integrity and candor.
Like Hardesty, Tom Johnson shot to the top when the LBJ era ended, and the two were as close in the private sector as they had been in the White House. Johnson became president of CNN, Hardesty a university president.
There was resistance when Gov. Mark White named Hardesty in 1981 to head what was then Southwest Texas State University, where LBJ graduated in 1930. He wasn’t a “scholar” and had only a bachelor’s degree, critics said.
But Hardesty’s administrative skill and intellect won over the faculty at the university. A handsome 6-footer with reddish blond hair who wore a suit as though it were finely tailored – even if it wasn’t — Hardesty was a magnet for faculty members and students when walking the campus with his big dog, “Orloff.”
But eight years into Hardesty’s tenure, Republican Gov. Bill Clements, a cantankerous Dallas oil man, fired him. That triggered outrage.
Angered by the attack on academic freedom and raw politicization of academic leadership, Hardesty sued, winning a settlement of more than $1 million.
The Hardestys returned to Washington. He did some consulting and daily took his border collie Simon on strolls to a vacant lot favored by Simon, whom Hardesty dubbed “mayor” of the lot. When Simon died a few years ago, Hardesty flew his ashes back to D.C. and spread them over the lot.
And seldom has Washington been graced with more rollicking rhetoric than a night in the ’90s when wife Mary and visiting speechwriters swapped stories about ex-bosses LBJ, Mark White, Dolph Briscoe, Chuck Robb and Ted Kennedy. Hardesty mixed martinis all the while.
I met Hardesty briefly in the ’70s while presenting him an award from SMU, where I chaired the journalism department. A decade later I encountered him in the way folks meet in Washington, at a cocktail party. For reasons still a mystery, he chose me as a friend. I was puzzled since Hardesty was a man of renowned reserve. “Reserved” was not my long suit.
The friendship grew, and in recent years, on Wednesdays, I’d drive him for lunch and martinis with his old pals at the Headliners Club. Although Bob used a wheelchair, it was an easy sojourn because of out-front parking. One day there was none.
I put on blinkers and started to move Bob into his chair. Suddenly, his legs collapsed and we were frozen in traffic. Searching for help, I spotted Mayor Lee Leffingwell and chief aide Matt Curtis. They rushed to our aid. Bob thought being rescued by the mayor was hilarious.
For all of his strong beliefs, Hardesty was usually good to adversaries. But I witnessed one exception.
A former foe who’d contributed to Hardesty’s demise from his university presidency greeted Bob in the lobby of Westminster Manor and got a response akin to the infamous “LBJ treatment” when one had offended LBJ.
Hardesty, from his wheelchair, ignored the man’s extended hand and announced, “I’ve got nothing to say to you.” Classic LBJ. Classic Hardesty.
Mann, an Austin writer and consultant, is a former press secretary and speechwriter for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, as well as a former newspaperman, journalism professor and New York public affairs executive.