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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,434

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This is the grave of Bill Clements.

Born in 1917 in Dallas, Clements did not grow up in super wealthy circumstances. His father was in the oil industry and I think mostly did OK, but the Great Depression crushed the family. His father lost his job and Clements had to take a job drilling oil after graduating from high school, where he was an all-state offensive lineman. However, when he gathered up the money, he went to Southern Methodist University, though he dropped out. He was in World War II in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and then went back to the oil industry, where he would make a lot of money.

In 1947, Clements created Southeastern Drilling Company, which became one of the world’s largest offshore drilling companies. He soon was a multi-millionaire and would spend the rest of his life as a very rich man. He was also a Republican at a time when the Texas Democratic Party was still dominant. But the state of Lyndon Johnson was soon to become the state of George Bush. Civil rights was a huge part of this, but so was the economic policies of the Republican Party, which were more favorable to rich oil tycoons than the Democrats, at least in Washington.

So Clements became a leading Texas Republican and a big time national Republican insider. He got paid off for it too. Richard Nixon named him Deputy Secretary of Defense, a job for which, so far as I can tell, he was not particularly qualified for. Now, the Defense Department was relatively weak under Nixon, as foreign policy ran through Kissinger and himself primarily, but still. Clements was even acting Secretary of Defense for about a month and a half in 1973. He tried to stay on under Gerald Ford, but after Ford named Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, it all fell apart. Rumsfeld and Clements hated each other. This is entirely to Clements credit, as Rummy was a no good lousy son of a bitch.

So Clements went back to Texas and decided to run for governor of Texas. Unfortunately, he won as Republicans became the White Man’s Party by this time, which was 1979. He had never run for anything. But he was rich and what more expertise do you need in America? It was an extremely narrow victory over the Democratic candidate John Luke Hill. This was the first time a Republican had won the Texas statehouse since Reconstruction. His main campaign strategy–Jimmy Carter sucks. He stated he would hang Carter around Hill’s neck “like a dead chicken” and he carried a rubber chicken around with him during the campaign to demonstrate the point. Classy. He also basically bought the election, spending over $7 million of his own money at a time before modern campaign financing really existed, so he just overwhelmed the Democrats.

But it takes time for such political shifts to trickle down to the local level and Democrats still held the state legislature. Moreover, Clements had a slight problem–he was working with the Mexican company Pemex on an oil drill in the Gulf of Mexico when it blew up. The Ixtoc I oil spill is one of the largest in history and the largest in the Gulf until the Deepwater Horizon. This was a major environmental disaster in the era before environmentalism became as politicized as it is today. So he faced a ton of criticism for this. To his credit, he commuted the death sentence of Randall Dale Adams, the subject of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Adams was later released entirely, though not until 1989.

In 1982, Clements lost his reelection bid, mostly over the oil spill issue. The fact that he stated after the spill, “there‚Äôs no use crying over spilled milk,” well, that did not help him. The Democratic candidate was Mark White, the attorney general who had led the lawsuit against Clements’ company. White also attacked Clements’ anti-Mexican rhetoric, which still offended some white Texan voters at that time.

So Clements became the head of the Board of Trustees back at SMU. In that job, he personally led the massive cheating scandal that included paying players such as Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Looking back of course, it’s hard to be too critical here. After all, players absolutely should be paid. During this era of the old Southwest Conference, nearly every team was doing this at some level and most ended up on probation at some time during the 80s. But nowhere was it as clearly top down as at SMU under Clements. At the time, this was kept under wraps.

Meanwhile, Clements geared up for another run for governor in 1986. Mark White was vulnerable because he did the one thing you don’t do in Texas, which was to crack down on Texas football and push for new rules about academic eligibility. Texans don’t care about education but they very much do care about football. So of course football was the key issue in this election and at this time, with Clements both a rich Republican and partially responsible for SMU’s dominance on the gridiron, he had the advantage and he won. But then the extent to which SMU had cheated came out. The fact that this was planned from Clements on down led the NCAA to kill the SMU football program with the death penalty. Four decades later, the program is only now recovering. Moreover, it came down that Clements had basically overruled SMU’s president, who said this needed to stop. Clements, who again, was running a university’s Board of Trustees despite being a dropout, told the president to “stay out of it” and “go run the university.”

So yeah, football and Clements’ lies about his role in it all killed his second term. Several legislators wanted to impeach him for his lies. It was one thing to cheat to promote football in Texas, but it was another to get caught with your hand so far down the cookie jar that you kill the program. Knowing he had no shot at reelection, Clements chose not to run again in 1990 and that was when Ann Richards became governor.

After this, Clements was just a Texas Republican insider and rich dude. He gave a bunch of money away. He was a big supporter of Rick Perry over Kay Bailey Hutchison for the governor role in 2010; he and the Hutchison family did not like each other going back a long time. He died in 2011, at the age of 94.

Bill Clements is buried in Grove Hill Memorial Park, Dallas, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other governors of the 1980s, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Otis Bowen, who was also Secretary of Health and Human Services later in the Reagan administration, is in Bremen, Indiana. Richard Snelling is in Shelburne, Vermont. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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