by BILL PETERSON
I moved to Los Angeles 18 months ago after living in Hays County for 13 years. Dining recently in Los Angeles with a friend I hadn’t seen since long before I went to Texas, he told me I picked up a bit of Mark Twain while I was there. Of course, I didn’t pick up a drop of Mark Twain in Texas. But I sure got a load of Bob Barton.
You couldn’t work with Bob as I did and not be infected by him. Here was this happy old man, aging the way every old man should age, fighting the way every old man should fight, laughing the way every old man should laugh, though not altogether satisfied with the world around him, but that had nothing to do with age. Bob Barton wasn’t ever altogether satisfied with the world around him, but he fought against it and laughed with it, never showing rage or buffoonery and always wanting a better everything for everybody — except for the wealthy, the powerful, and, especially, the corrupt, who he ridiculed and tried to defeat.
Barton’s pride was a different kind, the pride of the underdog whose victories are more difficult and more worth savoring. But not for very long, because there’s always another fight somewhere. And there’s this: if you win too many fights, you’re no longer the underdog. It was not uncommon to hear him complain that his newspaper had become the established newspaper and he often praised opposing journalists for being “feisty,” even if their journalism was shoddy and avowedly one-sided. He loved feistiness because it is the antidote to lethargy, which is the death of democracy.
We say that Bob Barton was a newspaperman and a politician, but you can’t really be both and, when you try, you end up being neither, because your politics will compromise your newspapering and your newspapering will compromise your politics. Instead, Barton was something larger that encompasses both. Bob Barton was a crusader, and he admired crusaders of every stripe. Barton didn’t merely have beliefs. He fought to make them true, his belief in justice and opportunity for everyone at the very front, back, top and bottom of them all. He had a newspaper to fight with, so he fought with it. He had a political arena to fight in, so he fought in it. If the fights happened to involve both, as they inevitably did, bring it on.
In these more complicated and specialized times, we say that Barton’s service to two masters amounts to a conflict of interest. But Barton was a man of the small town where there aren’t many people, so the very same person sometimes has to wear multiple hats or the work of the political community doesn’t get done. The work of the political community was everything to Barton. That was his one and only interest. There was no conflict in that.
Bob Barton died Saturday morning from congestive heart failure at age 82, and whether the world knows it or not, it changed because we can’t replace a man like him. There will always be political operators, publishers, crusaders and characters, but no one else can combine them the way he did. And he absolutely loved Hays County, especially the part where he ran, the part with the railroad tracks that connected Buda, the little town where he grew up, with Kyle, the little town where he got his start, then with San Marcos, where he went to college and later ran something of a political salon at the Colloquium Bookstore.
So many people care only to be around those who agree with them as the capacity for civic discourse wanes. But Barton could maintain the same acquaintances at the same time as personal friends and political adversaries. So many people can’t relate to others across generations, but that wasn’t a problem for him, either. Friend and foe alike will remember Bob Barton as a Democrat, the big “D” kind with the specific political affiliation. But Barton was larger than that, a small “D” democrat who lived in his publications and political activities for the public process, though inflected with the progressive belief that everybody does better when everybody does better.
I first met Barton in December 1999, probably in the exact same spot where many of his oldest friends might have met him in 1939. It was at Buda Elementary School, the Kunkel Room, on an electric night when the people of a small town inveighed against the changes of a coming century. A developer from California wanted to put thousands of new houses on the Giberson property at the intersection of FM 1626 and FM 967. How such a small town could produce so many people to speak against the proposal was beyond me. Dozens went to the podium, about 100, all told. We got out of there at midnight. Now and then, someone would go up and take a rip at how Barton’s newspaper covered the story, later to be sure and get in a friendly word with him. The people won that time. The developer dropped the project.
A few months later, Bob invited me to his 70th birthday party at the Cheatham Street Warehouse, where he introduced me to several people who I would know better through the years. About a year after that, I was editing his newspaper.
Barton ran weekly newspapers for more than 50 years, a lot of little newspapers that added up to one newspaper, his newspaper, which always was viewed as “the Democrat paper.” But if someone wanted to give all sides a hearing in his paper, he didn’t object. He might wince, but he didn’t object.
So, Bob, do you ever regret getting into the newspaper business?
“About once a week,” he said.
I never saw a more pained look on Bob’s face than the night when I produced a story in which the head of the Hays County Republicans made a case for the GOP’s appeal to Hispanic voters. This was a dozen years ago, as the Republicans swept across Texas and knocked Democrats off of every perch. Dozens of years before then, Barton campaigned against unequal treatment for Hispanic students in the San Marcos schools, and dozens of years before then he fought to integrate the Kyle schools.
These were hard times for the Hays County Democrats a dozen years ago, and Barton took it personally. A portion of the party’s trouble issued from Barton’s influence within it, because a good number of conservative Democrats who he would never support became Republicans and started winning county offices. By 2002, the Hays County Democrats were so hard up that a 22 year old recently graduated from college ran unopposed in the primary for the local state legislative seat, and the party had no one to run for county judge. One night, when it was just me and Bob at The Free Press as I put together the paper, Bob was on the phone lines, really burning ‘em up, cajoling people, twisting arms, talking sweet, trying to find someone, anyone, to run for county judge. He finally prevailed upon Bill Liddle, a political scientist from Texas State, who lost by only ten points even though he spent but $10,000 and the GOP incumbent spent ten times as much.
In 2003, a disgruntled Kyle citizen who is best forgotten initiated a recall effort against Kyle Mayor James Adkins because she hated the city manager. Barton ran the ground campaign against the recall. As the editor of his newspaper, I felt compromised and tried hard to balance our coverage. Barton never objected to that. And if I had the appropriate journalistic objections to his advocacy, there was never any question that he did the right thing morally, because the recall effort was completely destructive, grown entirely from bitterness and ignorance.
That’s the problem with journalism, the really big problem. The correct thing to do journalistically isn’t necessarily the right thing to do morally, because the journalist, in his reporting capacity, doesn’t speak the language of right and wrong at all. The journalist is to stick to facts, and there are no moral facts. There are only moral beliefs and values, which are absolutely no less right or wrong for that, but the reporter should leave them to others. Barton wouldn’t do that. So much the worse for journalism ethics. If journalism ethics can’t even speak to right and wrong, in the larger sense, then they are ethics in name only. But if the journalist is too beholden to one side of a debate, even the right side, then the public mistrusts his information, he loses credibility, he becomes a journalist in name only, and public discourse suffers for lack of confidence that the unvarnished facts are out there, that our differences of opinion address some kind of a shared reality.
Barton didn’t care much for toeing that line, but he understood that the line needed to be toed somewhere. He marked the spot with personal civility. Barton wasn’t one who went out of his way to antagonize his political foes. He made up for it by humorously antagonizing his friends, who could be on any side of a political divide. One day, when Donn Brooks said he wanted Barton to write his obituary, Bob told him he would have to die first.
You almost never saw Barton in a coat and tie, and you absolutely never saw him in a fancy car. He sometimes confused city ways for arrogance and rural ways for humility because he was a rural man, through and through, and a Southerner, through and through, and rural Southerners are good at disguising their arrogance by playing dumb and smiling when they are angry. Barton never played dumb, but he did smile when he was angry, and you knew you really got under him when he showed you that smile.
It wasn’t the real Bob Barton smile, the smile that went with those endless, loud, rambling, foggy descriptions of his life and times, his hopes and dreams, those lectures that were always so instructive and entertaining — until you tried to get a word in edgewise. That was the smile you saw when his side won politically, or when the paper hit some good stories, or when he talked a little bit about baseball, or when he was just happy for someone else.
For all of Barton’s conflicts, his value to the newspaper, for his institutional knowledge alone, cannot be over-stated. He knew everything about Hays County from the very beginning of history. If you had a question and an hour, Bob was the man to see. Even by the time I met him, he had already forgotten more about Hays County than anyone else will ever know. There have been editors at his newspaper who tried to ignore him, if for no other reason than there simply isn’t time. They sold his newspaper short.
Most of all, Barton did deathless service to the communities of Buda and Kyle just by putting out a newspaper that tried to give these towns a serious sense of what they are and what they face, and he did this at considerable personal expense. The Free Press bled money for decades. Not until very early in 21st century did it ever turn any kind of a profit.
There would still be a Buda, and a Kyle, if there were never a Bob Barton, but they wouldn’t be as civil as they are, and they wouldn’t know themselves (or each other) as well as they do. Not long ago, on his way to Odessa Permian, Blake Feldt raved about the decency of the Hays community during his two years coaching football at Hays High School. The decency and inclusiveness of those communities, Buda and Kyle, is unmistakable. Venture not very far, just a few miles in any direction, and that decency disappears.
More than any other man or woman, Bob Barton set that tone of decency, with his newspapers, with his passion for fairness, just by walking among us and showing us how civic life is done when it’s done right. The bane of our political life today is the decline of decency and civility, the lack of respect for the legitimacy of the opposition. Even at the local level, it seems that no one can run for office anymore, or prevail in any kind of conflict, without seeking the complete moral annihilation of his opponent. Bob Barton never sought any other human being’s annihilation, moral or otherwise. He merely wanted to defeat their policies, then argue with them some more.
We already didn’t have enough of him. Barton was a good sport who respected the varieties of possible human experience even when he did not understand them. Whether he understood them or not didn’t matter one bit to Bob Barton. These people have rights.
What’s next? Remembering Bob Barton. That’s all we’ve got. Name a school after him, name a major street for him, build a statue of him — all of that is fine, and all of it together doesn’t recapture what we have lost. Our best bet is fairness and generosity in political discourse, concern for the least well off among us and respect for the dignity of the rest. Remember Bob Barton.
Bill Peterson co-founded the San Marcos Mercury with Brad Rollins in 2008. He edited The Free Press from 2001-2005, The Hays Highway from 2005-2008, the Mercury in 2008 and San Marcos Local News from 2009-2011.