Few can claim to have had a more meteoric rise in the history of American politics than Ben Barnes. By the age of twenty-six, the Texas democrat was already Speaker of the House, the youngest to do so in that state’s history. Three years later, Barnes became lieutenant governor, and former President Lyndon Johnson would declare at a fundraiser, “Ben Barnes will someday be the next president of the United States from Texas.” He was well on his way to fulfilling Johnson’s prophecy when scandal tore through Texas’s Democratic Party like wild fire. Barnes got caught in the blaze, and the swiftness of his political rise would be matched by an even swifter fall. Yet despite how brief his time in politics was, Barnes witnessed first-hand some of the most dramatic events of the twentieth century, not the least of which was the killing of John F. Kennedy exactly fifty years ago in Barnes’ home state of Texas.
“I think most people would say I’m blindly optimistic,” Ben Barnes says today, sitting in the living room of his summer home in ‘Sconset where a Texas flag flies over his front lawn. “They’d say, ‘Barnes gets hit and falls to the canvass and gets right up…that’s his lifestyle.’” With his down-home Texan drawl, Barnes hasn’t lost touch of his Lone Star roots, which trace back to a dusty peanut farm in a Comanche County, Texas. He comes from an era when democrats dominated politics in Texas, exemplified by men like Lyndon Johnson and John Connally, both of whom became staunch allies of Barnes.
“Politics brought me here,” Barnes says of Nantucket. “I came here for the democratic senatorial campaign in 1991, and bought a house in 1995.” These days Barnes can be found playing eighteen holes at the Nantucket Golf Club, where he’s a member, or sidled up to the bar at the Chanticleer where he can chew the fat with the best of them. “I look at coming to Nantucket as one of the greatest decisions I ever made,” he says. However, on this fall afternoon on Nantucket, it’s Barnes’ earlier decisions as a young politician that we spend the most time discussing.
“It was an unbelievable time in my life,” he says, now seventy-five. “It was fate and luck, but here I was, I’m [in my early twenties] and I’m planning Kennedy’s trip to Texas and the president is assassinated. I get elected Speaker of the House, and then I get elected chairman of the National Legislative Conference, and I become a national player. Johnson becomes President and then Vietnam becomes the big issue. Then Dr. King is assassinated. Robert Kennedy is assassinated.” Barnes outlines the events succinctly, these chapters of his political life, and it’s hard to imagine this all happening in the course of a decade. He still speaks with the unpretentious ease of a Texas-style politician, a regular guy you’d want to grab a beer with. It was this straight-shooting way of politicking that became his trademark.
Upon entering the House of Representatives at the age of twenty-one, Barnes forged alliances with Texas’s most powerful, specifically a man by the name of John Connally. Connally had worked closely with Lyndon Johnson before Johnson became Vice President, and so it was that when President Kennedy wanted to schedule a fundraising tour through Texas, Governor Connally put his best man, Ben Barnes, in charge of the details. Little did they know that this seemingly unremarkable tour would end up changing the course of American history.
“We had a big argument that there was not supposed to be a parade in Dallas,” Barnes remembers of the five weeks he spent planning Kennedy’s visit. “I left a meeting one night saying that we were going to call off the trip if they insisted on having a parade in Texas.” Dallas’ ultraconservative climate had boiled over in recent years (“They spat on Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson as they walked across the street in downtown Dallas two years earlier”), and Barnes was concerned about having the most liberal president in American history paraded through town. Moreover, Connally’s wife warned Barnes that the proposed schedule would not give Jackie Kennedy sufficient time to prepare for the evening’s gala at the governor’s mansion.
Despite Barnes’ objections, another Texas politician, Senator Ralph Yarborough, insisted that if Kennedy was going to raise money in Texas, the public ought to see him. “Connally and Johnson, neither of them wanted the parade,” Barnes remembers. “So Ralph Yarborough called Robert Kennedy and said we’re making a bad mistake for not having the parade and not letting the people see him.” Robert Kennedy called Johnson, Johnson called Connally, and Barnes and the rest of the planning team were pressured to proceed with the parade. “At the time, of course, it just seemed like we were engaged in typical politicking,” Barnes wrote in his 2006 memoir, Barn Burning Barn Building. “But when I think back to those planning meetings at the Petroleum Club, I wish to God we’d have found a way to talk [Yarborough] out of it. It makes me sick to think of it, even more than 40 years later.” So it was that on November 22, 1963, gunshots rang out in Dallas, killing President Kennedy and gravely wounding Governor Connally.
“The trip had gone perfect up till then, ab- solutely perfect,” Barnes says, “but now we get off into assassination theories.” He continues, “Lee Harvey Oswald went to work at the bookstore, the book depository, where he was located when he shot the president, thirty-two days before we decided on that parade route. So it’s not that he found out the parade route and ran down and got a job.” Barnes says the parade route was originally not supposed to head that direction, but it was changed in order to shorten the parade and give Jackie Kennedy more time to prepare for the evening’s gala. “Do I think Lee Harvey Oswald had some encouragement? Yes. Do I think he went to Cuba, and do I think he went to Russia, and do I think he was crazy? Yes… Were there more people part of planning that? Yes. But was there another gunman? No,” Barnes says. “I have stood in that window, and I grew up shooting and hunt- ing…[although] I had not had any marine training, with a little bit of luck, I could have gotten off those rounds.” He nods to the window, “It’s not much further than that hedge out there.”
Barnes was in Austin preparing for the president’s gala when the shoot- ing took place. He flew back to Dallas immediately and then helped lead a prayer service. Kennedy was dead, and Barnes’ close friend and confidant, Governor John Connally, was clinging to life. “It was, indeed, a day long remembered,” Barnes wrote, “not just in Texas, but throughout the entire world.”
Ten years later, Barnes was poised for a long and prosperous career in politics. He was just thirty-four years old and his chances looked good that he’d be elected Governor of Texas. After that, perhaps he’d run for president, as Johnson had foretold. But there was something brewing in Texas. Legislators were under investigation for bribery by the SEC, what became known as the Sharpstown Scandal. Barnes claims to have had never met or spoken with Frank W. Sharp, the banker that was bribing legislators in return for bills being passed, but soon his name started getting dragged through the dirt kicked up by his colleagues.
Texas was the strongest democratic state in the South, and, according to Barnes, President Nixon wanted the party destroyed, him in particular. After Johnson’s public endorsement of Barnes as a future president, he was a marked man. “On my website, you can listen to Nixon’s telephone conversations with John Mitchell, saying, ‘You gotta go to Texas and get something on Barnes,’” he says. “Nixon said, ‘I don’t care about the rest, if Barnes is not involved with that, get him involved in something. I want a bunch of bad publicity.’” False stories were leaked to the press, and despite Barnes pleading his innocence, the court of public opinion found him guilty, and he was not elected governor. The scandal would mark the end of Barnes’ political career, as well as the end of democratic dominance in Texas forever.
Still, Barnes considers himself very fortunate for the lives he’s led. After Nixon ran him out of politics, he had a successful career in development, which was ultimately cut short by the crash of 1987. He then reentered politics, this time as a lobbyist, and today the Ben Barnes Group is one of the most powerful firms in the country. “I’ve been very lucky,” Barnes says. And yet it’s hard to imagine any career comparing to his early tenure in Texas. Watching the memories play over Barnes’ mind in his living room on Nantucket, he still appears connected to that driven twenty-five-year-old who was put in charge of what became one of the most significant events in American history, a day that changed the world. Fifty years later, Ben Barnes is left, like the rest of us, to mull over what could have been.