For its latest book club selection, Points — the Dallas Morning News‘ Sunday editorial section — chose Bryan Burrough’s vivid and worthwhile history of Texas oil families, The Big Rich. And on Sunday, a half-dozen writers — including Burrough himself — filled up more than two pages of the section with thoughts about the Hunt, Cullen, Murchison, Bass and Richardson families, what their gung-ho-for-oil era meant to Texas in general and America’s energy industry in particular, what it meant for the popular image of fat-cat Texans, what it meant for Dallas as a can-do kind of city.
As one might expect, there was a lot of nostalgia for inspiring, larger-than-life, world-changing Texas characters, the usual mythic stereotypes. And there was a very strong hankering for Dallasites to Think Big again. Actually, a strong case can be made that “thinking big” is what has often gotten Dallas into trouble. Consider the Trinity River project, Victory Park or the Convention Center hotel. In Frontburner, Wick Allison — hardly a small-is-beautiful liberal — argues that what we need with the hotel is not another bleached-concrete megalopolis but a lot of little stuff, what urban planners call “fill-in.” I would expand this argument to include most of downtown, especially the Arts District. It’s the bookstores, dry cleaners, cafes, trees, bakeries, walkways, affordable and accessible (non-gated) housing that make a city livable and attractive.
But back to Points. It’s revealing that the Points writers fill up more than 100 inches of column space but never once mention certain subjects by name, including: the rise of the hard-right conservative movement, particularly Christian conservatives, in the Republican Party, the Dixiecrats bolting the Democratic Party and taking all the diehard Southern segregationists, Joseph McCarthy and his demagogic anti-Communism, the promulgation of cheap petroleum as the world’s primary (and dwindling) energy source and finally, regular political influence-buying for the wealthy and the huge expansion in presidential campaign contributions.
If our Texas oil rich didn’t start these, they helped bankroll them all in a major way. One could argue that several of these phenomena would never have reached the national level (or would have taken a lot longer to do so) without the influx of millions from our own big boys. Regardless of one’s political stand on these matters, it’s a fact that the petro-wealthy have been huge players on the national scene, having had a hand in electing most of our presidents the past fifty years — from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush. America’s energy policy has been directly shaped by these Texans.
None of this got a real airing on Sunday.
Of course, Burrough wrote The Big Rich partly to give the oil millionaires a more balanced portrait, something beyond that long-running favorite, H. L. Hunt as the right-wing crank case who supposedly bankrolled the Kennedy assassination. But Burrough does not shrink from dcoumenting, say, the Big Rich’s livid segregationist ideas and influence, even as he extols these families’ efforts in transforming a poor, backward state into a major economic engine on the world stage.
To be sure, columnist William McKenzie, for one, does note that the Big Rich’s “views on minorities — racial and religious — were atrocious. The Texas culture that dominated was perverted and distorted.” But these remarks are mostly in the service of his argument that that’s no longer our Texas, the Texas of the future.
In short, Points generally didn’t disappoint when it came to framing a fascinating, complex, sometimes ugly and still-highly pertinent history — in pretty much the anodyne way one might expect from the section.