In fact, the fear of a brass-knuckle Republican backlash that demolished people emotionally and financially is what kept Barnes and many others in Texas from speaking out about Bush's military service for years. I had always dismissed that kind of fear, in Barnes and the many others who were reluctant to speak out about the president's Guard years. I thought their worries were overdramatic. I mean, how bad could it be? Sure, there'd be criticism, but having the truth finally out in the open would be worth it.
I was beginning to find out how wrong I was.
Political operatives were having a field day turning Ben Barnes into their latest piñata, and his larger-than-life history was making it easy. He had been a boy wonder in Texas politics until a financial scandal in the early seventies had tainted him -- unfairly, as it turned out. He was investigated, along with a number of other state politicians, for taking bribes in the Sharpstown payola scandal. Sharpstown was a Texas-sized bribery and development scandal that destroyed the careers of a number of once-powerful state politicians, who were accused of handing out political favors in exchange for cash. There were never any charges filed against Barnes, never any case brought against him.
He and former Texas governor John Connally had lost their fortunes together rather spectacularly during the savings and loan bust in the eighties. Furthermore, Barnes had a well-deserved reputation as the life of the party, a glib, funny, overwhelmingly charming man who turned heads, slapped backs, and twisted arms to get what he wanted.
Remember that picture of Lyndon Johnson bending a congressman backward over a desk trying to wrangle a vote? That's what Ben Barnes looks like ordering dinner. He has always been louder than life, a living, breathing caricature of a Texas politician. Now the Republicans were turning over every aspect of his personality, every past action, and recycling them into mud to throw at him and defuse his story.
I felt terrible for him and for his family. He had told us that he worried most about the impact doing the interview would have on his wife and two young daughters. Barnes felt he could take whatever came his way. He was afraid they could not or would not.
I knew Barnes was pretty tough. In fact, he had already survived more near-death political experiences and hardball partisan attacks than most human beings could. That pretty much comes with the territory in Texas politics. If you can't take a hit, can't survive a scandal, can't talk your way out of a corner or dominate the field, you had better get out of the game.
Barnes was an expert at the game. He had been on the scene of countless political and financial implosions. It was his political good fortune to always be the one person who would come staggering out of the building when it blew up. He might be covered with smoke and ash, his clothes ripped and ragged, but he would be alive and he would begin rebuilding his career.
I knew he would be able to make it through again. I didn't know that I would not.
By that afternoon, I had taken dozens of increasingly nervous phone calls from Betsy West and Josh Howard. Both of them were reading the blogs and growing more worried by the moment.