|The first hint that former Houston Mayor Bill White isn't your average political bird came 30 minutes into an interview that lasted almost two hours.|
We'd been talking about his younger brother, Robert Avalon, who died in 2004, and whether his grief informed how he lives his life now. He said it gave him a sense that life is a gift and that he wanted to seize the opportunity to help people.
Sensing that he might be venturing beyond the usual sound loops, I asked whether that thinking figured into his pursuit of public life. Had he done so in the same obsessive, passionate way that his brother pursued music?
He began by saying he wanted a well-rounded life, that he liked being around friends and family and that his favorite place was "by a lake with trout, casting a line."
"But you know," he continued, "I don't want to take life for granted, or if you do have some gift, let it go to waste. I love -- love" -- and here I poised my pen, bracing for something profound -- "the oil and gas business and everything about it."
I strained to conceal my surprise. White kept going.
"Finding hydrocarbons deep beneath the crust of the earth, the technologies needed to get there, the global nature of the business, the integration of different scientific disciplines to produce it," he said. "I love that stuff."
It was such an unusual response that Katy Bacon, White's spokeswoman, mentioned it as we strolled to the campaign office door. She said she knew it sounded odd but told me his passion was genuine.
"He loves to solve problems," she said. "He thinks you should wake up in the morning with a solution to something."
That's certainly the narrative White wants to plant in voters' minds -- the plow-horse versus Gov. Rick Perry the show-horse. And while the cynic in me leaves room for political calculation on White's part, I mostly take his zeal for oil at face value. As a congressional aide and later as deputy energy secretary, after all, he helped deregulate the industry.
The question is whether his slow, deliberate speaking style, his clear preference for the policy weeds over photo opportunities, and his devotion to problem-solving might not hold him back. It's possible he can win over voters, and later state legislators, on the merits of his arguments -- and yet politics these days usually doesn't work that way.
White's allies insist he's been wildly successful in Houston, where he's been re-elected twice by big margins. Still, I think his central challenge is to sell himself as a problem-solver without necessarily connecting on a more visceral level. He has a quirky charm about him but may not be the guy you'd want to go fishing with.
At the end of our interview, when I thanked White for his time, he stood up, stepped past me toward his desk, and sat down behind it before we shook hands. When I left he was holding a pen, ready to get back to work. Thinking about this later, it occurred to me that he might've been returning to his comfort level, a safe retreat from some of the more vulnerable ground we'd covered.
For White, though, the problem may be whether there are enough hours in the workday to do what he really needs to do -- inspire voters, and later lawmakers, to help him seize the opportunity.
After all, you can't help people if you don't inspire them to want to be helped.
San Antonio Express-News
April 12, 2010