Why you should care
Because straight-shooting candidates with little political experience often shoot themselves in the foot … more than once.
It was meant as a joke, Clayton Williams would later claim of his off-the-cuff remark. But almost nobody, from the reporters assembled that day at Williams’ West Texas ranch to the millions of women who would hear about the remark later, found it very funny. Hoping to show off his cowboy bona fides, Williams, a wealthy business leader and the Republican nominee for Texas governor, had invited reporters to his ranch to watch a cattle roundup on a dreary March day in 1990. In the end, the straight-shooting candidate came away looking less like the consummate cowboy than just another good ol’ boy.
With the weather threatening to spoil the event, Williams, a well-liked entrepreneur with no real political experience, tried to make light of the unfortunate situation, quipping to one of his cooks in the presence of reporters that bad weather was like rape. “If it’s inevitable,” he reportedly said, “just relax and enjoy it.” In the wake of the uproar over the comment, as Mike Cochran chronicles in the authorized biography Claytie (Williams’ nickname), the host was enormously apologetic, explaining that the remark was made in the company of men and that “rape is not funny in any way.”
His slogan: “Make Texas Great Again.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Claytie would go on to lose the November election to Democrat Ann Richards. What is surprising, and perhaps relevant to another outspoken Republican candidate likely to confront a Democratic woman in this year’s presidential election, was that Williams’ rape comment was hardly the singular gaffe that sank his candidacy.
Williams was a colorful, risk-taking wildcatter long before he began his brief political run at age 58. “He really does wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat all the time,” the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins wrote. “He hunts. He drinks. He occasionally gets into fistfights.” Williams had risen from working alongside Mexican farm laborers as a teenager to founding an energy and telecommunications conglomerate that made him one of the wealthiest Americans by the mid-1980s.
Williams first got many Texans’ attention when he rode a horse up the steps of the state capitol in 1987 to lobby against a communications bill. By 1990, he had positioned himself as a straight-talking maverick willing to spend millions of his own money to ride up those steps again and enter the governor’s office. His slogan: “Make Texas Great Again.”
On the strength of his fortune and cowboy charm, Williams, a major underdog, had surged to a commanding victory in the GOP primary. In television ads, he stood in front of a fake chain gang, promising to teach teenage drug users the “joy of bustin’ rocks.” His Democratic opponent, 57-year-old State Treasurer Ann Richards, was also known for her sharp tongue, garnering attention at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she quipped that George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” But Richards had entered the general campaign with far less money and higher unfavorable ratings after a bruising primary race in which questions were raised about whether she had ever used illegal drugs (Richards was a recovering alcoholic).
Despite the lessons learned from his rape joke that March, Williams struggled to remove the boot from his own mouth. In April, he admitted to a reporter that he had frequented Mexican brothels as a youth, and that summer he went on the offensive yet again, calling Richards an “honorary lesbian” because she had gay rights groups supporting her. “His rape gaffe alone might not have been dispositive,” says Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and co-author of Claytie and the Lady, but it “was only the beginning.”
Yet Williams continued to hold, and even grow, his lead in the polls. As late as September, polls showed him beating Richards 48 to 33 percent. If there was a line to be crossed with his outspoken remarks, Williams hadn’t found it. Then, in late September, he responded to Richards’ claim that she was closing the gap in the polls by saying, “I hope she didn’t go back to drinking again.”
Perhaps the final straw came in October 1990, when Williams, upset over Richards’ unsubstantiated claims that the bank he owned was implicated in a federal drug money-laundering investigation, declined to shake her outstretched hand at a joint event before news cameras. That refusal broke the goodwill bank for Williams, not to mention the “Cowboy Code,” says Tolleson-Rinehart, “since a cowboy would never refuse to shake a lady’s hand, and [it] may have sealed voters’ opinions of him.”
Richards, like Hillary Clinton, still had considerable negatives of her own, but educated, urban Republican women defected to her in droves and she eked out a 2-point victory. The next day, Williams returned to his multimillion-dollar empire, where he remains today as chairman and CEO of Clayton Williams Energy Inc. In many ways, his defeat paved the way for another Republican cowboy, George W. Bush, who could not have beaten Richards in the 1994 gubernatorial race and earned a platform for his 2000 presidential bid had Williams not lost in 1990. And perhaps that’s how it was meant to go. “If the Lord wanted me to be governor,” Williams observes in Claytie, “he wouldn’t have brought in that storm.”