When Texas Governor Rick Perry threw his hat in the presidential ring on August 13, he became the ninth Texan to make a run for the nation's top job since World War II. Born here, raised here, or spent a career here, all definitions fit those who attempted to grab the reins of power, successful, or otherwise.
The first “Texan” to capture the Oval Office was Dwight David Eisenhower, affectionately known as Ike. He was a career soldier and the hero of the European Theatre in World War II. This graduate of the U.S. Military Academy was born in the north Texas railroad town of Denison (Grayson County) in 1890. He was the son of a railroad engineer, and not long after his birth, the family returned to Abilene, Kansas where he finished high school and headed off to West Point.
After his heroism in the Allied victory, General Eisenhower was seriously recruited by both the Democratic and Republican parties. After a brief stint as president of Columbia University, Ike declared himself a Republican. Democratic president Harry Truman chose not to seek reelection in 1952, and Eisenhower overwhelmed the Democratic standard bearer, Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The 1950s era is remembered for its bipartisan attitude. Although the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress for most of that era, Eisenhower enjoyed a warm working relationship with Democratic Party leaders—interestingly, both Texans. These were House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham, first elected to the U.S. House in 1912, and upstart Democratic Majority Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of Johnson City. Johnson was elected to the U.S. House in a 1937 special election and to the U.S. Senate in 1948 and became his party's leader in an astoundingly brief four years.
Of course, the next Texan to move to Pennsylvania Avenue was the aforementioned Senator Johnson, born in the hardscrabble Hill Country in 1908. Johnson made ran for the presidency in 1960 but found that the deep southern drawl was less than appealing to some of the areas that still remembered stories of grandfathers who fought in the War Between the States.
After being thoroughly thrashed in the Democratic primaries by the brash and untested U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, John. F. Kennedy, Johnson joined the ticket as vice president. Of course, he acceded to the highest office on that fateful day in Dallas when the 34th president was felled by an assassin's bullet. Johnson was elected in his own right in 1964 and did not seek reelection in 1968; he died in 1973.
Democratic U.S. Senator Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr. of Houston was the next Texan to attempt a race for roses. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, war hero Bentsen was elected Hidalgo County Judge at age 25 in 1946, and two years later was sent to Washington as a U.S. Representative. He retired after three terms, moved to Houston, and built a very successful insurance business. In 1970, he unseated Democratic Senate incumbent Ralph W. Yarborough, who had been elected to the Senate in a 1957 special senate election (winning with a plurality which caused that portion of the election law to be changed very quickly thereafter).
In 1976, the incumbent president was Gerald R. Ford. He became president with Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. In 1973 Nixon had named long time House minority leader Ford to the vice presidency, which was vacated when Spiro T. Agnew resigned after pleading guilty to corruption while governor of Maryland.
Senator Bentsen was asked how many of his Democratic colleagues were interested in the presidential nomination of their party in 1976. He replied, “All of those under 80 years of age and not currently under indictment.” The little known Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer, swept Bentsen and many of his experienced colleagues aside in the Democratic primaries.
Carter beat Ford (the last time a Democrat carried Texas in a presidential race), and served one term before being ousted by Governor Ronald Reagan of California.
And Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980? None other than Texan George Herbert Walker Bush. Bush, like Bentsen, a decorated World War II vet, migrated to the Permian Basin at age 24 in 1948 after his graduation from Yale. His father Prescott Bush was a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Despite the fact that Eisenhower carried Texas in both 1952 and 1956, Bush found that the Republican Party in Texas was a very small entity. He moved to Houston in the 1950s and was successful in the oil business. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate twice and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966. He served under President Nixon in several posts including Ambassador to China and head of the CIA. He ran for President in 1980 and lost to Reagan. Similar to the 1960 Democratic outcome, Reagan asked Bush to join the ticket.
One other Texan was in this 1980 candidate fray: former Governor John B. Connally of Floresville. Connally, as a conservative Democrat, was elected governor in 1962 and served until 1969. To many Americans, he was known as the other official wounded in the presidential vehicle when Kennedy was struck down in Dallas in 1963. President Nixon was highly enamored with Connally and named him Secretary of Treasury (a post Senator Bentsen held twenty years later under President Bill Clinton.) Connally switched parties and ran for the Republican nomination in 1980 but was buried under the Reagan avalanche.
After Bush served as Reagan’s vice president for two terms, he was elected in his own right in 1988. He was defeated in 1992 by Bill Clinton of Arkansas. A Texan was a factor in that race: H. Ross Perot of Dallas, who had grown up in Texarkana. The diminutive Naval Academy graduate had built a successful business empire and drew one of the highest third party votes in many a year.
In 1996, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, a College Station Republican, offered himself for the presidency; he and many others were rejected by the party faithful who picked long time Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Gramm was raised in a military family, spent his formative years in Georgia, and had come to Texas to become an economics professor at Texas A&M. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1978 as a conservative Democratic and later resigned his office and ran as a Republican. He succeeded John Tower in the U.S. Senate in 1985.
In 2000, George W. Bush, eldest son of President Bush, started on a journey to become the first father-son duo since the Adams' to occupy the White House. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee in a race that was not determined until 35 days after the election by the U.S. Supreme Court. Like his dad, Bush was a Yale grad and was involved in the oil business in the Permian Basin where he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1978. He moved to Dallas and was president of the Texas Rangers' baseball team. In 1994 he ousted the popular incumbent Democratic governor Ann W. Richards and was reelected four years later after a successful term as governor working closely with Lt. Governor Bob Bullock and Speaker Pete Laney, both Democrats. Bush's reelection run for the White House was a quite a bit easier, besting Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
So now comes the challenge for West Texas farm boy, Rick Perry of Paint Creek in Haskell County. He was he first Aggie governor and has served the longest term in that office. Will he join the successes of the Bushes, LBJ, and Ike or join the world of what-could-have-beens like the Bentsen, Gramm, Perot, or Connally runs? Debate season is about done and now the on-the-ground campaigning begins in earnest. Very soon, the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary will be casting real ballots to see if the 9th Texan will be the GOP general in the battle against President Obama.