Paul Burka died this last week.
During the 1990s, a television network branded its content “must-see TV.” For four decades before and after that, Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka wrote “must read” political stories and columns – long-form profiles, his monthly “State Secrets” column, and the must-read of all must-reads, the biennial Best and Worst Legislators lists. He was “The Franchise,” as writer Jan Jarboe Russell dubbed him. His political reporting was peerless and set the tone for Texas Monthly’s unique, and award-winning, brand of journalism.
Paul and I knew each other since 1989. We were not particularly friends; we didn’t “Netflix and chill,” in the parlance of these times. I was one of thousands of legislators, staffers, lobbyists, and other functionaries he crammed into the massive Rolodex that was his brain over the years. But he was always gracious and friendly, soft-spoken and avuncular. Most importantly, he took me seriously. I would ask him what I now realize were naïve questions. He would answer with a straight face, as if he’d just been giving that very question a great deal of thought. That was his gentleness. More rarely, I’d have some snippet of information or analysis of a situation that may have been helpful to his Big Picture ruminations about the Legislature. At least, I’d like to think so.
I devoured his reporting, and especially the Best and Worst Lists, as a way to sharpen my thinking about the Legislature and what made it work. Paul was less ideological than me, at least in his reporting. I’d judge a session by whether the Lege had expanded Medicaid, or made a bigger investment in public education. Paul, as Bill Broyles said, “… was all about judging politicians not by their politics but by their effectiveness and their character. Could they get things done? Could you trust them? If that was yes, you made the Best. If no, you made the Worst.”
For people who follow Texas politics, Paul was a reliable Polaris, pointing the way to understanding its labyrinthine ways. For people who love Texas politics, Paul was the Wise Old Man, dispensing thoughtful ideas and clues to its mysteries along the way. He will be missed by both groups.
But that doesn’t matter anymore, because Texas – and particularly the Legislature – that Paul wrote about for 40 years is gone. Tribalism and grandstanding — things for which Paul would ding a member — are more prevalent all the time. Burka’s passing is another signpost on the road to Hell in a Handbasket that Texas seems to be on. In his final essay as a regular contributor, he told his Texas Monthly audience:
I wish I could say in parting that the twenty-first century has been good for Texas politics, but I can’t. If Texas politics once produced giants, our time seems more like the dark ages. There are no John Connallys or Ann Richardses or Bob Bullocks. These were people who loved Texas and, because of that love, knew how to reach across the aisle, set their egos aside, and put the best interests of the state first.
It is the nature of things to change, and it is the nature of change to accelerate. The leadership styles, such as they are, of the trio at the top of Texas politics – Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan – would be as unrecognizable to most 70s and 80s era legislators as they are incomprehensible to the people of Texas today.
As the years went by, I had fewer opportunities to interact with Paul. He was happy every time he saw me, though, and would end our brief conversations by asking me to call him up for lunch – often a logistical challenge because his voice mailbox was always full.
We never got to have that last lunch.