High Plains Grifters

The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes BY Bryan Burrough. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 464 pages. $29.

The cover of The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes

Texas has long had a jujitsu hold on the American psyche. Residents of other states share a combined revulsion and admiration for the Lone Star State, the only member of the union that—stop me if you’ve heard this—was a country before it was a state. For the most part, this wariness is mutual, as one can quickly gather from the occasional pickup-truck bumper sticker bearing an image of the Texas flag with secede stenciled over the top—an odd posture for a resident of the state recently governed by the last occupant of the Oval Office.

Much of this ambivalence is of a piece with the distrust many Americans feel for the state’s powerful energy industry. Witness, for example, the tiresome reemergence ofT. Boone Pickens, the Dallas billionaire who’s launched a multimedia campaign for the Pickens Plan, a wind-farming scheme he insists (wrongly, by the way) will free the Unites States from the scourge of foreign oil. The mogul is but one in a long line of superwealthy Texans endowed with a Messiah complex. They’ve basked in the national limelight courtesy of their vows to deliver—pick one of the following—better football (Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys; Pickens, Oklahoma State University), better basketball (Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks), a better president (H. Ross Perot, 1992 and 1996), and a better energy policy (Pickens, again).

In his new book, The Big Rich, Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough reminds us that decades before Pickens, Jones, et al., a quartet of moguls helped define the country’s image of Texas and the oil business. The Big Four—Hugh Roy Cullen, Sid Richardson, H. L. Hunt, and Clint Murchison—laid the foundation for the big, rich Texans who were to follow by espousing archconservative causes and spending millions of dollars on political campaigns. (Pickens has held true to the blueprint, helping to bankroll the notorious 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth assaults on John Kerry.) For instance, Cullen was the single biggest contributor to the 1952 reelection campaign of anti-Communist zealot Joe McCarthy, and the Houston oil magnate once declared McCarthy “one of the greatest men in America.”

Hunt, the billionaire bigamist who drilled his way to fortune in the vast East Texas oil fields, was also a steadfast anti-Communist. In the 1950s, he was spending one million dollars per year on a radio and TV program called Facts Forum, which fervently espoused McCarthy’s claim that America was being overrun by Communists. Hunt’s ultra-right-wing beliefs were so extreme that one of his friends said Hunt believed Communism came to America “when the government took over the distribution of mail.” Hunt’s son Nelson Bunker Hunt, who later tried, and failed, to corner the world silver market, embraced his father’s politics by becoming a key backer of the John Birch Society.

During the 1950s and ’60s, conservative Texans were so prominent The Nation declared that “virtually every Radical Right movement of the postwar era has been propped up by Texas oil millionaires.” None of this was lost on John F. Kennedy. Burrough reports that on the morning of November 22, 1963, Kennedy was relaxing in his hotel suite in Fort Worth. Scanning the local papers, he was greeted by an incendiary advertisement in the Dallas Morning News—paid for in part by Nelson Bunker Hunt—that accused him of being a dupe for the Commies. Shortly before leaving for Dallas that day, Kennedy turned to Jackie and said, “We’re heading into nut country.”

As he dissects the role of Texas oil fortunes in fertilizing nuts, Burrough also provides a winning profile of the most colorful (and perhaps the most tragic) of the old-Texas oil zillionaires: Glenn McCarthy, the dirt-poor wildcatter who made it big for a few years before self-destructing in a maelstrom of hard-drinking self-delusion. McCarthy, who was the model for Jett Rink, the lead character in the Edna Ferber novel Giant (later made into a movie with James Dean playing Rink), provides the enduring cartoon of the Texas oilman— crude, a little dumb, and armed with too much money for his own good.

Burrough overreaches when he claims that the influence of the Big Four largely ended in the late 1980s. That’s an arguable point, given that Ray Hunt, one of H. L. Hunt’s sons, now heads Hunt Oil, which ranks among the world’s largest privately held energy companies, with operations in Peru, Yemen, Canada, and the United States. The younger Hunt was also a key financial backer of George W. Bush during the 2000 election, and Hunt Oil recently announced it had won a drilling concession in Kurdistan, much to the chagrin of the Bush administration and the Iraqi central government, both of which want the Kurds—and their huge oil reserves—to be controlled by Iraqis in Baghdad. Further, the Bass family in Fort Worth, the heirs to Richardson’s fortune, still wields enormous wealth and influence.

But that’s a quibble. By any measure, The Big Rich is a fine product, well researched and briskly told. Burrough has produced an indispensable guide to the knotty fascination—deserved or not—that Texas spurs in the American imagination.

Robert Bryce’s most recent book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence” (PublicAffairs, 2008).