(EDITOR'S NOTE: Retro Les is an occasional feature where the editor reexamines and revises his previous columns with appropriate comments. (New comments are in italics.) The following column was first published on Jan. 18, 2015, shortly after Rep. Ralph Hall completed his last term in Congress. He died Thursday.)
The Ralph Hall era in East Texas has come to an end.
It didn't much conclude with a bang, with bands and parades and grand choruses orchestrating him dramatically into the sunset.
The oldest-serving member of Congress in history was defeated in November (2014) and left office at year's end. During those last weeks, when his accomplishments should have been widely celebrated, he was in a hospital recuperating from a car accident, then rehabilitating his hip. Thus, the rather modest send-off.
During his last campaign, Hall's biggest weakness turned out to be his age. Though he did everything, including jumping from a plane, to render that perception harmless, he couldn't escape the lengthening shadow that time casts on every one of us. One of his most significant achievements—time of service—ended up being his enemy.
Some in the 4th District also thought he wasn't conservative enough. But, as these things go, the desire for new blood in the district seemed more compelling to voters than where Hall tipped the scales exactly as a measure of conservatism. (The Tea Party movement did have more to do with Hall's defeat than I gave it credit for here. Also, his opponent, John Ratcliffe, was more adept at using demographic analytics to steer his campaign. Hall relied on shoe leather and old-time campaigning.)
Hall was conservative enough. More importantly, the 91-year-old statesman was one of us.
He served Bowie County well, particularly when it came to protecting one of the region's big economic engines: Red River Army Depot. His seniority and ability to navigate the complex relationships inherent to internal military-governmental politics, to align himself with all manner of military brass, made his contribution invaluable in stopping efforts to close the depot.
He wasn't its only champion, but he did a lot more than just wave our flag. He could do more than just plead. He added real leverage to the effort.
Hall was one of the last two World War II veterans serving in Congress, and that still meant something in some corners of the capital.
As a politician, Congressman Hall was charming. He was a storyteller of some renown, with a keen sense of humor. If he met you once, you'd never be a stranger again. And even if you didn't like his politics, you'd still have a hard time not liking him.
In many ways, his time in office mirrors the vast changes in the political climate that Texas has been a part of these last three decades.
He started out as a Democrat but he was a conservative one, as is common in this part of the country. As his party moved away from his beliefs, he switched parties—and survived the politics of such a switch. Eventually, all of Texas would turn from a largely Democratic base to a solidly Republican one. He made the jump seamlessly and instinctively, even though it was gut-wrenching for him to do so.
Because of this unique turn of events, during periods when Congress was still in the business of consensus-building, Hall was ideally situated to get leaders from both parties to sit at the same table.
As politics became more polarizing, gridlock ensued and the Tea Party began expanding its influence, those attributes that could be associated with compromise could also be twisted into a position of weakness. He faced some of that.
But this too is consistent with the change of direction Texas politics has taken.
In only one way does Hall seem out of step with the state and nation: While we continue to grow fat, he continues to stay slim and trim.
Yes, Hall has seen it all. He's lived it all. He's worn it well. He's had a good run and deserves a great retirement.
Because of the accident late in his last term, people here at the west end of the district didn't have much of chance to say their goodbyes.
So consider this not so much a golden watch, but a golden thought, a nod to his service, a modest thank you and a wish for the best as he transitions into private life.
The 17 terms he spent in office is not a record, but it is a reflection of his political popularity and how it transcended party lines. Most of those elections he won handily.
Still, the longevity he achieved was never a given. He built his legacy two years at a time.
If our new Republican congressman, former U.S. Attorney John Ratcliffe, can string together a similar run, we can expect to be doing this again in about 2048. Plenty of time to plan a party.
(And Ratcliffe is still in office, and on track. He started his third term Jan. 1. Although district boundaries have changed, District 4 has had only five congressmen in the last 116 years, an average of about 23 years each in office—not exactly a poster destination for term limits. Sam Rayburn, served the district for almost five full decades, from 1913 to 1961. If Ratcliffe were to keep his seat the same duration, his farewell party wouldn't be held until 2063. I don't believe I'll be around then, but I'd still like an invitation for my scrapbook.)