- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

By Bryan Burrough
Penguin, $29.95, 464 pages, illus.

Ah, the fickleness of American public opinion. A bit more than half-century or so ago, the “Texas oil man” was the media/Hollywood embodiment of the uncouth, ignorant bore who no civilized person would have over for white wine. These illiterate bumpkins dripped with money, flaunted outsized cars and egos, and preached nutty political ideas.

But, by golly, as one of these rubes might have put it, they produced oil. Lots of it. Consider World War II, when U.S. oil imports consisted of the occasional tanker from Mexico. As Bryan Burrough writes in his entertaining yet deeply flawed “The Big Rich”: “Between 1941 and 1945, the Axis powers produced an estimated 276 million barrels; in the same time span, Texas produced more than 500 million, 100 from [H.L.] Hunts East Texas fields alone.”

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At war’s end, two massive Texas-East Coast pipelines (24 and 20 inches in diameter) built to get around German subs lurking off the coast were converted to the transmission of natural gas, until then a worthless drilling byproduct that was “flared off” (burned at the well head). Scores of Eastern cities (New York and Philadelphia were the largest) switched from coal and oil to cleaner and cheaper gas furnaces and appliances. An even larger pipeline stretched from Texas to California.

Mr. Burrough tells how Texas came to be synonymous with oil through the stories of four men who built and dominated the industry: H.L. Hunt, Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison and Hugh Roy Cullen. His book is at its entertaining (and informative) best when he recounts how these hard-scrabble men thrived in an unregulated environment to satisfy America’s thirst for oil. The common characteristics they shared were a capacity for hard work, financial guile and the raw courage required to risk all they owned to drill thousands of feet in unexplored territory, hoping that a “wild cat” venture would result in a gusher. Mr. Burrough’s prose is so vivid that I could close my eyes, take a deep breath and, figuratively, smell the oil that Hunt and others coaxed out of the Woodbine Sands in my native East Texas.

By the end of the war, the ” Big Four” were among the world’s richest men — and they were totally unknown outside the insular oil world. As Mr. Burrough notes, “By 1948, despite Hunt’s historic dealings in East Texas, Cullen’s philanthropy, and Richardson’s dinners with the Roosevelts, the Big Four had garnered precisely three references in the nation’s newspaper of record, the New York Times.” Cullen earned the only Times headline when he created a foundation that scattered millions of dollars across Texas. The paper identified him as a “Former Texas Oil Field Laborer.”

Alas for oil, public relations took a dive in 1952, when Edna Ferber published a novel, “Giant,” based on a boisterous Houston wildcatter named Glenn McCarthy. Unlike the Big Four, who eschewed publicity, McCarthy tooled around town in a Cadillac sporting longhorns on the hood and a bottle of whisky on the seat. McCarthy went through boom-and-bust cycles. Then came disaster: Zesting for top billing in Houston, he squandered millions of dollars (of borrowed money, of course) on the Shamrock Hotel “to symbolize the future greatness of Houston.” McCarthy flew in several plane loads of Hollywood stars for the grand opening. The ceremony flopped so badly that NBC Radio cut off its live coverage in midcourse. Ferber’s novel recounted this fiasco in aching detail, and Hollywood followed with a movie featuring James Dean as the McCarthy character. Thus was born the “Texas oilman” of media myth.

There were some shadows in Big Four families. Hunt managed not one but two bigamous marriages. Sons of Marriage No.1 went bust trying to corner the world silver market. Clint Murchison, Jr., best known to the public as owner of the Dallas Cowboys (in the “America’s Team” days) was a spectacular drunk “who rutted his way through an entire squad or two of Cowboy cheerleaders.” Spice galore!

Where Mr. Burrough wanders astray, in my view, is in his shallow understanding of Texas politics. He claims that oil money fueled the rise of the far right, in a lineage extending all the way from Sen. Joseph McCarthy to President George W. Bush. He cites particularly the rants of Hunt, both in print and via his Facts Forum radio broadcasts. In reality, persons in Texas and elsewhere paid Hunt little heed.The state’s leading conservative voice, the Dallas News, for which I reported from 1958 to 1961, ignored him entirely, and Mr. Burrough quotes publisher E.M. Ted Dealey as calling him a “latent fascist.”

Mr. Burrough overreaches by the proverbial country mile. He does not attempt to explain that Hunt went unheeded even in his home state, as witness the prolonged successes of congressmen Sam Rayburn and Wright Patman, both liberal to the core, and of Sen. Ralph Yarborough, still an icon to the Texas left. And, for that matter, Lyndon B. Johnson, both in his Senate and White House days.

I last encountered Hunt at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. We had been across-the-fence neighbors in my Dallas days — I lived in a shack, he in a replica of Mount Vernon, only twice as large. I would pass him pecans over the fence, and he would reciprocate with political lectures.

As Hunt related to me, he had donated modest amounts to Johnson over the years, and now he wished to see LBJ nominated for the presidency in his own right. But the convention people — probably at Johnson’s order — did not want his presence sullying the event. So he was stashed in a garret in a hotel on the upper reaches of the Boardwalk, miles from the convention site. Being shunned outraged the old man, and he gave LBJ what I described as a “good cussin’ out” in the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day.

Mr. Burrough’s sparkling read, alas, is marred by far too many factual errors. A “bull” that wins a livestock show appears a few lines later as a “cow.” As a native Texan, Mr. Burrough should know better (it’s a gender thing). My University of Texas mentor, J. Frank Dobie, would be amused to see his classic folklore book “The Longhorns” described as “one of his best novels.” I can excuse a New York copy editor for not correcting Mr. Burrough’s misspelling of the Central Texas city of Waxahachie (I doubt that even residents get it right the first time), but to call the famed CBS journalist “Edmund” Murrow” is inexcusable. So, too, is putting Mr. McCarthy on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. So many names are omitted from the index that it is useless.

What significance are the Big Four today? The think-tankers and babbling heads inundate the airways with pleas for “energy independence” rather than relying on foreign oil. Well, in my lifetime, such giants as Hunt and Sid Richardson gave our country just such an independence. For all their flaws, perceived and real, they helped provide us with comfortable lives. Alas, where are such dinosaurs when we really need them?

Texan Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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