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Interview with: Governor Mark White
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: November 23, 2009
DG: Today is November 10, 2009. We are in the River Oaks Bank Building at the corner of San Felipe and Kirby Drive with Governor Mark White where he is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Sir?
MW: Fine, David.
DG: Let’s begin where we always begin – at the beginning. Tell us where you were born and those early memories.
MW: I was born in Henderson, Texas. I do not remember the . . . my mother taught school at Gaston and the hospital was in Henderson. My father worked on the WPA Project in east Texas and Henderson was where I was born. I lived there for a couple of years and then moved to Houston in 1942.
DG: How far away was Henderson?
MW: It is about a 4-1/2 hour drive now. Probably about that same amount then. Slower cars.
DG: What kind of stuff did you enjoy when you were a young boy?
MW: Well, actually, it was right at the beginning of the war, my first memories. During the War, Dad was in Houston and could not find a place for us to stay. He was a shipfitter at the shipyards here in Houston. They built Liberty ships. My mother taught school in Lastonia which is up in Houston County, a little bitty crossroad school, one building. She taught first grade there. We lived down on the Trinity River bottom with my grandparents, her parents. I can remember when Dad would come up and visit, he would come up and spend the weekend there and then, when he would leave, of course, I would hide in the car and try to go back to Houston with him.
DG: Great. So what are your earliest memories of Houston then, other than it being the place you wanted to go to with your dad?
MW: Well, my earliest memories are living at the house on Kipling Street, 1624 Kipling. My sister still owns the house. He was renting it at the time and after the war, I think – I am not sure, but I think they paid $7500 to buy it and paid that over 20-30 years. Today, I think the taxes are many times more than that, so you can see that things have changed quite a bit but the neighborhood is still very nice.
DG: Of course, a lot of what we are going to talk about today took place in Austin and outside of Houston but this particular project focuses on Houston so I want to spend some time talking about Houston during those years when you were young. What was Houston like during the war years? What do you remember in terms of shortages, in terms of what you did for fun?
MW: Well, I remember they had coupons that they would use to buy things including food. And so, they could only buy so much. You saved your coupons and you didn’t . . . everybody ate everything that was on their plate. We did not throw any food away, which may account for my size today. One of the first memories I have is going off to school at Woodrow Wilson. I would be 6 years old and that would be in 1946. I remember just vaguely things before then that occurred and growing up in that neighborhood. Houston was a very stable society in spite of the war. The people I went to elementary school with, many of them are still friends today, our little class went all the way through elementary school and Woodrow Wilson. Then we went to junior high school at Sidney Lanier and then on to Lamar High School. We just had our 50th anniversary graduating from Lamar here the other day and some of those kids, many of them, were the ones I started off in the first grade with.
DG: Interesting. So, what did you guys do for fun?
MW: Oh, we got in all sorts of mischief! Back in those days, you know, everybody seemed to smoke. When I go over to Hugo’s which is a very fine restaurant here on Westheimer, I point out if you will look at that front door as you walk in the front door of Hugo’s, it used to be the backside of Maddings Drug Store. A friend of mine, Larry Eason, and I bought a pack of Camels one day when I think we were in about the fourth grade. Can you imagine? We puffed on those cigarettes until they were all gone. And, of course, with less than 10 seconds after I walked in the house, my mother asked if I had been smoking. It was hard to deny it because you could smell me before you could see me. Anyway, that was the first time I quit smoking right there that day. We walked everywhere, of course. It was nothing for us to walk to the River Oaks Theater or to the Tower Theater to the Alabama Theater. The fact is I think our house was the perfect house in all of Houston because literally 2, 3, 4, 5 blocks away, we could go to all these great entertainment centers. The Fun Club on Saturday morning, I think it was 9 cents to get in. Mother and Dad would give me a quarter and that was all I needed for the whole show. You could get your little bag of popcorn, the Holloway sucker and pay your 9 cents and you were done. Of course, you never could get rid of that Holloway sucker! I think some of those wound up on the seat next to us.
DG: What was the connection with the door of Hugo’s and the smoking?
MS: Well, Hugo’s now, the front door of Hugo’, used to be the back door of Maddings Drug Store so I bought the cigarettes over on the Westheimer side and walked around the back of Hugo’s, sat down and puffed on them.
DG: So you graduated from Houston public schools?
DG: Decided to go to Baylor.
DG: What led to that decision?
MW: Well, my mother had gone to Baylor and both of her brothers had so that kind of made it easy. That is where they were going to pay for me to go. I took off there in 1958, went all through undergraduate school and then on to law school there as well.
DG: So the war had ended and then you were a young boy during those years. What was post-war Houston like? The shortages were over?
MW: Well, yes, the shortages were over. It was a boom town. People were talking about how big Houston was going to be. My grandfather lived over on Park Street. Mother taught school. Her school was over on the east end. It was Elliott Elementary School and Pugh Elementary School which were predominantly Hispanic schools. She loved teaching those kids. My school got out at the same time as hers did so I would walk over to my grandparents’ house and spend the afternoon with them. Sometimes we would play ball after the school was out there at Woodrow Wilson. Also there was Cherryhurst Park which is really a wonderful little park off behind Westheimer and about 1 block from Hugo’s Restaurant. We used to play lots of summer sports over there. Had a great time.
DG: You mentioned Hispanic kids. What was the climate like in terms of diversity for kids?
MW: It was very diverse. We had I think one Jewish girl and the rest were Anglos. That was the diversity in 1946. We had no Hispanics that I recall at all at Woodrow Wilson. In junior high school, I think we had a few but they were not in my class. At Lamar High School, there was one Hispanic there who was a great golfer at Lamar High School. I am going to get you his name here in just a second.
DG: It will come when you quit thinking about it.
MW: It slips my mind.
DG: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
MW: My dad was a salesman and during the 1950s, he was selling some tools, industrial tools. And so, he took Mother and my sister and I and we went on trips that started off here and went all across the south. We stopped in every state capital. He would spend about 1 week there and we would go do all the sights. We wound up in Washington, D.C., went through Williamsburg, Virginia, and that is where I kind of got enthused with all the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, all of the things that occurred as a result of our wonderful history in this country and what a prominent role the lawyers played. And, of course, my own uncle was a lawyer and we had a half dozen other lawyers in the family so that was kind of a natural occurrence.
DG: All right. So you are at Baylor now. What was your undergraduate degree?
MW: I had a business degree, BBA, and my major was economics and political science which is not exactly business but it was close enough.
DG: And then you stayed at Baylor for law school?
MW: Yes, I then went into law school.
DG: So you get out of law school in 1965? Is that the year you got out?
MW: Yes, I graduated in 1965, passed the bar. I was 1A, unmarried, the Vietnam War was going strong and nobody wanted to hire me. Judge Crickhammer (sp?), who was a friend of our family’s and his daughter and I had gone all through elementary school and even into Baylor together, invited me to come down and let him appoint me to some indigent defendants that were being accused of crime and he appointed me to the first person down there. He said, “I am going to appoint you a lawyer here, Mark White, and let him advise you of your rights.” And so, I went over and had a long visit with my client and his charges and I told him what the State had proposed to offer him as a guilty plea and he said, “I did not do it.” Well, that stunned me and also the Judge and so we got up and pled not guilty and it stunned the Judge even more. He appointed another lawyer, a senior lawyer, to make sure that I did not get too far off the trail. We defended our client. They let me pick the jury and try the case and we got a not guilty from the jury. When he went back up into the jail, of course, I became a very popular lawyer with all those defendants who had no lawyers and could not afford one, so it was an interesting experience.
DG: That is great. Interesting story.
MW: My friend’s name was Homer Blancas. He was one of the great golfers in all of golf and we became very good friends there at Lamar High School.
DG: I told you it would come to you.
MW: Yes, it did.
DG: Yes, Sir. So give us the chronology now. You are in Houston now, you are practicing law. Criminal law?
MW: Well, actually, they asked me where my office was and I said it was in the back seat of my Volkswagen. All my clients were in jail so they could not visit me and so I literally practice law kind of out of the back seat of that Volkswagen. And then, I did that until it came time to get . . . I was about to get drafted because it was about to change to being 26 years of age and they were going to draft you before I made 26 so I went and joined the National Guard. The minute I was sworn in the National Guard, that kind of changed everything as far as draft status was concerned but yet, no private practice lawyer wanted to hire you because they did not know when you were going to get called up. So my Uncle Stone Wells helped me get a job with the Attorney General’s office. Waggoner Carr was the Attorney General and they hired me up there, put me to work. I worked there until I had to go off to basic training and then returned back to the Attorney General’s office and served a full 3 years there. I then came back to Houston in private practice in 1969.
DG: Your 3 years as Assistant Attorney General in what division? What kind of cases?
MW: It was the Bonds, Insurance and Banking Division. You represent people who issued bonds in Texas – you oversee those bonds from the political subdivisions. You also represent the banking department, savings and loan department, and 2 or 3 others, securities department. One of the jobs of the banking commissioner back then was to oversee the preneed funeral burials that are sold before you die. And so the guy has to put some money in trust and they have to set aside a plot and make sure that everything is right, so one of those jobs is to go out and search the cemeteries and make sure that the vaults are in place. It was a far cry from what I thought being a lawyer was going to be for the state. I had a different crusader’s view of it. That was just one part of the job.
DG: So you returned to Houston in 1969. Tell us about the Houston . . . you came here in the early 1940s, you saw it in the 1950s . . . what was Houston in the 1960s?
MW: In the late 1960s, Houston was truly a boom town. I mean, downtown Houston was kind of like you did not have room to walk down the sidewalks. The oil business was going great and everything was booming. All the restaurants were full. We had new buildings going up. The Tenneco Building was relatively new. We had the Shell Buildings, Shell One and Shell Two downtown were being constructed about that time. Houston was a great place to be. It was a great place to practice law. I think Houston probably has and maybe still does some of the greatest lawyers in this country. And so, we were in there rubbing shoulders with great lawyers – Percy Foreman, Race Horse Haynes and Joe Jamail – just wonderful people and a wonderful experience.
DG: Now, at some point, we’ve got to get from being a lawyer to being a governor so where did the politics kick in?
MW: Well, this is a long story. It kind of starts . . . they asked me how you got to be governor and I said, “Well, I think I got to be governor because of the Battle of Iwo Jima.” And everybody looks at you like what in the world are you talking about? But it was two people – Joe Reynolds who was the senior partner in my law firm and a guy named Calvin Guest (sp?), both of whom were in the Marine Corps and both of whom fought at Iwo Jima. They got to know each other. After the war, Joe Reynolds became a successful lawyer here with the law firm Bracewell, Reynolds & Patterson, later split off to be Reynolds, White, Allen & Cook, and that was another White, Bill White, who was that White, not me. They were friends. Calvin Guest went off to be in the State Auditor’s office. He worked and got to know a guy named Dolph Briscoe. Dolph Briscoe was running for governor -- the second time he ran for governor in 1972 – and Calvin calls Joe and says, “I’ve got to have a lawyer up here. Send me a lawyer up here.” So, I don’t know, maybe I was the least useful lawyer they had but he sent me to Austin to help on the campaign for Governor Briscoe. I had done a lot of educational law work back then, sat through interminable school board meetings, all of which occur at night and they go on and on and on. So I have had plenty of school board education. And so, I went up and helped Governor Briscoe on his educational programs before the election and then after the election, he asked me to serve as Secretary of State. I thought at first he was asking me to be the Assistant Secretary of State and I told him I had already been Assistant Attorney General and I was not interested, and then he said, “No, I want you to be Secretary of State.” I said, “Well, that’s a different deal!” So with my wife, Linda Gail’s approval and support, I accepted that appointment and served him from 1973 to 1977, I guess, when I resigned. He was one of the great governors in this state’s history.
After I resigned from that, I ran for Attorney General and then after a very tough race against Price Daniel, Jr., who was a friend of mine from Baylor Law School, his father was a prominent Baylor ex who had been governor, Speaker of the House, U.S. senator, Supreme Court Justice, and our families had known each other for a long time, we were fortunate to be successful on that campaign, ran against Jim Baker who was one of the oldest family members of the Houston hierarchy . . . you get to know your opponent very quickly. He is one of the finest people Houston has ever produced and has been a great contributor to this country. We were successful. As he often said when I was governor and he would come over as Secretary of the Treasury and speak to the governors, he would always point me out as the one that made it possible for him to be Secretary of the Treasury because he had lost the attorney general’s race. I do not think it hurt him very much. It seemed that he profited very greatly because of his successes that followed.
Anyway, I then was fortunate to be attorney general and held that office for 4 years, decided to run for governor against what many people thought were impossible odds and because of the fortuities of that time, we were fortunate and won the election for governor. Served there for 4 years. Ran for a second term during the worst of times. We had, I think, 10% or 12% unemployment, $9 oil, we had run a deficit in our budget, we had to raise taxes 2 months before the election. I was just pleased they did not shoot me before I left office. But in any event, we had a great time there in Austin.
DG: You were appointed to office a couple of times and then you ran for office. What was that first election like?
MW: Well, let me say, it was kind of like a lot of things you do – you can study it all you want but until you do it, you don’t know what you are doing. Running for office is a full-time job. It is the toughest job I have ever had. It is one that focuses your attention . . . I guess if you were rich, it would make it a great deal easier but not only did I have to run for office, I had to spend time raising money so I could continue the race on television and radio and transportation and hiring the people you hire. So it concentrates your mind and it takes all your time. Fortunately, we were young enough and had the energy and the friends that were willing to spend time out there saying good things about us and we were fortunate to win that primary. We were expected to win the fall election because democrats had always won but when you are up against a Jim Baker who was well-funded, we did not have time for any parties or any vacations. We ran straight on through that fall and we were fortunate to win.
DG: Now, you knew Waco a little bit from school and you knew Houston but how do you go from that knowledge to running for a statewide office?
MW: Well, one of the things that Governor Briscoe did not enjoy doing a great deal and I do not think I am speaking out of turn here was he enjoyed his family, he enjoyed being with his wife – Janie was his ever-present friend – and he enjoyed his ranch, and when you are governor, you work full-time all day and then the rest of the time, they want you to come speak at every little crossroads in Texas because they want to see the governor. Well, oftentimes, I would get a call late in the afternoon down at my office in the Secretary of State’s office and I would hear the governor’s voice, he said, “Mark, I wondered if you could go speak to the Chamber of Commerce over in Lufkin, Texas, for me tonight. I am not able to go.” And it might be a valid excuse of having the legislature in session or whatever it was but let me assure you, it is tough duty to get on an airplane and fly over to the Chamber of Commerce dinner in Lufkin, Texas or any other town where they had been working for several months now to make sure there is going to be a great crowd to honor our governor and then when the plane door opens, it is not the governor, it is this kid from the Secretary of State’s office who shows up. Well, you’ve got to be pretty fast on your feet just to avoid the lynch mob, you know, have a good excuse and then you’ve got to give them your best shot. So, after a while, that became a more easily adaptable situation where I could go and speak to these groups that were not looking for you to begin with and try to turn them around and make them think that our governor is doing a good job and, by the way, that secretary of state is a heck of a guy! I had a little help, too. The secretary of state is the chief elections officer in the state so you get to know all the county clerks and all the assessor collectors. You get to know the courthouse. So that was a big help.
DG: I understand. Well, let’s talk about your term as governor. What issues did you run on first? Let’s start there.
MW: Well, when I was attorney general, and this was all started over the question of what the federal government was doing to our state’s economy. They passed what was called the Fuel Use Act which said that we could not use natural gas to generate electricity. “Well, that is our cheapest resource? What are we going to generate electricity with?” “Well, you are going to have to have coal.” “Where do you get the coal?” Well, we had some lignite here but most of the coal we were going to have to import from up in the northwest, in Montana, and then Wyoming. And then, we had to haul it by train to places like San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth and Dallas and there, the coal would be burned to generate the electricity. Along comes those two states seeing a great opportunity for their treasuries, they put a big severance tax on coal in Wyoming and in Montana and so as attorney general, I ran on the promise that I will sue Montana and I will sue Wyoming because they essentially had us by the throats. We had to buy their coal so now they raised the severance tax where we could not say no and that that was an unconstitutional burden on Texas. My opponent said he would not sue and my commitment to do that kind of put up the situation where, “I will fight for Texas. My opponent won’t.” Well, that is what Texans I think always want is someone to fight for their state. We get elected attorney general. Then, in the gubernatorial race, we still had, in that case, an administration that I felt like was not properly working to hold down the cost of electricity to our consumers and they had passed a rule which called for the automatic adjustment of your electric bill based on fuel cost increases that occurred. Well, what that said was to our utility companies, we don’t care what you pay for gas, we don’t care what you pay for coal, we don’t care whether you fight or not for lower prices. Whatever they charge you, you can just pass it on through to the customer. The next month, I did not think that was fair so I said, “We are going to abolish that way of doing things, force the utility companies back into negotiating for prices and if there is an increase, they are going to have to eat it.” Well, that puts them up on the side of the free market – by gosh, let’s negotiate. They are back interested in it again, and for the first time in modern regulated history of Texas, in the regulated utility industry, we saw a decline in the price of electricity to the average consumer in Texas over a statewide basis. It was not much but let me say, when the rates were going this way, to see any decline was a big shift. So that was a big issue and that is what we worked hard to do for Texas.
The other issues, of course, were education, transportation, and then, because we had a declining price of oil which represented about 22% of our total state revenue with severance taxes off oil sales, that declining price from about $25 a barrel for oil down to $9 a barrel, we had to raise taxes twice in order to make sure that we did not have to close our schools, quit building roads, and quit providing services for the people. That was not easy.
DG: You were pretty active in the field of education during your term as governor. Would you care to speak about your accomplishments in that area?
MW: Well, when I first took office, we had promised the teachers an increase in pay. It was something that was . . . they were getting, I believe at that time around $11,110 a year of state support for our teachers. Now local districts supplemented those numbers somewhat but not much. So a pay raise for a teacher was very important. Legislature, even wit the budget that they had at the end of that first session, they did not have a significant pay raise for teachers and they were not going to raise the pay. They had spent the money. And so, I had a meeting with the Speaker, Gib Lewis, and with the Lieutenant Governor, Bill Hobby who is also one of Houston’s great families and one of the best lieutenant governors Texas ever had. We sat down and figured out what should we do to go forward to accomplish what we promised and we set out a commission made up of leading citizens around the state to study the issue of education from top to bottom, making recommendations for a special session of the legislature which would occur in about 1 year. That commission was headed by Ross Perot. You had Charles Duncan, another Houstonian and a great family and a great leader here in this state, was a former assistant secretary of defense, served as vice-chairman or co-chairman of that commission. They came back with recommendations that were very well thought out and very well planned. We took those recommendations and I called a special session of the legislature and within a 30 day period, they passed not only the recommendations by and large as they were made and also a tax increase to pay for the expenses of it and we in Texas had the broadest and deepest educational reform package of any state in the nation before that time and since that time.
DG: There was also improvement at the student level, wasn’t there, in terms of SAT score improvement?
MW: Yes. SAT scores . . . and, by the way, almost every one of those improvements that we passed which called for duty free lunch periods for teachers, full day kindergarten for our students, early childhood education programs, intensive English instruction programs for our non-English speaking students – almost every since one of those pieces of that package happened to be exactly what my mother suggested needed to be done every day when she would come home from teaching the first grade at Elliott Elementary School or Pugh or Grady or Briargrove. So it is amazing how, if you will listen to your teachers, you can probably get the right answer of what needs to be done. But after the study and the good work they did, we got it done.
DG: That’s great. No Pass No Play is something you had been associated with during that term.
MW: Well, let me say, No Pass No Play was an important feature because as I told some people back then, I thought possibly the reason I may be did not play football was because I did not pass my courses but I looked back and sure enough, I had passed all my courses and I guess it was because I was not a very good football player. I did not weight but about 140 pounds maybe so I am sure that was part of it. But in any event, no pass no play, we passed and it was a call for 6 weeks, at the end of the 6 weeks testing period, if you did not pass everything with a C or better, then you sat out for 6 weeks. The coaches went crazy. They just went crazy, except for my coach there where my kids were going at Austin High School. I asked him how No Pass No Play was going to affect them and he said, “Mark, I am 0 and 4 right now and No Pass No Play cannot get here soon enough. There is nothing that can hurt our team.”
DG: That is great. You were credited with adding more minorities to state government during your administration as well. Was that a conscious priority?
MW: Yes, it was. It was one of those things that when I first started working in the Attorney General’s office in 1965, I met Harry Gee who is now a prominent lawyer here in Houston. He was an Asian American. We had just a handful of Hispanics, probably an even smaller number of African Americans on the staff of the Attorney General’s office and when I became Secretary of State, it was almost all Anglo. We started hiring some part-time students that were students of my wife and her high school course that she taught was an office education course, so we would take a couple of students for half a day and they would go to school for half a day. By the time I left the Secretary of State’s office, these young girls were working full-time in the Secretary of State’s office and when I left the Governor’s office years later, one of those young ladies was actually the head of all the corporate filings for all the securities that are registered at the Secretary of State’s office. So I think it was clear that when you open the door to all of the people of our state, that there are many who have been unable to make contributions that were very valuable to the future of Texas.
DG: I am not sure where this fits in your sense of priority during that period but I understand you appeared on Dallas, the CBS popular drama? What was that like?
MW: Well, it was probably one of the briefest parts anybody played in that series but I went up and talked at the rodeo that day. It was on the site at the set. I talked about Texas. Just because of that little clip, I was getting royalty payments of $5 here and $4 there depending on how many times that particular segment was reviewed. I have not gotten any in a long time. I do not know if they quit showing it or if they just did not know where I was living to send the check.
DG: The Texas Sesquicentennial occurred during your administration. For people who do not remember that, what was that occasion?
MW: Well, it was the 150th anniversary of the independence of Texas and it was a fun time. We had Sesquicentennial celebrations throughout the state in every community. Everybody did what they wanted to do. We suggested that they just participate and we had a great time. Prince Charles came over and participated in the ceremonies. It was, I think, a very interesting time for all Texans.
DG: I found an interesting quote in researching for this interview from the Corpus Christi Caller Times. It talked about your tenure as governor. They said, “He has performed like a big leaguer during 4 of the roughest years any Texas governor has faced in recent memory.” What made it the roughest years in recent memory?
MW: Well, I think it was because of, literally, the collapse of the oil economy affected Texas just worst than anything we have seen at that time since the Great Depression. This was a result of what we can look back now and see was part of our government’s effort to flood the world market to knock out the Russian revenues that were coming to them and others, and the Saudis were very cooperative and I was very disappointed that the administration in Washington did not support our domestic oil price. All we asked for was do not let the price fall so low that we start to shut in wells in Texas. And I asked them to hold the price at $15 a barrel. They did not do it. We lost a lot of oil that was shut in because of that and it was a terrible shame. It could have been different. At one point in that, I think Texas or the US is probably the only country of any consequence in the world in which the people own the majority of the oil. Most other countries – Saudi Arabia, Russia, offshore parts of the North Sea – all of that is owned by governments. And so, they set policy based on what is in their best interest. In the United States and Texas is an example, when you have the owner of the minerals producing those minerals, government policy imposed on them has dramatic impact and as a result, we were at the whim of our own government and our own government at that time was more interested in what was happening internationally and it did not hurt our economy domestically in this country when the price of oil went down. Everybody else but Texas and Oklahoma and Louisiana, by and large, prospered. When the price of oil went up in the 1970s, those other parts of the country were suffering. So you can do the math on how that worked out.
DG: There were a few other things that happened, significant things that happened during your tenure as governor. Hurricane Alicia hit Houston, killed 21 people. What are your memories of that?
MW: Well, every governor is kind of given some pre-governor training on what to do in a disaster and one of the things you do is be prepared as best you can to help the people that are going to be impacted as quickly as you can. And we did that. And just as other governors have as well here in the state, we made a tour of the area that had been hit hardest. Much of Alicia had gone right straight up Highway 59. And so, we toured all through from Conroe back down towards Houston. And what we saw were the energies of the people of our state getting out in their streets and out of their homes and starting to cut down the trees that had been blown over and removing debris and cleaning up. We had National Guard troops in there as well helping to relieve the suffering of the people and bring supplies to them. I got a call from one of my friends over in River Oaks and he said, “Governor, you’ve got to get down here and help us.” I said, “What’s the problem?” He said, “We’ve got trees down all over River Oaks and our maids and help can’t get in.” And I said, “Well, George, just go get your chainsaw out and start cutting those trees down like people all over the rest of the city did.” He thought for a minute and he said, “We don’t have any chainsaws.” Anyway, they made it without difficulty.
DG: The savings and loan crisis. It, of course, dominated so much of the memories of people who lived through it. What was your perspective of that _____?
MW: Well, if you will look at the savings and loan crisis carefully, it came about when the laws were changed to let savings and loans participate in the loan that they were making. So, in effect, they became a lender to the applicant for the loan and then they became a participant in the loan. And so, they were on both sides of the transaction. Greed has no bounds when it comes apparently to making money in the financial industry and, as a result, we saw those savings and loans loaning money outside of their territories on projects that were outside of their expertise in which everybody seemed to be making money until all at once, the market collapsed as well as the savings and loans and then we saw this bail out which was unfortunate here in Texas in which they wiped out almost every major financial institution in Texas. And it should not have been that way. The New York money center banks were very aggressive in trying to buy up these assets and they got them at a deep discount. Texas suffered mightily because of the federal government policies and the way in which they handled that. For example, at the very time they were letting the Texas banks go under because of a depressed value of the assets in the banks and the savings and loans, the money center banks in new York, if they had been required to mark all of their assets to market, they would have been going under as well because they had loaned money to Brazil and to Argentina, all of which had fallen in value and certainly I think loans to Texans are more valuable than loans made by money center banks in New York to foreign countries.
DG: The Challenger Disaster occurred on your watch as governor, too. Any memories of that?
MW: Right, I do. President Reagan came down and led a ceremony at NASA memorializing the death of those people who had been part of our mission to the moon, mission to space, and it was an attack right here in the heart of Houston, so to speak. It was part of our culture. Those people were immortal in our eyes in that nothing could go wrong -- we were always going to be successful in space. And we had this tragedy occur and brought us back to ground and realized how fragile life is and how really truly brave, heroic people they were to risk their lives going into space.
DG: With the perspective of time, looking back on your term a governor, what are you most proud of?
MW: Well, I think the education reforms is the main thing that succeeds a governor. To have young people come up today and say, “Thank you for No Pass No Play,” to have teachers come up and say: “Thank you for the benefits that you gave to retired teachers back when it was tough to raise money;” to have people who say, “Yes, I did not get to play football but we were able to pass.” “What are you doing now?” “Well, I am a doctor.” So that is kind of nice.
DG: Yes, Sir. So you defeated Governor Clements but weren’t so lucky the second time around.
MW: Well, I am not too sure I wasn’t so lucky the second time around because he is the one who said, “We will never pass any new taxes.” Now you can look as a Democrat in the face of those fiscal conservative Republicans and say without fear of flinching that the Republicans in Texas passed the largest tax bill in the history of our state in spite of their oath not to do it.
DG: What do you think the issue was that cost you that election?
MW: Well, there were so many you could pick up. We did a lot of things. We changed a lot of things in Texas. We told those farmers and ranchers in west Texas that they had to put seatbelts on. Of course, even back in those days, that seatbelt law was saving the life of about 1 person every day and has continued to be a saving of lives for all these years I the interim. We had No Pass No Play which told these kids in rural Texas primarily where sports are even more important that I did not want “hut” to be the first integer that the learned. I wanted them to learn “1, 2, 3, 4” not “hut, 2, 3, 4.” And so, they were disappointed. If they won, they did not get any credit for that; if they lost because they were all afraid they were going to get booted out of the sports program. So we made them mad. We made coaches mad. We made teachers mad. Here is the interesting thing: We had the biggest pay raise I think either before or since for the teachers. The Legislature would not pass the pay raise without a test being imposed on the teachers. It was a 9th grade reading comprehension test. I will never forget one of my staff saying, “Mark, do you want to give this money to these teachers before they take the test or afterwards?” I said, “Give it to them right away. They need the money.” Big mistake on my part. By the time they got around to taking the test, they had forgotten about the money. And so, they were just mad at me about the test. I raised taxes on everybody in the state because the price of oil had gone down so much, we would have had to close the state down. Well, I thought it was better to have everybody share a little bit in the pain, so we raised taxes. One tax I raised, I should not have. It was the tax on license plates, your car tags. We put about 20 some odd dollars more tax. Well, that was the only tax in Texas that you paid with a check by and large and we also made it where it would be easier on our tax assessor collector so they do not have to do it all in the month of January. We put one-tenth of them or one-twelfth of them out every month. So I just systematically made one-twelfth of the people who paid their car tags mad every month and, of course, they spent the whole month telling their neighbors about it who, the next month, got to do the same. So, like I said, I was pleased that I was not shot, I was just defeated!
DG: Now, you took one more round at the governorship in 1990 in the Primary. Lost to Ann Richards.
MW: We did, and lost that campaign largely because of a TV spot in which, at the last days, the polls showed me to be in the lead by 1 or 2 points and Ann Richards had a TV spot that attacked our other opponent, Jim Maddox, and she had some harsh things to say about him which did not hurt me very much. I was kind of thinking how nice that was. But then, she fouled up by saying some very harsh things about me which were not true and as a result, I got the cumulative effect of what she said about Jim Maddox and me because I was the last one she talked about. Jim Maddox did not lose, I do not think a point or 2. I lost about 10 points in about 5 days which shows you the impact of television on a campaign. But we later, after it was all said and done, were civil and cordial with each other up until her death.
DG: So, what have you been doing ever since?
MW: Well, a variety of things. It has been kind of an interesting experience. I came back to practice law and found out that it did not have the same lure for me that it did before. I was primarily on the telephone talking to people and that was not quite like being in the courtroom interrogating a witness or talking to a jury. And so, I went into the security business which I thought was an interesting area because at that time and continues today, our border security was awful, our prisons were not doing a terribly good job around the country of keeping people in prison so I had an occasion to license some equipment from Oakridge National Laboratory that detects people hiding in vehicles without having to physically search the vehicle. It listens for the heartbeat that is generated from someone hiding in a vehicle. It is very sensitive equipment. It uses geophones like you have in the geophysical industry and it will catch someone in a truck in less than 1 minute. We have them now deployed all over Europe and the Far East. We have them in many of the more secure facilities here in this country. We have some in the Texas Department of Corrections. NORRad has it. We do not have any on our border which is a shame because they are doing it in other parts of the world and it works beautifully.
DG: Do you miss politics?
MW: I enjoy politics. I am still active as much as I can be. They asked me if I missed being governor. I said, “I miss it every day except for one day and that is payday.” But no, that was a wonderful experience and it is something that you know going in, you are not going to be there forever so you treasure every moment of it. You try to do as much as you can because you do not know how long you will be there and I am very proud of the record that we set in the 4 years that we were given the opportunity to serve the people.
DG: You started in Houston and then you . . . of course, those were statewide offices. Is there a perception of Houston in Austin either at the Legislature or around the state that is tangible, that you can speak to? How are we perceived as Houstonians?
MW: Well, the Legislature thinks that Houston asks for too much. I know Dallas feels that way. Fort Worth and San Antonio do. And quite frankly, Bill Hobby from Houston and Mark White from Houston, when we were in office together, we thought that Houston got exactly what they deserved which was as much as we could give them. And let me say, Bill Hobby, there is no greater benefactor to the University of Houston than Bill Hobby and I am very happy to have been the governor that got to sign the appropriation bill that gave U of H some very significant increases in tough times for educational purposes.
DG: So you are back in Houston now, sort of where it began. A question that we ask everybody in this project is if you can discern a unique spirit or attitude about the city of Houston, and if so, how would you describe that spirit?
MW: The spirit in Houston is one of openness. The fact that people like my family could come here, I had uncles that came here, became lawyers, went to the top of their profession . . . my father came here with no education other than a GED. With hard work, was able to put kids through school. The spirit of openness here . . . in other communities around the country, they do not ask you where you are from, they ask you what area code were you born in or what zip code you lived in. Houston does not care where you came from as long as you can do the job, it is an open city. Most people are trying to figure out what Houston does that makes it so successful, but you can look at other communities around the country, you can look at places that have grown and have not grown and what it really boils down to is the leadership of the people in this community. The leadership of Jesse Jones, the leadership of the Cullens; for that matter, the leadership of the Hobby family. They were open. They were not trying to hold onto everything they had. They were willing to give and share and by dividing, they multiplied. And so, Houston has been the beneficiary of that brand of leadership. You see other communities in which the wealthy people held onto it, did not want anybody else in there, don’t want to grow, why would you want to change? Houston was not afraid of change, they were not afraid of the future. We were aggressive. We were fortunate to have the leadership of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn and a whole host of Democrats back at the time when President Kennedy designated Houston as kind of the headquarters of NASA. That made a big impact on Houston. That ship channel that was dug 50 miles up from the Gulf, that was a great stroke. As contrasted with Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, they wanted to canalize the Trinity River and everybody fought it. They wanted to have a port. And then, we came along and had the DFW Airport. Fort Worth wanted it but Dallas did not. Right now, DFW Airport is the biggest financial base of probably any single industry in any city across the country. It is just huge the impact it has had upon the DFW, Dallas-Fort Worth area. Dallas would be a very different city but for the government forcing them to have DFW. So sometimes what we ask for is not necessarily the best thing but Houston has been blessed with good leadership, visionary business people who were willing to invite others in to share in this future.
DG: You were governor through some tough economic times. These are tough economic times. What do you see for our future?
MW: Charge. Go forward. Don’t retreat. I think we are going to be great. I notice that Texans are looking to make tier 1 universities out of University of Houston and others -- Texas Tech and others around Texas. That is exactly the right thing to be doing. You build on education. The more investments you make in education, the better the reward is for the future of our state.
DG: Yes, Sir. Well, in conclusion, is there anything you were hoping to say, anything you were hoping to share with us I was not smart enough to ask you?
MW: Well, I am just sorry I did not remember Homer Blancas’ name but I will assure you that that was as close to a great golfer as I have ever been. I had golf clubs but I could never play golf like that guy could. He was a genuinely fine person and just another example of what opportunities we have in Houston for people from all places in life. It is a great city.
DG: Governor White, thank you for your time.
MW: Thank you. I enjoyed it.