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An Indictment to Remember

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Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent legal troubles recall those of a distant predecessor

By Patricia O’Toole

August 19, 2014


 

Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, was indicted the other day for pressuring the Democratic district attorney of Travis County to resign. He threatened to veto state funds for her office if she didn’t. Democrats saw the move as nakedly partisan. Republicans, pointing out that he made it after the district attorney was arrested for drunk driving, incline toward the view that Perry’s indictment shows how far the degenerates who run this country are willing to go to keep an upstanding public official from doing right by the people. When last heard from, the governor accused his accusers of naked partisanship and announced his determination not to resign or back away from his veto.

The episode sent reporters into the archives for details of the only other indictment, and subsequent impeachment, of a Texas governor, James E. “Pa” Ferguson, back in 1917. Ferguson faced 21 impeachment charges, most of them for financial monkey business. But the offense that really ticked off the legislature was akin to Perry’s: he vetoed virtually every penny the state house had appropriated for the University of Texas. He had his reasons: the university had refused to fire some professors who got on his nerves.

At about that point, Ellen Maury Slayden, the wife of a U.S. congressman from San Antonio happened to be in Austin. She also happened to be the most biting political diarist of her day and could not resist going over to the capitol with the wife of the university’s president to watch the senate open its proceedings against Ferguson. He was not present, and she saw no point in recording details that would be in the newspapers, but her report told all that theirs did not.

The Senate Chamber, when we went into the gallery facing the Speaker, was full of shaded morning sunshine and packed with people in light summer clothes. The floor was such a confusion of colors, form and motion that it was hard to believe it the meeting of a legislative body, much less one assembled for the most solemn crisis the state has ever suffered. The American flag back of the Speaker’s chair with two large flags draped roughly on either side made the one definite point of color. Around the room the row of very bad, dull-colored portraits of the early fathers seemed like so many policemen grimly regarding the tumult without trying to stop it. One of them wears full white trousers like a pirate of the Spanish Main, and the red has faded from the patrician face of Jeff Davis till he looks as if he were nauseated. A portrait of Sam Houston, undressed and clutching anxiously at a slippery toga, has gotten as far in its demotion as the rear wall of the press gallery, so near the door that I hope he will soon escape to the bathroom.

Under the galleries there were men, women, and children from six months up. A space of green carpet surrounded the brown chairs and desks of the Senate proper. The tables were littered with papers, women’s hats and parasols, and many of the chairs were occupied by women and children. Not a few of the men had their feet on the tables. Two Ferguson supporters were smoking cigars. By each table was a large brown spittoon constantly being more or less carefully aimed at. There was a long table, lengthwise of the aisle in front of the Speaker’s chair, and under the forward end of it a big zinc washtub for what purpose I cannot divine. There doesn’t seem even a chance of its holding whitewash for Ferguson.

Senator Dean, the presiding officer, a pleasant-looking man in a gray suit, fidgeted in his chair, and chairs on either side of him were generally occupied by very young pages who sat on the back of their necks and threw their legs first over one chair arm and then the other. …

Crane, attorney for the prosecution, turned a nice phrase in his closing argument. He said that the Governor knew the law, but in obeying it “wished to have a discretion commensurate with his imagination.”

Pa Ferguson, who had already resigned, was convicted of 10 of the 21 counts against him and forever barred from holding state office. Determined to stay in politics, he set his sights on the White House, formed a new party, and ran in 1920. He came in well behind the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, who was in prison at the time. Ferguson had no better luck as a Democratic candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in 1922. Two years later, having exhausted his own options, he ran his wife, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, for governor. Asked during the campaign how she would know what to do, Ma promised to consult Pa. She won by a landslide, and Pa went back to the governor’s mansion in a new role, First Gentleman of Texas. They were turned out in 1926, which was also the year that Ellen Slayden died. In the 1930s the Fergusons talked the voters of Texas into one more term of Ma rule. Pa died in 1944, and Ma lived on until 1961. The diarist had the last word. Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden From 1897–1919, was published in 1962. “Frank and witty,” the dust jacket says, and that was true but insufficient. Slayden was brassy. Indignant. Unawed. And above all, knowing. Whoever you were, she had your number. Anybody seriously wondering how the Republic (or the Republic of Texas, for that matter) came by its tatters might want to look her up.

Patricia O’Toole is a contributing editor of The American Scholar and a professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The author of The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends and When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, she is now at work on a book about Woodrow Wilson.


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