Mischief in Austin in 2006; or Why the War Goes On by Daniel N. White

by Daniel N. White
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
January 10, 2010

Ben Barnes is a political figure from ancient Texas political history–the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  He was a tall and good-looking politician from rural Texas who was going places–one of the youngest state legislators ever, the youngest Lieutenant Governor ever, at age 31, in 1969.  Ben is one of those people politics was made for, as his extroverted personality and keen intelligence and interest in people made him a boy-wonder success in the Texas legislature and made LBJ say that Ben Barnes was the best political operator in the state, and that he’d be the next President of the United States from Texas.  Lyndon was right on the first part at least.  As things are now, Ben Barnes is probably the last Lyndon Johnson crony/protege left standing.  All the rest of the Johnson crew is dead or in nursing homes.

Ben got tangled up in the biggest political scandal in Texas’ history, the Sharpstown affair, where some Houston area banker bribed a bunch of legislators in 1970 to pass a special bill for his own financial benefit.  Ben never got indicted, and probably wasn’t ever a part of the scandal, even peripherally, but he was the Lieutenant Governor at the time, and as the Lieutenant Governor is the real power in the Texas elected government, he got tarred with the scandal and quit elective politics.  Ben went on to be a business wheeler-dealer, and partnered up with former Governor, Oswald target, and Nixon Treasury Secretary John Connally.  They went off to various real-estate related wheeling and dealing and went bust together–flat-out bankrupt–in the late ’80’s Texas real estate bust.  Ben put it back together again and is to some degree rich again and is one of the biggest behind the scenes wheels, maybe the biggest, in Texas Democratic politics.

Ben back in 2006 wrote an autobiography of his life in politics, Barn Building, Barn Burning, and I glanced over it.  What he was writing about was mostly all before my time, but I looked through it for what he had to say about the biggest (or maybe second-biggest, counting civil rights) political issue in his lifetime, the Vietnam war.  Ben didn’t say jack about the war in his book, except for a story about how when he was dating the actress Jill St. John she gave him a large ration of abuse for supporting the war.  Lo and behold, a week later I stumbled into an impromptu booksigning he was holding at the local bookstore–it hadn’t been promoted like they usually were, and it mostly seemed like Ben had dragged all his buddies over from the local high-level political watering hole where he and they had been dragging a sack for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who had parachuted into Austin unpublicized for some fundraising with the local heavy hitters.

Ben was in fine form there, in front of a friendly audience who were happy to hear his old war stories retold.  But Ben also talked about current issues facing Texas, and he made more sense talking about what they were, and what we needed to do now for a better tomorrow, than anyone else I’ve heard in this state.  The audience asked him some good questions–that isn’t generally the case with most audiences at most events in this town–and Ben answered them all quite well.  Except for mine–I asked him about the Jill St. John story, and just when did he stop supporting the Vietnam war?  Ben dodged the question with a Jill St. John story, and I was pissed.  I managed to get called for a second question, and asked the same question again, and got a blowoff answer again.  I was even more pissed.

Ben lives in a quite different/affluent part of Austin than I do, so I was quite surprised to see him wander into the local grocery store one Sunday two weeks later.  I saw him wander in, looking for something, and I walked up to him, saying “Ben Barnes!  Pleasure to see you here!  Good performance at your booksigning last week!”; shook his hand while saying all this.  Ben was pleased to be recognized in public again–it doesn’t happen much anymore–and his shining extrovert persona was gleaming at the recognition again, as he replied with some pleasantry or another.  I then stepped closer to him and said, levelly, but using my size too:  “Ben, I asked you twice at the booksigning when you stopped supporting the war in Vietnam and you dodged answering both times.  Ben, I’d like to know when you stopped supporting the war, or are you one of those idiots who still think we could have won it?”  Ben was taken aback, and his extrovert movie star personality went away, and another personality came out, and he started speaking in a different, lower pitched and slower paced voice, with a distant look to his eyes. He was stepping back to a different time, maybe, when he was a younger different person in a younger different world.  Ben talked at a fair length about the war, and what he said then, combined with a little of what he said at the bookstore, is below,  dressed up and stretched out into this op-ed below that I wrote for him.

Ben Barnes:

Out on the book tour for my new book on my life in politics I got
reminded again of what was the biggest national political issue of
my life in politics–the war in Vietnam.  I was, like most people here in Texas, for the war at first–like most people I thought it was right and necessary and that our government leaders were being square with us on it.   I supported the war up until the summer of 1969.  LBJ came back from Washington for good in January that year, and he and I had a long series of talks out at the ranch that year about many things, but we talked about the war most of all.  Lyndon Johnson explained to me that when he was president he had always been told, over and over again by the JCS generals that the war was going to be won with the next and latest increase in troops and bombing and that if we just kept going and stayed the course victory was just around the corner.  After a while, Lyndon realized that it didn’t matter how many men we sent there, how many bombs we dropped there, how long we stayed there and how much of the national treasure we squandered there–the war just wasn’t going to be won. It wasn’t going to be won, and it was time for us to stop fooling ourselves that we could ever win it, and it was time we let that country solve its own problems by itself without our help.  It was time for us to leave, and any talk about staying the course and not cutting and running was just compounding our mistake in getting involved there in the first place, and compounding all the errors and wrong things we’d done since.  LBJ changed my mind on the war, and I’m thankful to this day that he did.

The deepest regret I have about my life in public service is that I didn’t realize all of that a lot sooner myself.  I should have–I had plenty of opportunities to and there were plenty of people telling me better but I just didn’t.  It was my biggest mistake in politics, and my coming around in mid-1969 doesn’t change the fact that I might could have helped end our entanglement there sooner if I’d gotten smarter sooner.  I didn’t speak out later, either, like I should have once it became obvious that Dick Nixon’s secret plan to end the war was a fraud and a lie, that he simply didn’t have one and never did.  Nixon’s campaign promise of that plan is what got him elected president in 1968, that and his and his campaign’s operatives sabotaging the near-agreement the Johnson administration had in the fall of 1968 at the Paris Peace Conference–an agreement basically identical to the one signed in 1973, five years, 25,000 American, a million Asian, lives later.  Of all the sorry, evil lies Dick Nixon told as president, his lies about the war were the worst, and they hurt and cost us more than all his other lies put together.  Dick Nixon lied us into staying the course in Vietnam for another five years for his own narrow sorry political purposes, and we, and the Vietnamese, have nothing, not a single thing, good to show for it all.

I get reminded about Vietnam from time to time ever since then.  Sometimes hearing the right old song on the radio makes me think of that war, sometimes a sudden blast of jet noise does it. Other things always bring back the war to me, every time, like seeing a tore-apart man ten years my junior wheeling down the street in his wheelchair. But lately every single day I’m getting reminded of Vietnam when I see the news from Iraq, and hear the same sort of sorry lies put out by that gang of Nixon leftovers now in the White House.   The lies Cheney and Bush told us to get us into that war would shame even Dick Nixon if he were around to hear them.  The war there isn’t about stopping terrorism–instead it is the biggest cause and recruiter for hatred against us there is.  It has turned into a civil war and we can’t do a thing to stop that and we are square in the middle of it and our presence there is only making it worse.  Our staying the course there is worse than our staying the course in Vietnam ever was–at least in Vietnam we could get some of the Vietnamese to fight for us, and in Iraq we can’t hardly get one to.  This war has wasted more US tax dollars than the Vietnam war did, and the longer we stay the course the more we’ll waste, the more the economy will suffer for at least a generation to come.  And the more the Iraqi people and nation will suffer, too–just like Vietnam, whatever the costs of this war are to us, they are ten times worse for them, in a country a small fraction the size of ours.

Lyndon Johnson told me that the American people are grown-up enough to forgive you being wrong on something if you are man enough to confess openly to it.  Nobody is right all the time, we all make mistakes, everybody knows and understands that.  People also know that you get fooled by lies and liars from time to time, too.  Political leaders in this country nowadays don’t seem to understand this, they seem to underestimate the intelligence and maturity and understanding of the majority of Americans.  If there is any one thing I can tell anyone in politics these days this is it.  You can stand up against the war and survive politically.  There really isn’t but one issue out there these days and its the war.  It has to stop.  It’s time to come out against it.  If you were for it in the past there’s no shame or disgrace in publicly admitting your mistake.  Trust me, its the right thing and it won’t kill you politically.  I will tell all of you that you don’t want to be eaten up with regret and shame the rest of your life for supporting a bad war you were a part of for too long like LBJ was, like I am to this day.   You need to come out against this war for not just this country’s sake, but for your own, too.  Come on and do it, now.

It was right interesting, having Ben Barnes talk like that to me for so long.  When he was done, I said “Ben, that was a real good answer.  It reflects well on you and Lyndon Johnson both.  What was so hard about saying it at the bookstore?”  Ben was at a loss for words for a bit, something that probably doesn’t happen very often to him, and I stepped in and said “Ben, you really should write an op-ed saying this and get it published.  You’ve got a real important story there and it needs telling.”  At the mention of op-ed, Ben’s eyes lit up and the movie star persona popped right up and he said, ah, yes, op-ed, yes, I’ll have to talk to Arnold Garcia (editor of the Austin paper) about that.  But tell me, where is the restroom in this store?

I pointed out to Ben where it was, and damn but if I didn’t follow him off to the shitter where we kept on talking about the war in Afghanistan.  Ben had no idea how little money we were spending on Afghanistan’s reconstruction–FY2007 was all of $240 million, which works out to $10 a person maybe, or, putting it in terms Ben would understand, (seeing as he is on the UT Board of Regents and is in charge of its multimillion dollar annual construction program) is that the USA is buying Afghanistan about three new academic buildings, that’s all.  I remember as an undergraduate at UT the times some speaker from the outskirts of power in DC would make an appearance on campus to speak to the Government Department students, and how the hustling motherfuckers would leech onto their coattails so tight the whole time they were there that you’d need dynamite to get them off.  Damn but if a quarter century later I aint doing the same thing, hell worse, birddogging Ben Barnes off to the shitter and beating on him while he’s in the stall trying to take a dump.

So I wrote up the above op-ed, and dropped it off on Ben Barnes’ wife at their house and never heard back.  Badgered Ben’s PA for a while, and eventually it came out that Ben decided to do nothing with it.  This upset me a bit, so I decided to write Senator Robert F. Byrd, the Senate’s leading opponent to the wars, and ask him to do something with this op-ed, something to get Ben’s wisdom out there, and maybe get Ben’s considerable talents engaged on this issue.  First letter is below:

Senator Robert Byrd

Dear Senator Byrd,

I realize you are a most busy man, and that I am sending you a fair piece of reading, but I ask, as you are almost the only Senator to speak out against our criminal follies of wars in the Middle East, to please take the time and read my letter, enclosed e-mail, and op-ed.

Ben Barnes is probably someone you have met somewheres along the way in the past 40 years.  He wasn’t much on the side of the angels when he was in elective office, and many of his post-politics dealings, such as his partnership with John Connally in real estate, and his current lobbying for the reprehensible state lottery, are things that I never cared much for. When he spoke at the bookstore on his book tour I was more than a little tempted, out of solidarity with all the buddies of mine in the building trades who were stiffed by Barnes-Connally (Jesus, they were a bunch of deadbeat slow-pays, and their office staff was as stuckup and arrogant as could be to you) to ask him embarrassing questions about his business practices, but damn, Ben was talking more sense about more issues in this state than anybody in office I’d ever heard.  I was particularly struck by his denunciation of the war in Iraq.  You can’t slip a cigarette paper between his and Murtha’s position on the war–the war is an obscene falsehood and we need to get out now.  I remember him being for the war in Vietnam, so I was surprised as hell to hear him say that about Iraq.  I asked him in the Q&A about when he changed his mind on the war in Vietnam, what made him change his mind, and what advice does he have to give, speaking from his firsthand experience, to politicians nowadays who agree with him on Iraq but who haven’t spoken out against it yet.  Ben dodged the question, and I got the chance to ask him again, and he dodged it a second time.

So I wrote the enclosed op-ed, and dropped it off at his house.  Called his PA repeatedly over the next six weeks before I finally got her to admit that she’d finally read it–she was so busy you know–and Ben and her had decided that they weren’t going to run it. Pissed me off.  I sulked for a bit, and decided that this called for extraordinary measures.  There’s a war on, goddammit, and something needs to be done about it, so I e-mailed a copy of it to every major paper in Texas and all the major national dailies.  Put a cover letter in front of it, explaining who Ben Barnes was, and his place of honor on Dick Nixon’s enemies list, and what a major player he is behind the scenes in Texas Democratic politics.  Made it clear that they should contact Ben’s PA if they were interested.  Figured two things might happen.  First, if one of the major dailies says they want it, Ben might change his mind.  Second, I had a suspicion, one that events have proven me right on, that there isn’t a single newspaper in this country that is willing to give op-ed space to someone to come out against the war.  Read that sentence again, Senator–there’s a horrible truth in it that maddens me.   There is this horrible mass delusion of consensus in the media about what can and can’t be discussed about the war, and it goes so far as to deny people the forum to repudiate the war and their prior support for it.  It is obscene.  It’s worse than the herd mentality they showed in ’02-3 when they all jumped on the war wagon. I figured my proving it with this blanket series of rejections was something I owed history and this country’s future both.

But there’s still some hope for this op-ed of mine.  What it says needs to get out there.  Ben’s voice is an important voice that needs hearing, Lyndon Johnson’s bitter experience needs remembering, and the war is the only issue now that really matters.  This op-ed of mine–every single point of fact in it is from Ben’s book or his conversation with me in the grocery store shitter.  Getting it out is something that you and me and Ben can do together to help stop this abominable war.  Not only that, I’d say that getting this op-ed out is doing Ben a real favor that I don’t think he realizes.  Mostly Ben Barnes is remembered for the Sharpstown scandal in ’71, biggest scandal in recent Texas politics.  Ben wasn’t indicted, (with his being so much on Nixon’s shit list, if there had been anything on him they’d have nailed him) but he was caught up in it and his career in politics was over.  Insofar as Ben is going to be remembered to history, it will be for his being a part of the Sharpstown scandal.  If he comes out this hard this publicly against the war, he’ll have earned a most honorable coda to his career.  I think he deserves it.

Here’s where you come in.  Call up Ben Barnes, or at least his PA, Susan Martin, at 512-322-XXXX, and tell him how much you like this op-ed of his and how you would like to read it on the floor of the Senate.  Tell him how important his voice is still, and how the story of the entire country’s newspapers shunning this op-ed is something that needs exposure, that their neglect of an elder’s voice of experience and wisdom in a time of war is shameful.  Appeal to his vanity, that his coming out on the war like this will get him a line of praise in future history books, appeal to his patriotism, appeal to his debt to Lyndon Johnson’s greatness, appeal to his kids and their future, appeal to his love and concern for this country of ours.  I think he’ll bite.

You are of course welcome to do any editorial changes on this op-ed you and he see fit.  I am completely at your service in this matter and am glad of the opportunity to be so.  And again, my thanks to you for your standing up against our mad wars abroad and their criminal consequences at home.

Sincerely Yours,

Daniel N. White

After three weeks of waiting for a reply, I sent off the second letter, which I confess is a little testy. Enclosed a copy of the first letter of course.

Senator Robert F. Byrd

Dear Senator Byrd,

I write to you again hoping that this letter attracts attention enough, or gets the attention of someone in your staff professional enough, to get a response.  My letter of 1-18 requesting that you contact Ben Barnes here in Austin has gone unanswered and I am saddened and displeased both.  Senator, I must remind you, and ask you to remind your staff, that any letter that runs across a desk in your office warrants a reply, no matter how perfunctory.  Failure to respond to correspondence is the acme of rudeness.  At least that is how it used to be seen.

Politics is about counting votes.  Ben Barnes is one of those people with the very highest level of political skills that a human being can possess.  LBJ, the best US politician of the 20th Century, pegged him in the 1960’s as being the next president from Texas.*   No higher acknowledgment of his politician skills could exist than that.  Ben needs to be put back to work in politics to stop this god-damned horrible war.  You alone in this world have the stature and clout to get him off his ass and get him back to work.  That op-ed of mine is a good place to start. If you want to do something useful to get votes in the Senate and House to stop this war, you need to get off your ass and pick up the phone and call him and persuade him to hop on board your wagon.  Get Ben going, and you’ll get some votes from Texas.  It is that simple.

Erudite speechifying on the Senate floor is a waste of breath these days of historical and cultural illiteracy.  Putting Ben Barnes to work on your side is doing something useful.  I respectfully submit that you should get to work doing that or just shut up.

With my best regards, I remain,

Sincerely Yours,

Daniel N. White

And, of course, there was no response to this letter.  After another month, I sent off a letter to Byrd’s main Charleston, West Virginia office, figuring that maybe someone out in those parts had more sense, manners, and professionalism than his DC office did.

Senator Robert Byrd
Charleston, WV

Dear Senator Byrd,

Enclosed find copies of two previous letters, unanswered, that I sent your DC office.  I am sending you them via your Charleston office out of a scientific experiment I am conducting concerning unanswered Congressional correspondence.  The nature of this experiment is this:  Are all non-constituent letters unanswered, or only the ones that fall into the gravitational pull of the great sinkhole on the Potomac?  Results of this experiment should prove useful in telling Americans not to waste their time in writing to DC offices, or perhaps not to ever bother to write to any elected officials other than their own Representative or Senator.  I’m awaiting the results of this letter to your staff at the Charleston office, which should prove conclusively exactly what the level of futility in communicating to elected officials is these days.

You know, there isn’t but one issue out there these days, and that’s the war.  Ben Barnes, bless his slippery hide, is dead-hard against it and my bet is that you can put him to good useful work on your side if you are willing to get off, or in actuality, on, your ass and pick up a telephone and call him.  Or have you given up trying to do anything to stop the war?

While we’re on the subject, let me remind you again about the failings of the Congressional e-mail system.  The fact that the bright boys and girls who designed the system have it rigged to where I can’t e-mail anyone except my own reps tells me one, or maybe two things.  First is that you don’t really want to bother with e-mail as a means of communication, second is that you just don’t want to be bothered by all those pesky citizens of this republic who have access to the internet who will just bother you dreadfully with all their silly, dumb, and unimportant e-mails.  Like the one I tried to send John Murtha last year to thank and congratulate him when he came out hard against the war.  Could it be the same thinking that goes on amongst y’all when letters are unanswered–can’t argue the postage expense with e-mail, and since y’all have the frank, can’t argue it for paper letters either.  Don’t know, but it is an important question that needs answering.

Sincerely Yours,

Daniel N. White

*LBJ–great politician, but dammit he sure was wrong on this prediction.

So when future historians and -ologists start to look for explanations for why the United States went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continued these wars for years after it was obvious that they were failures and would not achieve their war objectives, the above correspondence may help them explain why.  Our political system is significantly broken at the Congressional level in that correspondence from constituents is for all intents ignored.  Hell, if another Ron Ridenauer wanted to break another My Lai like he did, from writing a bunch of Congressmen like he did, well he’d be SOL.   Some of this might come from a decline in overall reading ability, which is a real problem nationwide.   Mostly though it is an arrogance, distance, and isolation from engagement with anyone outside the beltway that badly afflicts US politics.  And the press has become almost as much of an irrelevance, too.  Ben’s PA assured me that there hadn’t been any contact from any newspaper when I sounded her out on the matter, not letting out to her that I’d submitted the op-ed to every major daily here in the US.  No, nobody in a newsroom reads anymore either.  That, and the fact that they don’t need to be told what to print, or not to print, because they all already know.

But Robert F. Byrd, and his staff, have some answering to do for this.  And I’ll bet anyone, any sum of money they care to name, that once Dandelion Salad prints this, and I make the phone call to Byrd’s office in DC to tell them about it that I still will get no response from him or his staff.  There is no getting around it.  People and events outside the Beltway simply don’t matter to anyone inside it, and that includes the wars’ leading opponent, Robert F. Byrd and the issue of the wars themselves.  Congress, its members and its staffers, are all beyond shame and embarrassment, and are full of contempt for everyone outside their spinning world of politics.  And I resent that like hell, and I resent that the wars continue and that my efforts, my real contribution to ending them is ignored by someone who, and whose staff too, should know, and act better.  Senator Robert F. Byrd, you eat shit.

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