A mid-life crisis in Texas
Ronnie Dugger, founding editor, eminence grise, and, in recent years, absentee father of The Texas Observer, spent a number of years asking uncomfortable questions of fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson. When Dugger was not around, LBJ liked to grumble to visiting Texas politicians: “If you look back in that line somewhere, you’ll find a dwarf.”
Just what the thin-skinned son of the Texas hill country meant by his weirdly ingenious insult is unclear, but to me the comment seemed aimed not so much at Dugger–a man of average height, by the way–but at The Texas Observer itself. Small, pathetically underfunded, its editors and writers grossly underpaid, the Observer from the beginning was a dwarf kicking at the shins of tall Texas Democrats it thought had abandoned the party’s liberal ideals. It was just tall enough to bite the butt of the Texas party establishment of Lyndon Johnson and John Connally and the oil, business, and financial titans who controlled the party and the state.
Dugger was twenty-four when a group of Texas liberals offered him the job of running their new magazine. The year was 1954, and they were an endangered species; McCarthyism was rampant. “I was leaving for Corpus Christi to get a job on a shrimp boat, jump ship in Mexico, move back to Texas among the wetbacks, and somehow write a novel from that,” Dugger recalls. “Yet here was a real chance to make a difference.”
For a long time, the biweekly journal did indeed make a difference. It was the only voice in the state seeking to tell the stories that so desperately needed telling–stories of a corrupt and inefficient state legislature, of racial injustice, of corporate rape and government acquiescence, all the stories The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the state’s other urban dailies seemed happy to ignore. “By the sheer force of its ardor and its talent, it was read by everyone in Texas whose opinions had authority,” former Observer and Harper’s editor Willie Morris recalled in his autobiography, North Toward Home.
That was yesterday. Last October, a couple of weeks before the November 8 election, The Texas Observer celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and like many forty-year-olds, the magazine found itself occupied with soul-searching and reassessment. Still small and pathetically underfunded, its circulation hovering close to 7,500, still “a journal of free voices,” and still “the tyrant’s foe, the people’s friend,” the Observer finds that much has changed since the days when Dugger and his colleagues made it worth reading.
Its “ardor and its talent” have worn down over the last twenty years or so; its opinions have become a bit shopworn. Despite the occasional Observer scoop or compelling essay you won’t find in any other Texas publication, the magazine is no longer required reading
With the coming of Texas Monthly and the development of a more enterprising capital press corps in Austin, the Observer is no longer the sole outlet in the state for writers eager to do serious political and investigative journalism or to produce compelling, literate essays about Texas.
Success of a sort also eroded the Observer’s influence. In the early days, when Texas McCarthyites and Democrats for Eisenhower and know-nothings in the state legislature offered targets as inviting as tin ducks in a shooting gallery, when the issues were as sharply edged as cut glass, the Observer was fueled with passion and a sense of purpose. Over the years, as the political battles were won and lost and re-won again, as Ann Richards and other politicians loosely associated with “the Observer crowd” occasionally emerged victorious, the sense of mission that infused the Observer of old began to shade to gray, and the magazine became just another journal of predictable left-wing opinion.
Dugger, who has not lived in Texas for years, used the fortieth-anniversary celebration as an opportunity to announce both his retirement as publisher and the creation of a new Texas Observer: the magazine will now be published by the Texas Democracy Foundation, a nonprofit entity whose board consists of columnist Molly Ivins, radio talk-show host Jim Hightower, and other Observer veterans. In other words, the perennially nonprofitable Texas Observer is now actually nonprofit, able to seek foundation money and solicit tax-deductible contributions from individuals.
So is there a place in the journalistic universe for a new Texas Observer? Ivins argues that the Observer is important not just for what it covers but for the example it sets as a quirky, obstinate, independent journal. “Mainstream journalism today is so caught up in shallow crap and celebrification, it’s absolutely terrifying,” she says. “We need more of what the Observer does all over this country.” Dugger, in his characteristically earnest and impassioned way, argued at the anniversary celebration that the problems of the 1990s that “the new Observer confronts–and all of us confront–are much, much more serious and are not state but national and international.”
Meanwhile, the Republican blitzkrieg on November 8 could be just what the new Texas Observer needs. An Observer with Phil Gramm and Dick Armey in its sights could well discover that life does indeed begin at forty.
Austin writer Holley was editor of The Texas Observer from 1981 until 1984.
Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jan 1995
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