Obituary: Ralph Yarborough

Godfrey Hodgson
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:31

Ralph Yarborough was that rare bird in the politics of his generation: a Texas liberal. He was in fact what is known in Texas politics, metaphorically, as a "bomb-throwing" liberal. His former aide and political heir, Jim Hightower, called him "a guy willing to take on the powers that be, take 'em by the scruff of the neck and go right after them."

It was in an attempt to heal the bitterness between the conservative faction of Texas democrats, led by Governor John Connally and the Yarborough liberals, that President John F. Kennedy made the fatal journey to Dallas in the course of which he was assassinated. And it was because he was not on speaking terms with Connally that Yarborough was in the second, not in the leading car of the motorcade which was fired into by the assassin.

Yarborough made a greater mark in history the following year, when he was the sole southern senator to vote for the epoch-making Civil Rights Act of 1964. Before that he had steered through Congress the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the first legislation ever in the United States to commit the federal government to support universities since the land grants made in the 19th century.

As chairman of the Senate's Labor and Public Welfare Committee in the 1960s Yarborough consistently and effectively pushed through liberal measures including increases in medical care and the minimum wage.

Ralph Yarborough's life explodes the notion that liberalism in America is a political doctrine associated with the elite. He was born in 1903 on a "hard scrabble" farm in east Texas, a region of corn and cotton farming with a legacy of slavery more like the old South than the open rangeland of west Texas. He was the seventh of 11 children of a farmer.

He won a nomination to the United States Military Academy at West Point, but did not stay. He worked variously as a teacher, as a farm labourer, and building oil storage tanks. In the Twenties he worked his way to Europe on a freighter before returning home to the University of Texas law school at Austin.

He rose rapidly, serving as assistant attorney general of Texas from 1931 to 1935 and as a state judge from 1936 to 1941. When war came, he volunteered for the army and served under General George Patton in Europe, winning the Bronze Star and ending as a lieutenant-colonel. He was briefly the military governor of a large part of Honshu in Japan.

After the war he practised law in Austin. Three times he ran for governor of Texas, and each time he was defeated by conservative Democrats close to the oil industry. At last, in 1957, he was elected, defeating the ultra-conservative Martin Dies. Yarborough remained in the Senate until he was defeated by the future vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen in 1971.

Along the way, he defeated the future president George Bush for the Senate in 1964. The names of Lyndon Johnson, Connally, Bush and Bentsen, all of whom Yarborough opposed from the Left, are a reminder of how important Texas was then to national politics.

Yarborough was an uncompromising man. He once got into, and lost, a physical wrestling match on the floor of the senate chamber with the senator Strom Thurmond, the leader of the unreconstructed "Dixiecrat" wing of the Democratic Party at the time.

At his peak, Yarborough was a flamboyant stump speaker. At his country meetings, his poor constituents would throw dollar bills and coins on to a blanket to pay for his expenses. He once said that "you take a terrific loss financially if you play it straight" in politics.

Yarborough's relations with Lyndon Johnson were never easy and in 1968 they froze to sub-zero temperatures when Yarborough backed the Vietnam peace movement led by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Two years later Bentsen was able to use Yarborough's attacks on the Vietnam war to defeat him.

Ralph Webster Yarborough, politician: born Chandler, Texas 8 June 1903; married; died Austin, Texas 27 January 1996.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments