ROOTS, PART TWO: WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE?
There is a lot of unwritten history about Clayton Williams’ birthplace, Fort Stockton. Persons of the Comanche and Apache persuasion used to fight over it in the 1800s, committing unspeakable atrocities upon each other for the property rights. Much blood was shed over a bubbling spring that gushed from a benevolent outcropping of the Edwards Aquifer. As was always the case in disputes of those times, the Comanches prevailed, and the area became a significant location on their war trail into Mexico.
Ambitious white folk, when they first began sniffing around that magic spring, encountered an awful reception at the hands of the Comanche. According to the tribal penal code, trespassing was an ant-bed offense.
The post-Civil War United States Cavalry would ultimately provide some muscle on behalf of the buckskin-clad venture capitalists. Thus the name Fort Stockton. Officers’ quarters and what was apparently a mess hall from the original government encampment have been restored as a shrine to the Anglo land grab and are currently available for inspection.
With the Great White Father acting as an around-the-clock security guard, irrigation systems adequate for about 150 farms were established around the creeks and streams that emerged from the mouth of Comanche Springs. They grew alfalfa that was baled into cattle feed and shipped via railroad throughout the West. Even melon orchards became prosperous ventures.
But into this idyllic scene came a stock figure of the Western plot: the greedy land baron.
In 1952, a landowner north of Fort Stockton tapped into the aquifer and, with diesel-powered pumps, flooded his farm land with 70 million precious gallons of water each day — at least 50 million gallons a day more than the spring was producing. That land baron was Clayton Williams Sr.
A group that called itself Pecos County Water District No. 1 filed suits against Williams and a few other pump farmers, and after a two-year legal wrangle the dispute found its way to the Texas Supreme Court. Those jurists ruled that the water Williams Sr. was using on his pecan grove was “a well-defined surface stream” that happened to be running beneath the ground, and that ground water in any form belonged to the landowner.
So Claytie’s father kept on pumping through the longest West Texas drought since the darkest days of the Dust Bowl. By 1962, Comanche Springs and its fertile accompanying landscape were nothing more than happy memories. An eight-year drought of another variety, this one on the worldwide commodities market, presented West Texas with additional devastation. But as far as Fort Stockton was concerned, the music died when the well went dry.
Leap forward to 1986, when an event some determined to be an act of God took place in Fort Stockton: after back-to-back years of unusually heavy rainfall, and the suspension of pumping operations by Belding Farms, a farming conglomerate, Comanche Springs began to gurgle and spit again — not with its old vigor, but to the tune of 2 or 3 million gallons a day. The community of about 10,000 rejoiced.
Citizens, some with long memories, approached the Fort Stockton City Council, hoping that a new water district might be formed to protect the revitalized spring. But there was opposition. Clayton Williams Sr. had passed away in 1983, but Clayton Jr. was there to take his place.
“He fought us tooth and nail,” says writer and publisher Kirby Warnock, who lives in Dallas but still owns the Fort Stockton farm that was established by his grandfather in the ’20s. “Clayton himself only appeared at some of the meetings, but his Fort Stockton lawyer, Paul Dionne. was there at all of them, constantly raising points of order and keeping anything from getting done.”
Finally, the Fort Stockton council decided to table the water district proposal. Williams continued pumping, and now the spring is dry again. “I’m not going to say that Williams has that council in his back pocket,” says Warnock, “but he is a person of considerable influence out there. He’s selfish and mean-spirited and completely oblivious to the art of compromise. It’s either his way or no way.”
Williams’ people insist that his family is not responsible for the problem, but a 1962 Texas Water Commission report concluded that the wells on Williams’ land depleted the spring.
It’s pretty clear that sour notes like Warnock’s are not plentiful in Claytieland these days. Not everyone experiences the acrid aftertaste. “My grandfather [D.V. Rowels] saw his beautiful alfalfa farm ruined when the spring dried up,” remembers Doris French, now of Fairfax, Virginia. “Waving green fields reduced to wasteland. But my 91-year-old grandmother [Mrs. D.T. Germane, now living in McAllen] is strongly behind Clayton Jr.’s campaign. And she is not a very forgiving person.”
So how is it that a person whose family is blamed, by some, for turning what was once a rare oasis into a moonscape, can be so universally popular in Fort Stockton?
“The people who would have most reason to oppose him were all forced to move when the spring dried up.” says Kirby Warnock, whose grandfather lost a profitable alfalfa business as a result of the elder Williams’ action. “Now they think Fort Stockton will have its own personal representative in the Governor’s Mansion, and that all sorts of pork barrel benefits will be headed out that way. So even the people who might not like him have pretty well shut up.”
THE BRAINS BEHIND CLAYTIE
For the past 21 years, Dick Leggitt’s job has been to transform mortals into gods, or at least create that illusion for the voting public. Maxey Jarman, who owned a huge company that manufactured shoes and therefore felt he should become governor of Tennessee, hired Leggitt away to become his press secretary during the campaign. When the votes were finally counted, the shoeman got the boot. “That was my first lesson with politics. Being rich ain’t enough,” Leggitt says.
Despite the setback, Leggitt found something terribly seductive about the sights, sounds, and aromas of backstage politics, although he will concede that the smell is not all that pleasing at times.
“Every time I involve myself in a major campaign, I swear it will be the last,” continues Leggitt, 48, a vice president with Robert Goodman Agency out of Baltimore and Dallas. His company is one of the big five in the field of political consultants, which handle 60 percent of the major campaigns in the United States. One of the others, Squier-Eskew Communications, is orchestrating the Ann Richards parade.
Williams declared “no more mud,” then slammed Richards for taking contributions from a group supported by Jane Fonda.
For the Clayton Williams handlers, of whom Leggitt is the most prominent, the post-primary lull has produced some tense moments. The opinion polls, which appear every other week, are breathlessly monitored. Williams’ summertime margin appeared safe, but not insurmountable. “This stuff is a lot like football,” says Leggitt. “Our team is ahead going into the second half, so the object now is not to fumble or make mistakes that give the other team, you know, momentum.”
The primary, as everyone knows, produced an unmitigated triumph for Williams and the vote-gathering brain trust that surrounded him. Organizers from other states call the Williams operation one of the slickest in the history of modern political marketing. The set-up operated around Leggitt and his people in Dallas, the Admarc people in Midland, and Dresner, Townsend, and Sykes out of New York.
“So far, it’s been harmonious,” says Leggitt, who admits that there was one flare-up. The original bustin’ rocks spot was produced with a strange background sound track “like choir music” that he didn’t like. After some hard rethinking, it was agreed by all that the choir had to go.
After the post-primary euphoria wore off, it was inevitable that the summertime tension would creep in. Williams himself generated the angst with what Leggitt calls the “rape-service thing. But we did extensive surveys that determined that only 6 percent were turned off by the remarks.”
It wasn’t until midsummer that the Williams team studied the latest polls and located a downtick. “This was after the school funding mess and a lot of people were not happy with [Governor Bill] Clements, who came out of the thing looking like a mean old man who doesn’t give a damn about Texas school kids,” says Leggitt.
It became a priority of Claytie forces, then, to distance their man as far as they could from any identification with the incumbent and those plaid sport coats of his that are more commonly sported around the crap tables in Atlantic City.
At this stage of the race, strategists attempt to “wear the other hat” — that is, become the devil’s advocate and anticipate where and how the hated foe will strike when the campaign for the big prize heats up in earnest. Dick Leggitt, who wears the other hat for the Williams camp, imagines that the Ann Richards folks are pondering conspiracies against Claytie of Shakespearean dimension.
In a remarkably futile gesture, Williams asked Richards to “Read my lips… no more mud,” but he later attacked Richards for accepting campaign contributions from the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee, a group supported by Jane Fonda, reminding voters of the actress’ anti-Vietnam War protests more than 20 years ago. “I think that’s an issue,” Clayton Williams says. “That’s not mud-slinging. Armed forces veterans look at this business as something offensive. I’m a veteran; Ann Richards is not.”
Whether acting in cahoots with the Richards camp or not, producers from ABC’s Prime Time Live snooped around the state for several months, seeking dirt on Clayton Williams and his allegedly risque behavior. They have returned to New York seemingly disappointed in what they were able to unearth. However, since ABC spent more than $100,000 in its effort, Williams’s handlers are certain that a piece will appear sometime in the fall. They can only presume that the “Eastern liberal establishment” will not provide a favorable perspective of their client.
And Williams has now been linked, in mailers sent out by Democratic national chairman Ron Brown, to ex-Klansman David Duke of Louisiana and conservative troglodyte Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Brown seemed to imply that Williams had KKK loyalties. “That’s bothered me,” Williams says. “It really has. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. The rape thing … I made that remark to a couple of cowboys. I didn’t know that reporters overheard it. But it was still stupid, and I sure regret it. Hopefully, these experiences might help make me a better governor. I think we’ll win, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
It’ll be a long, muddy path, and it is the abortion issue that promises to be the most nettlesome in the final stretch. Williams remembers well the Life vs. Choice squall that blew chilling winds through the Republican convention in Fort Worth. And he’s not about to become sucked into the center of it. “We’re hoping that our lead [in the polls] will be so substantial that NARL [the National Abortion Rights League] won’t spend money on Ann’s campaign,” Leggitt says. “I saw what they did in Virginia. They ran these spots with some actor dressed up like a doctor — sort of a Marcus Welby character — talking about how teenage girls would be going the coat-hanger route if the Right-to-Life candidate got elected. And the Right-to-Life guy — who had a 12-point lead with six weeks to go — got killed.”
Leggitt remains hopeful that the good folk of “Tahoka and Sweetwater and the grassroots Texans” won’t allow that to happen to their Claytie. He lets it be known that while he works in a company of button-down ad men on the Eastern shore, he can never shake his roots in Hereford, Texas, deep in the heart of Claytie Country.
“The guy is genuine,” says Dick Leggitt. He insists that Clayton Williams is not some drugstore, Hollywood cowboy who, after the day’s filming is complete, rides off into the sunset with his hairdresser.
“I guess that, to me, Claytie represents a time and place that a lot of Texans who are old remember and long for,” Leggitt says.
“A more open and cordial society.”