In 1976, Texas Monthly, the monthly magazine about Texas, published a long article asking why Dolph Briscoe, then the incumbent governor, even wanted the job. He was apparently spending as little time in Austin as possible, preferring to decamp to his ranch in Uvalde, but the details of his schedule were a bit vague, given that Briscoe's office had repeatedly declined or ignored requests to tell the press how the governor was spending his time, leaving reporters to try to puzzle it out by looking at scraps of evidence such as the state payroll records for "acting governors." (Whenever a governor leaves Texas, the state has to hire a substitute.) The few comments Briscoe had offered were not reassuring; he had said, for example, that he didn't even keep an agenda himself, preferring to rely on what his secretary told him. The article's writer, Griffin Smith Jr., noted that this kind of thing would never happen if Texas had a CEO: "If a corporation ran its headquarters with the same haphazard accountability, it would be out of business in six months." Two years later, the state elected its first Republican governor since Reconstruction: Bill Clements, a businessman from Dallas.
At times, Texans have seemed to trust businessmen more than their own government. On a steamy morning in April 1947, for example, there was a fire on board the French vessel SS Grandcamp. The ship had pulled into the port of Texas City, just inland from Galveston Island, the night before, and when the fire triggered an explosion--the Grandcamp was carrying more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, much of the town was flattened. Nearly 600 people were killed; some 5,000 were injured, in many cases gruesomely; and about 2,000 were left homeless. It was, and remains, the deadliest industrial accident in American history.
People in Texas City felt that the government was to blame: no one had warned them of the explosive potential of ammonium nitrate, and after the catastrophe, the federal government was disinclined to pitch in. "Two weeks after the explosion, the small-town mayor flew to Washington to appear before the House Appropriations Committee, to beg them to approve a measure allocating a mere $15m to repair Texas City," wrote Texan journalist Bill Minutaglio. "The money [would] never come."
THe next year, the widows of Texas City became the first Americans to sue the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1948--a new law that gave Americans, for the first time, the right to hold the federal government liable for certain damages. A district court ruled in their favor. In 1953, however, the Supreme Court turned them down, reasoning that people didn't have the right to sue the government over things that had happened during the normal business of governing. Europe had been devastated by World War II. Rebuilding it was in the interests of the United States. Fertilizer would help. And so the ammonium nitrate shipments were a national security issue. Sorry, widows.
Luckily, Texas City had some help from the private sector. Within days of the explosion, the people got what they considered to be good news. Monsanto, one of the biggest employers in the city, announced that it would resume operations as soon as possible. It would build a new chemical plant even bigger than the old one, which had burned down. "In Texas City, if there is resistance to the idea of Monsanto rebuilding its massive chemical plant, not a word is uttered publicly," explained Minutaglio. "There is, instead, widespread relief. It is saluted as industry's instant belief in the future of Texas City. There will be jobs again. Someone, at least, thinks that the city is worth reclaiming." Charities also helped with the rebuilding. Sam Maceo, a businessman and mobster from Galveston, launched the Texas City Relief Fund and arranged for Frank Sinatra to sing at a benefit concert.
It seemed like a clear-cut case: in the absence of a strong, or even adequate, public sector, alternatives emerged. Business was the big one.