William Perry Clements: Lone-Star Giant

The late governor set the GOP on an upward trajectory in Texas that reshaped American politics.

Today in Dallas, a son of Texas will be laid to rest. The death Sunday at age 94 of former Gov. William Perry Clements Jr. ended a storied life of achievement and service.

For a man who changed the politics of Texas?and thereby of America?he started inauspiciously. As a high school senior in Dallas during the Great Depression, Clements learned his parents were broke and unable to send him to college. He lit out for south Texas to become an oil-field roughneck, sending most of his pay home for his family.

He spent a dozen years bouncing around the oil business until 1947, when at age 29 he began his own business, grandly called Southeastern Drilling. Starting with borrowed money and two used rigs, he built Sedco into the world's largest drilling contractor, pioneering offshore drilling techniques that made its rigs a common sight around the globe.

In December 1972, President Richard Nixon named him deputy secretary of defense. In the next four years he would play a key role in resupplying Israel in the Yom Kippur War, help create the all-volunteer military, modernize the nation's submarine deterrent, and father the cruise missile.

Then in 1978, he ran for governor of Texas. It was an improbable goal. Texas was heavily Democratic, and the last Republican governor had been elected in 1869, when federal troops guarded the polling places.

Clements was an improbable candidate. Gruff, sometimes abrasive, and partial to weirdly colored plaid sport coats, he was not given to political niceties or backslapping. But he had an authenticity that Texans liked. In an astonishing upset, they elected Clements by 17,000 votes out of nearly 2.4 million cast.

He became the strongest modern Texas governor, except perhaps for John Connally in the 1960s. But Connally had a legislature almost wholly Democratic. Clements governed with only 26 Republicans in the 181-member legislature.

The new governor made it respectable to be a Texas Republican, paying particular attention to appointments and policies important to rural counties and small cities, many of which voted reliably Democratic before him and reliably Republican after him. He stressed quality and ability in thousands of appointments to state boards and judicial posts, thereby credentialing a generation of young GOP leaders.

Clements was a conservative reformer, emphasizing business-friendly policies, crime fighting, and education. He reduced the size of government and controlled spending by the frequent use of vetoes. By campaigning hard for the Reagan-Bush ticket in 1980, he turned Texas into the Republican presidential bastion it's been ever since.

Nevertheless, he was defeated for re-election in 1982, a victim of a collapse in oil prices and complaints about rising utility bills. But four years later, he pulled off that rarest of political accomplishments: He ran against the man who had beaten him and won.

His time in office had rough patches. His second gubernatorial term was marred by revelations about a pay-for-play football scandal that occurred during his prior service as chairman of the board of Southern Methodist University. And life dealt him tough blows, such as the murder of his son last October. But he led Texas from the age of cowboys and cotton farmers, roughnecks and Rangers, to the modern era of astronauts and engineers, high tech and telecom.

After leaving office, Clements gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the Boy Scouts of America, Southern Methodist University, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and many worthy organizations. He also helped a young political entrepreneur get started: Clements was my consulting firm's first client. I learned much from him about politics and life, and about how to deal with victory and defeat, both ephemeral.

"Texans" is not the only label for the people of our state. There's a more ancient phrase?"Texians." It carries the sense of old values, of a place where a man can rise by the strength of dreams and character, where his word is his most valuable possession, where everyone is equal in dignity and worth, where plain-speaking and directness are essential values, and friendships endure for life. William P. Clements Jr. was a Texian.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.