Like many folks who have been involved in Texas politics for a few decades, I was deeply saddened to hear of former Gov. Mark White’s death on Saturday.
Regardless of what you thought of his politics — and Texans’ thoughts on his politics varied enough to elect him once as governor and defeat him twice, including in a 1990 Democratic primary comeback attempt — I’ve never heard anybody say anything really bad about the likable White.
He was a politician from another time, a time when reporters spent many hours up close and personal with candidates on campaign planes and buses as they crisscrossed the state. There’s less of that now for various reasons — not the least of which is that many candidates don’t want us around — and we’re all the poorer for it.
White was a driving force behind what became known as HB 72, the 1984 massive and ambitious public education overhaul perhaps best remembered for the no-pass, no-play provision that put academics first and extracurriculars (including King Football) second in Texas’ public schools.
For his efforts and successes on that important front, including appointing the colorful and combative Ross Perot to head a public education select committee, White — who, merely by being a young Texas governor had gotten some mentions as a potential national candidate — got nothing but political grief. Bill Hobby, who was lieutenant governor at the time, recalled it in his 2010 book “How Things Really Work: Lessons from a Life in Politics.”
“You need a good sense of irony to enjoy politics. Consider this: The most extensive education reform bill in Texas became law because Gov. Mark White had promised a teacher pay raise and didn’t have the money to pay for it,” Hobby recalled. “But after he gave teachers the pay raise he had promised — and a tax bill to pay for it — they campaigned against him, and he was defeated for re-election.”
Indeed, White, who had ousted GOP Gov. Bill Clements in 1982, was ousted by Clements in 1986. White’s 1990 comeback attempt ended with a distant third-place finish to Ann Richards and Jim Mattox in the Democratic primary. Richards went on to beat Mattox in a runoff and then Republican Clayton Williams in what was a rollicking great fun general election to cover.
And that was the end of politics for White, who went into private business.
But he remained accessible and friendly. On Saturday, Jim Vertuno of the Associated Press’ Austin Bureau, tweeted a “personal note” about White.
“In this biz we often pre-write obits,” Vertuno wrote. “When writing White’s, I called him and told him what I was doing. He laughed and said ‘Let’s do it.’”
I saw White occasionally as the years went by. He always asked about my family. The last time I saw him was in 2015 when I helped produce a 60th anniversary event for the Headliners Club. White agreed to be the TV weatherman in a mock newscast anchored by Dan Rather, Neal Spelce and Verne Lundquist.
White proved both a good sport and quite the ham.
“Good evening. Many of you may have been wondering what I’ve been doing since I was ousted by Bill Clements in 1986 after I’d ousted him in 1982,” he said. “You have any idea how much therapy it takes to get over losing to a grumpy old guy in an ugly plaid sport coat? Plenty. My therapist recommended I look for something in a profession that people trust even less than politicians. That’s why I’m now Mark White, weatherman.”
Then he gave full gusto to a weather forecast that targeted Donald Trump as “some problem headed our way.”
There’s a photo of White in my house taken while he was governor and was being interviewed by my wife, Sharon Jayson, who then ran the Capitol Bureau for the Texas State Radio Network. White had turned the tables on her, taking her microphone and pointing it at her.
“See how tough it is when you have to answer!” he wrote under the photo.
Sometimes it is. And sometimes you have to be quick when a curveball comes your way. I recall a White campaign stop in Liberty over in East Texas. There were several Capitol reporters traveling with him. White invited a question from a local radio guy who stuck a microphone in White’s face and said, “Governor, I’m not like these fancy boys from Austin.”
Yes, we were pretty fancy. The radio guy continued: “I’m just going to say a word and you tell me what you think.”
“OK,” White said. “Yes, sir.”
“E-lectricity,” said the radio guy, hitting the E real hard and long.
White didn’t miss a beat and came up with an answer nobody could dispute.
“Real important,” he said. “Gotta have it.”
To this day, that remains a catchphrase — often a non-sequitur one — in my house.
In some ways, I equate White’s one term as governor to George H.W. Bush’s one term as president. Historians of the future will be kinder to them than were voters of their time.
R.I.P. to a man who did what he thought was best and suffered the political consequences.