The Ranch Where the Politicians Roam
On a manhunt in 1877, a hard-bitten Texas ranger named John B. Armstrong captured the notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin after what the officer later described in a telegram back home as a "lively shooting" aboard a train in Florida. The capture made a hero of Mr. Armstrong, who bought a 50,000-acre plot from the owners of an old Spanish land grant using, according to one account, the $4,000 reward from the capture of the notorious gunman. When Mr. Armstrong died there in 1913, the land passed down to his heirs and soon was known by the family name.
Vice President Cheney's mishap on the property last weekend drew the curtain back on a place that has become a quiet destination for the powerful, rivaling Hyannisport, Kennebunkport and the Hamptons as a setting where important relationships have been nurtured. The rise of the Armstrong Ranch, and its even larger and more famous neighbor next door, the King Ranch, is as much a story of the rise of the Republican party in Texas, and George W. Bush as it is about the Armstrong family itself.
Over the last five decades, the Republican pilgrimage to the Armstrong Ranch has become a familiar ritual, dating back to the 1950's, when John Armstrong's descendant Tobin and his wife, Anne, first became active in Republican politics, putting them at the center of a small circle in a time when most Texans were still yellow dog Democrats. The South Texas property became a meeting place for rising political figures.
Ranches and power have gone hand in hand in Texas political history. The state's huge ranches — particularly the biggest, the South Texas ones — were patterned closely on the patron culture of the great Spanish ranches, with a landowner acting as almost a local sovereign, controlling the lives of the workers in his charge and deferred to in social and cultural matters, large and small.
The political power of the Texas ranches persisted into the 20th century. Representative Richard Kleberg came from the family that owned the King Ranch and was a powerhouse in Congress in the 1930's and 40's.
In the late 40's, opponents of young Lyndon B. Johnson accused him of stealing a United States Senate election by using the South Texas political bosses who were controlled by the ranch owners, something that Johnson always denied.
"Back in the '40's, Lyndon Johnson could still steal a Senate election in South Texas with the help of the big patrons," said Calvin Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.
"But what happened is, in the late 60's and early 70's, is the feds came in and threw some people in handcuffs, along with some of the bosses of those South Texas counties, and it cleaned up a lot," he said. "But you notice, even today, you can still call the local sheriff and say, 'We've had an accident out on the ranch, not to worry, it's under control,' and the sheriff says, 'Yes ma'am, I'll drive out in the morning and we'll piece this thing together.' There's still a deference to the ranch owners that would astound most Americans."
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