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Review: The Big Rich by Bryan Burrough

The Spindletop oil field, 1903

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To give some notion of just how big the Spindletop oil field near Beaumont, Texas, originally was: When it was tapped in 1901, that single gusher tripled American’s entire production of oil overnight.

According to author Bryan Burrough, Spindletop and what followed began one of the largest accumulations of private wealth in world history.

Burrough grew up in Temple, Texas. And pretty much anyone who has been raised in Texas knows about Spindletop. So when his New York editor suggested a book on Texas oil money, Burrough writes that it took him all of 30 seconds to outline his next work. It’s a lively, epic new history, The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.

Burrough is best known as the co-author of Barbarians at the Gates, his chronicle of the botched, multi-billion-dollar buyout of RJR Nabisco. He also wrote Public Enemies, a slam-bang history of  the bank-robbing wave of the 1920s and how J. Edgar Hoover used it to boost the FBI. Together, those two volumes required Burrough to research ruthless businessmen, Washington politics, swaggering egos and hard-scrabble criminals.

Excellent preparation for writing about Texas oil.

Texas oil, Burrough says, pretty much created our modern world. Texas oil was so cheap that steamships and railroads switched from coal to diesel. Cheap oil made the auto industry possible — and everything else that followed: freeways, suburbia, jet travel. Swimming pools, movie stars. The whole wonderful, plentiful, carbon-burning, ozone-depleting spree that has been modern life.

H. L. Hunt, Glenn McCarthy, Roy Cullen, Clint Murchison, Sr.

Burrough concentrates on the Big Four families of oil: the Cullens in Houston, the combined Richardson and Bass families in Fort Worth and the Hunts and Murchisons from Dallas. Plenty of books have been written about these people before. Indeed, many of the stories of excess are probably familiar to Texans: how hard-living Houston wildcatter Glenn McCarthy became the inspiration for the James Dean character in the movie Giant, how Clint Murchison, Jr., brought the Cowboys to Dallas, how H. L. Hunt maintained not one, not two, but three different families and how his son Nelson tried to corner the silver market for his own strange reasons and just about wrecked his inheritance.

But Burrough excels at finding new links between these stories, putting them into larger contexts. He’s also good at digging through old court records and presidential papers. He wants to provide a more nuanced, longer-timespan portrait of these men than has been around — although what he writes is still plenty dark.

Texas oil helped shape our modern world. Texas oil money, Burrough argues, helped shape modern American politics, especially the part about briefcases full of cash being delivered in the dead of night. Texas oil didn’t start that particular game, but it took it to the Super Bowl. The contributions ballooned. As early as 1952, the biggest single donor in the presidential election was Texas oilman Roy Cullen.

And his money — unlike that of many Texans then — went to the Republican Party. According to Burrough, Texas oil money helped bankroll the modern conservative movement. William F. Buckley, to give a single example, inspired conservatives with his magazine, National Review. Despite his air of being born at Yale, Buckley was the son of a Texas oil millionaire (that didn’t help him get any money out of Hunt, though).

Many of the Texas oilmen were diehard anti-Semites and old-school Southern segregationists. And when they bolted the Democratic party, first for the Dixiecrats and then for the Republicans, they brought their angry, combative politics with them. Texas oil millionaires helped make Joseph McCarthy and his Red-baiting fury a national force. They fought civil rlghts legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime.  H. L. Hunt syndicated a radio program across the country in which, when not pitching his diet products, he argued that rich people who pay more taxes should have more votes. Burrough even sees some of the oil men’s early media efforts as attempts to create something along the lines of what would follow much later: FOX News.

And over time, even as they preached their ideas of small government and free markets, Texas oil men used their backroom influence to stifle competition and snag tremendous federal benefits for themselves. Some, especially Murchison, didn’t really seem to care which party was in power, as long as the politicians delivered what he needed.

Burrrough (right) argues that all this is why — when John F. Kennedy was assassinated — many Americans were already prepared to think the worst of Dallas.

ButThe Big Rich is hardly a political indictment. It’s a multi-generational, multi-family saga that traces the transformation of these fortunes. It’s a transformation from nouveau riche wildness to establishment power (or decline) that Burrough is actually wistful about. And it’s a long enough transformation that it causes his book to skip and drag towards the end.

Simply put, vulgar, hard-drinking Texas oil millionaires ain’t what they used to be. There’s a sense of loss here, a loss of that wildcatting, gamble-it-all spirit. The heirs of these first headstrong eccentrics, conservative radicals and near-geniuses grew even more careless or carefree and frittered away their fortunes. Or they became much more business-like, their politics turned more careful, more mainstream. And having helped shape presidents from Johnson through Reagan, they finally gained the White House with the Bushes — from their own buttoned-down, country-club, corporate-president clan.

in the end, Texas oil men gave our culture a new icon to stand next to the cowboy: the rootin-tootin, high-livin’ rich guy from the Lone Star State. From Giant to J. R. Ewing, it was always a bit of a cartoon, a condescending one, as Burrough notes.

But once upon a time, it seemed an innocent, amiable, fun-loving cartoon.