Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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The Abrasive Candidacy of Bill Clements

If nice guys finish last, Bill Clements should win it walking away.
By John Merwin |

Fifteen minutes late. Bill Clements pounds up the front steps and hustles through the lobby. Cutting through his secretary’s office, Clements crosses through his private bathroom and takes a seat behind his desk. He dispatches Janie Harris to the lobby of SEDCO’s Akard Street corporate headquarters. “Come in,” she says, “Mr. Clements is ready to see you.” Very businesslike.

Glancing over telephone messages, Clements is posed behind his desk, the model of a classic corporate mogul. Hopping up and striding past the desk, Clements extends his hand for a firm shake, beckoning his guest to join him in front of the fireplace. Even though Clements is about to endure what he enjoys least – facing a barrage of questions, some nosey – he launches into a friendly conversation, confident, ready for the exercise.

Clements’ office is airy, with a very high ceiling, part of a remodeled 19th-century school building which doesn’t bear up well under the onslaught of a cold, blustery January day. It’s cold enough inside for him to wear a suit coat. Periodically Clements edges over to warm himself by the heat of an artificial fireplace.

Around the room are memories of Bill Clements’ 60 years. Pinned to his lapel is the fleur-de-lis of the Boy Scouts, a reminder of his first success 47 years ago, when he became an Eagle Scout. On the wall hangs a SEDCO stock certificate, representing a share of his drilling empire and its considerable wealth. Scattered about the room are statues, paintings and photographs trumpeting his interest in military affairs and reminding a visitor of Clements’ three years as deputy secretary of defense – the most enjoyable time of his life, he says.

Here sits a most unlikely candidate for Governor of Texas, a man who two months earlier had announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. His announcement caught the state Republican Party by surprise. In Houston and San Antonio people asked “Who is Bill Clements?’” In Dallas at least some Republicans knew of him, but found themselves wondering “Who asked Bill Clements to run?” After all, Ray Hutchison was already running, and the state party veteran seemed the logical nominee, considering his outstanding service in the Texas Legislature and more recently as Republican state chairman. Even Congressman Jim Collins had openly toyed with the idea of running for the gubernatorial nomination. But unlike Clements, he at least had the good sense to ask his friends whether he should. Almost to a man they told Collins not to give up a cinch Congressional seat for a cinch whipping in the governor’s race.

Then along comes Clements, best known as a Dallas oil millionaire and Nixon Administration appointee, who says he’s going to run for governor. Clements didn’t consult with local Republicans, which ruffled a few feathers. But on the other hand, by not asking anyone whether he ought to run, Clements didn’t take the chance of being told no, or perhaps hell no. But Bill Clements isn’t the sort of man who needs any urging to do what he plans to do anyhow. Certainly he doesn’t need anyone telling him to change his plans, political or otherwise.

Take the building Clements sits in, the old Cumberland Hill School, a monument to Clements’ headstrong style. While driving down Akard Street toward downtown one day about ten years ago, he noticed the Dallas school district had the old building up for sale. After a few more trips past the school, en route to SEDCO’s First National Bank headquarters offices, Clements had a thought: Since SEDCO was running out of space in the First National, why not buy the school building and restore it to its 19th-century Victorian glory? It might make a nice corporate headquarters.

Clements and his son Gill stayed up one night before bids would be opened trying to figure out what an old school building was worth. They finally settled on $1,362,667.95. The next morning Gill Clements arrived at the school district expecting to meet a dozen or so bidders. Only one other bidder showed up, someone representing Republic National Bank, which owned all but two pieces of land in the area. Republic’s bid was opened: $1,356,000. SEDCO won by $6,000.

Clements took his renovation idea to the SEDCO board of directors, explaining that the company could spend a million or so remodeling the old school building or they could spend about the same amount constructing a nice headquarters elsewhere. To a man, the board suggested building elsewhere. “Fine,” Clements said, “We’ll remodel the school.” Within two years the building was restored, making Cumberland Hill easily the most distinguished looking building anywhere near downtown- and certainly the airiest on a January day.

Clements is a most unusual character, which makes him extremely difficult to assay politically. His style is so unorthodox one is tempted to write him off as a political dreamer, but on the other hand, his personal record of achievement is so strong that one doesn’t dare sell him too short. Clements must be regarded as a political underdog with a long way to go before the May Republican primary. However, he has put together an interesting campaign staff and is lining up blue chip financial backing. Only a few weeks ago the Clements campaign was an occasional six-inch newspaper story buried in the back pages. Today it is making steady progress, steady enough to catch the eyes and ears of some Texas Republicans.

From the beginning of his race Clements’ style has been puzzling. A day or two after an early December telephone call requesting a Clements interview, his office responded with “How about 2 p.m. January 14th?” This guy is running for governor of Texas as a political unknown and he’s not available for an interview for five weeks?

Ostensibly Clements was busy in December, about to take a long Christmas vacation in Colorado. While on vacation he dropped in to see Gerald Ford in Vail and then slipped off to California for an audience with Ronald Reagan, proof positive that Clements is well wired into the national Republican scene. But while Clements has been off in Washington serving as deputy secretary of defense and hobnobbing with the nation’s political leadership, opponent Ray Hutchison has been building fences in Texas Republican circles, the kind that are mighty hard to cut.

Clements is countering with a campaign based upon one overriding suggestion: Bill Clements is the best Republican to oppose next fall’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, because he is capable of raising a campaign war chest equal to Dolph Briscoe’s or John Hill’s. Few doubt it, especially when one considers that Clements’ finance committee is being manned by Dallas oilmen Ashley Priddy and Ed Cox, not to mention First International Bank chairman Bobby Stewart. Although there are campaign contribution limits in federal and city elections, there is no limit for state races, and men such as Priddy. Cox and Stewart can raise money by the sackful. Only last year Cox, Clements’ Preston Road neighbor, contributed more than $6,000 to the Briscoe campaign fund.

Clements realizes that many of the so-called party regulars are close to Hutchison, but also thinks that they represent a relatively small portion of the potential primary vote, which might reach about 150,000. If he can take his campaign past that hard core and directly to all Republicans, Clements is convinced he can win. Early in the campaign Clements has been doing this by hosting dinners at which the campaign picks up the tab, enough bait to pull in fair-sized audiences. There is some indication that those audiences are indeed buying the gospel according to Clements, a dynamic and tireless campaigner.

However, Clements faces two enormous obstacles. First, in a few months Clements must secure the kind of name identification among Republicans that Hutchison has been building since 1973, his first year in the State Legislature. While Clements will have the money to finance a media blitz, he must take care not to push a giant media campaign without simultaneously building grass roots support under it. Without the grass roots support, Clements might give the appearance of trying to buy the nomination.

Second, he must carefully manage his own very direct, if not blustery personality. Clements has been his own boss for 30 years and has enjoyed the privilege of saying pretty much what he thinks to whoever he thinks ought to hear it. In elective politics, that can be an advantage – or it can be a disaster.

Not long after Clements announced his candidacy, he spoke at the Dallas Engineers Club, fulfilling a long-standing engagement. Instead of campaigning for governor, Clements unleashed a scathing personal attack against his former defense secretary, James Schlesinger, calling him “the most devious character I have ever met in my life,” undoubtedly a heartfelt comment but one that left his political advisors shaking their heads. When asked about the wisdom of such a vituperative attack, Clements responds with “Well, it’s true.” and fires off another round, blasting Schlesinger for being so damn devious.

This isn’t to say that Clements can’t be a warm man. He is, especially when he talks about his family background. The Clements roots run deep in Texas, dating back to the early 1870’s when his grandfather helped establish a tent city east of Dallas, filled with railroad workers. His grandfather was a muleskinner who, along with other workers, stayed when the railroad crews moved on, naming their town for the crew chief, Captain Forney. Clements’ grandfather operated a livery stable in Forney, where Clements’ father was born and raised. After graduating from high school in Forney, Clements’ father came to Dallas to seek his fortune.

Bill Clements was born in 1917 and raised in a home on Normandy Avenue a block or two from SMU. As a boy he had plenty of room to roam – SMU was nothing more than two buildings, leaving lots of places to play, his favorite being the woods where Perkins School of Theology now stands. The Caruth farm extended north from Lovers Lane, where Clements and his bird dogs flushed coveys of quail from around stock tanks, near Hillcrest and Southwestern.

His boyhood was pleasant. “My first real accomplishment came in scouting,” he says. “I set myself a goal of reaching each rank in scouting in the minimum time allowed, and I did it, becoming an Eagle Scout.” Clements had attained his first real success and he wouldn’t forget the feeling.

By the time Clements reached his freshman year at Highland Park High School, he had set his sights on becoming as important as an admired upperclassman, Estill Heyser Jr., a fraternity president, star back on the football team, and one of the most popular boys in school. By the time he was a senior, Clements was a fraternity president, editor of the yearbook, class president and an all-state football guard.

“Aftergraduation in 19341 had several football scholarship offers,” he says. “One day I realized I really shouldn’t go to college, but instead I should go to work.” The Depression had set in and the Clements’ family income, which came from an 800-acre farm near Forney, had dwindled. His father, burdened by heavy debts, refused to take bankruptcy and although at times he was out of work, spent the next 15 years of his life paying off the farm creditors.

Clements took a job in the south Texas oil fields, earning $150 a month sending $100 home to help support his family- a point he frequently makes in his speeches today, in an effort to fight what he calls his “elitist image.” Within 18 months conditions at home improved enough for Clements to return to Dallas and SMU, where he accepted a football scholarship.

“After two and a half years at SMU I decided to leave,” he explains. “I wasn’t happy with football and I wanted to be back out on my own. Although I was learning some basic engineering, I suppose I didn’t see what more college could offer me.” Clements returned to the south Texas oil fields for another two and a half years, learning more about the oil drilling business, which would eventually make him one of the wealthiest men in Dallas.

In the late Thirties, Clements took a job with Oilwell Supply, a manufacturer of oil field equipment. For the next nine years Clements rose through the ranks at Oilwell, learning more about the business, while gaining some managerial experience.

Along the way Clements met a lease broker named Ike LaRue. LaRue, who was considerably older than Clements, often speculated about a partnership in the contract drilling business, although neither he nor Clements had the money to buy a rig. One day LaRue telephoned from Mississippi and told Clements he wanted to meet in Dallas because he had an idea for financing their entrance into the drilling business. Clements, comfortable as an Oilwell Supply district manager in San Antonio, at first doubted the trip would be worth it, but LaRue managed to talk Clements into coming.

Upon meeting in Dallas, LaRue told Clements of his plan. For some years he had known Toddie Lee Wynne, a wealthy Dallas oilman who had made his fortune with Clint Murchison Sr. Wynne, LaRue explained, would back them. “Has he agreed to this?” asked Clements. “Why no,” replied LaRue, “I haven’t told him about it yet.”

Wynne was sick in bed the day LaRue and Clements went to see him in his Lakeside Drive home. LaRue did most of the talking, explaining what a great young man Clements was. Wynne listened quietly and when LaRue finished, he spoke. “Ike, I’ve known you for many years and I’ve always known you to bet on the horses, but this is the first time I’ve ever known you to bet on the jockey.” Wynne co-signed two notes at First National Bank. The team of Clements and LaRue was in the contract drilling business, proud owner of two battered old drilling rigs.

Their first drilling contracts were in Mississippi, so LaRue and Clements named the company Southeastern Drilling Company, later shortened to the present acronym, SEDCO. Clements and LaRue kept drilling and the company grew stronger. After a few years Wynne told them he didn’t feel like he was contributing much to the company, so he wanted out. “Figure out what my share’s worth and give me a note.” Wynne said.

By the late Fifties SEDCO was drilling in shallow offshore water, using a technology which would become a staple of SEDCO’s business. During the Sixties SEDCO began drilling overseas – in India, Pakistan, and later, in Iran and Argentina. Clements took the company public in 1965, establishing a market for SEDCO stock, formally making Clements and several of his long time employees very wealthy men.

Today SEDCO is a giant drilling and pipeline construction business, with sales of $355 million, nearly as large as the entire City of Dallas budget. Most of its income flows from overseas operations. Its two principal sources of business are pipeline building, principally in Iran, and offshore drilling, which has expanded enormously because of the Arab oil embargo. (A Peter Hurd oil portrait of the late Saudi King Faisal hangs in Clements’ office. “He was one of the brightest men I’ve ever met,” Clements says.)

SEDCO’s spectacular growth has made Bill Clements very wealthy. His-SEDCO stock alone is worth more than $23 million, not to mention his other investments and those of a personal foundation. Others also have enjoyed the successes of SEDCO- no fewer than 11 of its 13 board members are millionaires thanks to SEDCO stock alone.

The wealth issue is one that crops up in the campaign, making Clements an easy target for the “fat cat” charge. Hutchison is already exploiting the point, saying “I’ve never seen anyone openly flaunt his wealth and successfully go to the people expecting them to identify with him. ” The money issue is also important to maverick Republicans who somehow see the Clements candidacy as a plot by “establishment” Republicans to take the nomination away from the “deserving” candidate, Hutchison.

By openly touting his ability to raise several million dollars necessary to run a full-blown campaign in the general election, Clements is treading on thin ice. While his point makes good sense, it also offers Hutchison supporters a chance to take shots at Clements’ wealth and that of his finance committeemen. If Clements does make it to the general election and winds up facing Dolph Briscoe or John Hill, the wealth charge should evaporate.

The campaign finance point is quite significant to Clements, and in fact is the very reason for his race. One evening last fall Clements was talking politics with a house guest. Republican Senator Jack Schmitt of New Mexico. Schmitt asked why Texas had never elected a Republican governor. Clements replied that he really didn’t know. After he and Schmitt talked about it a while, they concluded that the reason was simply a lack of campaign financing. Although men such as Jack Cox, Paul Eggers and Hank Grover made respectable showings against Democratic gubernatorial opponents, they really didn’t have the campaign funding to stage full-blown campaigns, he thought. Clements said good night, and walked upstairs to visit with his wife, Rita, a very active Republican. “Sit down and let’s talk,” he said. After an hour or so of discussion about why Republicans hadn’t won the Texas governorship, Clements vowed that he would run.

Clements’ decision to run was known by very few people. Apparently the only close counsel he keeps is his wife, Rita, and perhaps behind-the-scenes Republican activist Peter O’Donnell Jr. When Clements announced his decision in November, there were quite a few surprised looks.

Clements” announcement included two intriguing points, both indicative of the type of campaign he intends to run. First, he hammered away at national issues instead of state issues, flaunting his experience and connections in Washington, D.C. “Sure I’m willing to talk about education, agriculture or the state budget,” Clements says. “But when I’m out meeting people that’s not what they want to talk about. They want to talk about national issues – energy, taxes, the federal budget, inflation, national security or the Panama Canal.” In fact Clements may be right that the issues which deeply touch Texans’ lives tend to be federal, not state.

In his announcement Clements also boasted that he hadn’t lost a “single major issue” during his three years with the Department of Defense. The remark aptly illustrates the Clements style of campaigning – highly competitive, sometimes to a fault.

Clements is a very aggressive man, which some voters may perceive as an important attribute in a gubernatorial candidate, while others might regard it as a sign of arrogance. At times during press conferences Clements will lecture a reporter who has asked a question which he regards as impertinent – an overbearing act that comes off poorly. However, when he wishes to answer a question with candor, Clements’ brand of frankness can be very refreshing.

Clements complains about what he regards as injustices in his press coverage. During his tenure at the Pentagon, the Dallas News published a story about Clements’ bluntness. The story reported Clements had recently upstaged the French armed forces chief of staff by accusing him at a luncheon of selling fighter planes to Egypt, even though the general denied knowing about the sale. The story said Clements threw down a stack of aerial photographs and intelligence reports documenting the accusation and demanded “Why don’t you know?” After the story was published an incensed Clements, denying that he ever did such a thing, telephoned News publisher Joe Dealey and raised hell.

Back in January Clements arranged to see two Austin-based newspaper columnists who had been telling their Austin and Dallas readers that Clements had little grass roots support. Clements asked to meet them for a drink, so he could plead his case. Several days later News columnist Sam Kinch Jr. wrote a column outlining the Clements strategy, while making it abundantly clear that he didn’t think it would work. Clements thought the article was entirely fair and was quite pleased.

The Clements campaign staff reflects the candidate. It is tough and efficient, much to the surprise of some local political observers. As one local Republican officeholder says, “’He’s such an arrogant type I figured he’d rapidly begin to fall on his ass. He hasn’t. He’s put together a credible campaign organization.”

Clements’ state campaign manager is Omar Harvey, a former Briscoe supporter and virtual novice to campaign work. Harvey is not the typical politician-lawyer-strategist one might expect to see heading a campaign staff, but a former top executive with IBM. Both Harvey and Clements were born into farm families, both left college without finishing (only to return to their universities as trustees), both are well connected politically and both have been enormously successful in business. Like Clements, Harvey is a rather aggressive man, having already stepped on a few toes. He sees his role in the campaign simply as a manager, getting the right people and material to the proper place at the proper time. Clements hasn’t designated a master political strategist, although many Clements supporters suspect (and hope) he is listening to Peter O’Donnell Jr.

Beside touting the ability to raise big money. Clements” campaign will push several other key points. First is Clements” experience in Washington, D.C., which he describes as “the most fulfilling time of my life – even working 16-hour days in a place so disagreeable. And believe me. it was damned disagreeable. Everyone is on the make. A Washington man always has an ax to grind, he’s grabbing for glory, trying to build an empire, or he’s a publicity seeker.”

Clements makes much of his three-year tenure (1973-76) as deputy secretary of defense (“longer than any other man”), and takes great pride in his relationship with the Democrat-controlled Congress – “I never lost a major battle …” Hisreputation in the Pentagon was that of agood, but very tough administrator, overseeing a budget which dwarfs the State ofTexas’ budget.

Clements’ experience in national politics enables him to drop national political figures’ names right and left, names like Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, both of whom he says have “authorized” him to say that they are “enthusiastic and pleased” about his candidacy. Clements uses the quotes in a titillating manner, but won’t classify them as endorsements- although he says that Reagan and Fordwill appear in his behalf if he makes thegeneral election.

Clements’ record as a civic laborer is also a plus. His work with the Boy Scouts and SMU has been prodigious. Clements took over a North Dallas Boy Scout troop when his son was scouting and built the troop up from 25 members to about 120. Later he became president of the Circle 10 Council (covering 11 counties) and before he went off to Washington in 1973. was president of a five-state scout region. Today he is the Scouts’ national finance chairman, and is especially active in ensuring the development of Clements Scout Reservation near Athens. Texas.

His work as chairman of the board of governors of SMU has also been impressive. Several facets of the university bear the Clements stamp. Perhaps the most significant is Clements’ transferral of power from a large board of trustees to a much smaller board of governors, a collection of some of the most powerful men in Texas. The power shift came just before SMU hired Paul Hardin. who as president proved unable to work with the board of governors. The board prevailed and Hardin was fired, an act which Clements says he deeply regrets, but with which he concurs.

The most obvious mark Clements has left upon SMU is its return to the campus” Williamsburg architecture. Several buildings constructed a few years before Clements accepted the board chairmanship deviated from the school’s traditional look, which annoyed Clements. He vowed there would never be another Owen Fine Arts Center. In what Clements regards as a showdown over the design of the Underwood Law Library, Clements fought faculty and fellow board members seeking to restore the strict Williamsburg architectural policy. He won, making architects redraw the library’s preliminary plans several times until they fit precisely with the Williamsburg style.

Clements is a generous philanthropist, particularly with the scouts and SMU. An example of the creativity of his giving can be found in SEDCO’s lease. Clements bought the land at Akard and Woodall Rodgers with his foundation, than arranged for SMU to hold title to the property, so SEDCO could pay its $85,000 annual rent to SMU.

Clements adamantly opposes publicity about his donations. After listening to a question about the SEDCO lease arrangement he rises up on the edge of his chair, almost shouting- “I don’t think that’s any of your damn business!”

Clements describes his own finest quality as his judgement of people, an obvious point when one considers the progress of SEDCO, operated by a management team assembled by Clements. He is quite confident in his ability. “When God passed out the talents,” he says, “”I got good judgment, and in decision-making, my batting average isn’t bad.”

Several weeks after the above interview Clements’ campaign is running at full throttle, fueled by his boundless energy. He is campaigning furiously across the state, in Austin, Killeen, Waco and Dallas. His wardrobe looks sharper, his hair a bit more fashionable and he is making steady progress. Most important, he has smoothed his style, practically eliminating the cavalier attitude which can deal him a good bit of harm.

Bill Clements is trying his best to be the nice guy, but that’s not easy fora man who isn’t used to kowtowing. He confesses that for him, the most difficult part of campaigning “is having to explain myself to newspaper people,” by which he means journalists in general. Despite his intense dislike of having to answer charg-es and questions, he plunges ahead, with (seemingly endless determination.

But every now and then Clements’ abrasiveness pops up again. In early Feb-ruary, he faced Ray Hutchison at a Dal-las Republican women’s meeting. When Hutchison was asked whether he would support Clements if he should win the Republican nomination, Hutchison replied that indeed he would, adding that ha’d donate one percent of his personal wealth to Clements’ campaign. Clements shot back: “Well, you know, Ray, without being facetious, one percent of zero is pro.” Clements’ staff groaned. The audience was bewildered. Clements didn’t bat an eye.

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