John Ben Shepperd: National Association of Attorneys General

June 26, 1957

National Association of Attorneys General (Sun Valley, Idaho)


Thank you President Wyman for that kind introduction. Seldom have I seen such an important subject handled so well and with such masterful self-restraint and understatement.

I imagine Lou found himself in the same predicament as the Master of Ceremonies who got up and said, “Our next speaker needs no introduction.  Even if I reminded you who he is, you still wouldn’t remember him.”

Let me say at the beginning that I’d like to talk all night about the outstanding record I made as Attorney General of Texas and President of this Association because I like to speak on the subjects whenever there is the slightest interest in them. And frankly, you have shown this slightest interest of any group I have ever appeared before.

I’m very flattered that you have allowed me to come back and mingle with you socially now that I’m only an ex-politician.  I do miss the old life—the charged atmosphere, the great challenges, the bold decisions, the agonizing reappraisals and the hasty apologies.

Actually, it’s an advantage to be able to talk to you as an ex-Attorney General because I’ve had time as a private citizen to re-examine all the preaching I did as a public official and I’m happy to say that I have not yet changed my tune or eaten any of my words.

As a matter of fact, since I left public office I haven’t eaten. I’m convinced that the best reason for entering public service is not the call of the people, but the howl of the creditors.

I used to sit in my office in Austin, contemplating my election and thank the Lord for the wisdom of the people. Now I thank Him for the depletion allowance.

Another nice thing about getting out of the Attorney General’s office is that you can mingle with your children without a formal introduction. They soon get accustomed to seeing you are the house even though they can’t figure out exactly where you fit into the picture.

It’s good to be able to finish a meal without being interrupted by the telephone and it’s nice to pick up a morning newspaper and enjoy the latest calamity in the state government along with your coffee without having to dictate a statement denying everything that’s happened in the last 24 hours.

There’s not much change in the number of phone calls you get in the middle or the night. When you’re in office, it’s usually a “cussin’ call” from somebody you’re trying to put in jail and after you leave office, it’s generally a friend who wants you to get him out.

But I guess the best thing about being a civilian again is getting away from disgruntled constituents. In Texas all the states officials are issued license plates on which the number is preceded by the letters “SO”, standing for State Official. I just presumed it was a disgruntled constituent with a paint brush who added a large “B” on mine.

There are other definite advantages to quiet civilian life. In the state capital you’re just another official, but in a small city in West Texas you’re a big shot. I used to walk down the street in Austin and people would say, “There’s that little squirt”. Now I walk down the streets in Odessa and people say, “There’s that big drip”.

But I didn’t come here to talk about myself—entirely. I want to say a few words about a subject close to everyone’s heart—a subject that competes with Mother, Home and Country for our first allegiance—Texas. I know you’d like to hear a few reverent remarks on that subject because whenever I go outside my native state and announce that I’m going to talk about Texas, everybody says, “Oh, please!”  Some get so emotional they have to get up and leave.

Actually, we Texans don’t enjoy bragging about Texas as much as you think we do. It’s just that everybody expects it of us. And we are too polite not fulfill our obligations.

If Elvis Presley were here, you’d expect him to wiggle and talk about hound dogs. Well, the only difference is that when we Texans talk about ourselves, we don’t wiggle.

Most of you have heard me speak on this topic before and you’ll have to admit that I give you nothing but straight bragging, without editorializing. There are a few degenerates, I admit, who don’t stick to the truth and they give us a bad name. But there aren’t very many of them. Statistically, if all the no-good, lying Texans were piled aboard one train and deported from the state, by golly, I’d have that whole big state to myself!

You have to realize that there’s something about Texas that make Texas people the way they are. People say we have a nasal quality of speech. If we talk through our noses, it’s because don’t like to stop breathing that Texas air while we talk.

But it’s mostly our statistical situation that gives us our warm, magnetic personalities. In Texas there are 141,000 more bachelors than there are single women, which enables the girls to be rather choosey. On the other hand, widows outnumber widowers two to one, which makes the widows rather friendly. Whatever else you say about Texas, you have to admit we’ve got friendly widows.

I know that you will be delighted to know that since I reported to you in Phoenix last year, Texans have drilled 25,000 oil wells; they are now running 292,000 farms and 11,500 factories, carrying 14 billion dollars in life insurance, keeping 2.5 billion on deposit in their 985 banks and getting a substantial part of the 500 million embezzled in the U.S. annually—of course some would have you believe we have been getting all of it.

They’ve managed to stay pretty busy too. They are running about 70,000 corporations and 121,000 business establishments, including 154 Independent shoe-shine parlors, 58 turkish baths, 20 detective agencies, 31 diaper services and an unknown number of uranium sitting ditches. They have sent more than 3,000 dogs’ heads to the State Health Department to be examined for rabies. They have committed 350,000 major and minor crimes—over 9600 are in the state penitentiary, 4700 in jail and those of us who were lucky enough to stay out have paid over $300,000 in fines.

They call Texas the land of the big rich and I guess they’re right. If all the minerals, crops and livestock in a given year were divided up among us we’d each get 7/8th’s of a cow, 1/4th of a hog, 4 pounds of pecans, 104 barrels of oil and 1/80th of a jackass.

There’s a lot of oil in Texas—one producing well for every 64 persons. If all the lucky people who get royalties from oil in Texas were laid end to end, I’d still be standing up.

I know you will be interested in this: for the first time in our history there are more people in Texas than there are cattle—and that includes bulls.

Only about one Texan out of 50 in the labor force is unemployed and for every Texan out of work there are 8 unemployed Californians, 16 New Yorkers and 9 Pennsylvanians. But these 3 states exceed Texas in the number of registered automobiles which shows that a lot of Texans are walking to work while a lot of other people I could name are driving to the poorhouse.

The federal government now owns 1.5% of all the land area of Texas and 754,000 acres of it is devoted to wild life refuges while offices for federal employees have been crowded onto a mere 227 acres. This proves that the bureaucrats are giving this country to the birds.

The stork is making more stops in Texas than he used to—may be too wet to fly over. He’s making about 120 stops out of every possible 1,000 eligible homes and, of course, a few that ain’t eligible.

You’ll be glad to know too, that it’s raining in Texas after seven years of drouth. The rain started shortly after the President came to Texas on his drouth area inspection trip—of course, opinions on any connection between the two events depend entirely on your politics.

Everybody had forgotten where the rivers were and built their homes in the creek bottoms. Then along came the rainiest spring in history and now we have a new leisure class houseboating in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s good to see that water coming down out of the sky. Ordinarily when we get water in Texas we have thank God and New Mexico, but not necessarily in that order.

The water situation has really changed in a few months. When the Legislature convened in January, the first order of business was a bill to let in the wetbacks just to get the moisture. Then they wound up passing maritime laws for the high plains.

I suppose I ought to say something good about Idaho and the Great Northwest. Since I had never heard anything good about it, I turned to the encyclopedia and the Britannica confirmed my suspicion that it’s too far from Texas to amount to much.

On Page 59 of Volume 12 it says the Snake River enters Idaho and goes as far as Lewiston where it turns abruptly and leaves the state. I can’t say I blame it. Lewiston was the meeting place of the first Legislature.

I had hoped to see famed “Hells’ Canyon” while I was here so I could personally look over the thing that had given both parties such a hulluva good campaign issue.

The Book also talks about how clumsy and slow-moving Idaho is. It says, “Idaho is a big lumber state.”

As an example to this, I found an instance in history where it said gold was discovered in Idaho in 1860 which started a stampede into the virgin Idaho territory from Walla Walla, Washington. By May of 1861 there were 1,000 men in the new town of Pierce City and four months later—the book says—county officials began functioning there. I must say that if 1,000 men from Washington suddenly turned up in Odessa, Texas, our county officials would get off their fannies a little quicker or we’d get new ones.

Well that just shows why Texas is such a great state—it’s the inmate modesty of the people. We try to give other states their just due. Live and let live is our motto. That’s why Texans are born four times as fast as they die and we are able to export 40 or 50 thousand a year.

There are 430,000 eloquent Texans in California which accounts for the fact that we are all well acquainted with the virtues of California. Every year we also export about 65,000 Texans to the Great Beyond which may account for the fact that we know so much more about Hades than about Heaven.

I’ve been amazed at the number of former Texans I’ve found up here. Every few minutes one of them has sidled up to me and whispered his secret. It’s been so long since he could tell anybody that he keeps coming back.

Actually, I know there are a lot of displaced Texans in this part of the country and I’d like to tell them collectively, that I talked with the Governor just before I left Paradise and he said you can all come home. You’ve suffered enough and he’ll give you a pardon.

But I’m sure you wouldn’t recommend a pardon for me unless I move along.

It is an honor to be here with so many men of important position. I choose my words carefully when I say “of important position” rather than “Important Men”, out of respect for your maturity and experience.

You see, when I served in my first public office as a County Commissioner, I felt pretty important. But it wasn’t long until my father, who had held the office before me, told me something that he the thought I had failed to realize—namely, that other men had preceded me in that office and other men would follow me and in that process of change the world would not stagger one inch off its axis.

I found this disturbing at the time, but when I as elected Attorney General I was grateful for having learned, as you have, that it is not the man who is important, but the job.

The job of the State Attorney General is the most important job in the national scheme of things at this juncture in our history. There is nothing in our governmental arrangement more basic than the division of powers between the federal and state governments. Our system of federated, delegated and retained powers, which has existed from the beginning, is now undergoing a shakedown trial. We are in the midst of a cold civil war on the legal plane, testing whether that system shall stand or whether America, too, will go the way of all noble experiments in freedom, winding up over-centralized, over-patronized, over-taxed and over-governed.

There’s nothing wrong with centralized, socialistic government as long as it does not undermine the citizen’s character, rob him of his liberties or take away his ability to govern himself. But that’s like saying it’s all right to indulge in a little temptation as long as you don’t get embroiled in sin.

Centralized government has its advantages. In some ways it is more efficient and it eliminates some of the legal and other barriers imposed by state lines.

But my chief objection to the federal government under both parties in the last 35 years is not the money spent, but the fact that it has tended to destroy the moral fiber of the people. It has fostered the belief that we can look for benefits at the end of somebody else’s arm . . . that it isn’t necessary to work and save because the government will take care of us . . . that we will have no obligation to dear old Mom and Dad because the government will look after them . . . and that we can forever get by with spending the money of our children’s unborn children.

It encourages the working man to spit on his boss instead of his hands. It treats private enterprise like a temporary, necessary evil. It teaches, not by precept but by practice, that there is nothing on the moral or spiritual plane that is worth as much as a higher material standard of living. The federal government has stopped merely patronizing and has started pandering to the whims of a fictitious “average citizen” who purportedly wants everything on a silver platter. If this goes on, we are going to produce a nation of people without purpose or backbone, who will try to vote for prosperity instead of working for it.

I am of the sincere and studied opinion that these things would not and could not happen if a proper system of checks and balances were maintained between the federal and state governments. Proponents of centralization know this because history is replete with precedents of inescapable authority where peoples have had to tread again and again the group of great issues, comparable the great issues confronting us today.

Sometimes it means being a busybody and other time being stubborn—having a strong will and a strong won’t. Now and then it means getting mad and very often it means standing alone in the belief that you are right and the crow is wrong. It means being a wet blanket and sacrificing your personal popularity on the altar of self-respect.

It isn’t easy to be a good public official and a real leader when every issue has two sides with good people standing on both of them. It gets even tougher at election time when there are two sides to every office—inside and outside. There is no problem too small for your critics to turn into a crisis and you have to be everywhere at once with your eyes open, like a chaperone at a Senior Prom on a warm spring night. A politician has a lot in common with a girl who is careful of her complexion. Both have to apply a lot of oil to save their face and both sooner or later wind up in a mud pack.

It isn’t easy to be an Attorney General’s wife, either. About the time her husband gets all his law books bought and paid for, he gets into office where he has a whole library at his disposal and all his personal books are dumped in the living room at home—and there they sit, like salt in the wound, representing the Lord only knows how many new dresses that were never bought and new hats that could never be afforded.

She sits at the breakfast table with him, staring at the want ads on the back of his newspaper, finally brushes the paper aside and confronts him to say, “We’ve got to decide which college Junior is going to.” He bends his faraway gaze on her and replies, “Yes, by golly, you’re right. We should file that lawsuit and I’ll get the boys to work on a brief right away”.

Everybody in his office knows his itinerary for the next three weeks, but his wife doesn’t know whether he’ll be home for dinner Friday night until she calls and drags it out of his secretary.

Other families save up for a vacation, but her family saves up for a campaign and the fortunes of the whole family are subject to the vicissitudes of public opinion. Little Junior comes in to breakfast in the morning and says, “Mother, do you think I can wear my glasses on the school ground today?” And his mother says, “Wait a minute and let’s see what the morning paper says about your father.”

I’ve often wondered who has the toughest time—the Attorney General, his family or his assistants. His assistants do all the work. If it turns out well, he gets the credit and if it doesn’t, they get the blame. They do everything from walking the Attorney General’s dog to writing his speeches—then they have to sit in the audience and laugh at their own jokes.

Nor is the fact that this struggle for the preservation of our system of dual-sovereignty is taking place in our legal and judiciary systems new. Proponents of centralization in many countries have furthered their cause by making law the tool of the state to further the objectives of government.

It does, however, increase not only the importance but the work of those who are the chief legal officers of the various states.

The Attorney General of a state is the anchor-man of our basic liberties. He is the keeper of the only gate through which government by the people, at home, can pass into the hands of nebulous, faceless bureaucrats a thousand miles away. The great treasonable crime of the Twentieth Century is the removal of the people’s government from the vicinity of the people.

When a federal action, whether by a federal bureaucratic seizure of power, a political decision of a federal court by judges steeped in radical social theory and self-trained in the art of masquerading theory as law, or an unwarranted act of Congress, threatens a state and its laws, whether it be in the field of education; conservation of natural resources; regulation of insurance companies; enforcement of anti-subversive legislation; control of intrastate water; the procedure of state courts; the unjustified review of hundreds of state court convictions; jeopardizing trial by jury; the opening of the prosecution’s files in the investigation of criminal cases; the regulation of violence; mass unrestrained picketing and unlawful boycotts by labor; the power of a state to tax; the power to regulate the use of highways and roads—it is the duty of the Attorney General to protest against that threat at the top of his lungs and to the limit of his ability and budget.

Every Attorney General is well aware that there are many things the states cannot do and some believe that the federal government ought to be allowed to move in. By the same reasoning, if your wife is not perfect, you should call in your mother-in-law.

The Attorney General of a state is the product and then servant of state and local governments, bound by all moral and ethical constraints to preserve those governments from destruction. His duty is clearly laid out before him. He is either a very important man or a miserably insignificant man, depending on whether he is doing that duty.

It isn’t easy to be an Attorney General. It means doing everything for the good of others, which often amounts to doing it in spite of them. Sometimes it means you have to be a sponge and absorb a lot of insult and ingratitude. It means knowing how to face opposition and stiffen your spine instead of arching your back.

No doubt about it, public service takes a little extra sacrifice, a little extra devotion, and a little extra personal pride in doing an important job.

I’ve often asked myself what a good Attorney General is like and what factors contribute toward making him that way. From my personal contacts with you and my observations as a member of this great Association—here is the way he looks to me.

A good Attorney General thinks personal success as an individual depends not on how the world treats him, but on how he treat the world. He thinks the only thing he can take with him is what he has given to others and that the only awards and trophies he can call his own are the sacrifices he has laid down for the cause. He thinks the only way he can come up in the world is to keep his feet on the ground and stay on the level and that as long has he does, he can be as proud of his enemies as he is of his friends.

A good Attorney General is so unsophisticated that he still believes in the old ideals that made his country great. He is naive enough to believe that it’s better to be right than be rich . . . better to fair than be famous . . . better to be honest than be exalted . . . better to be good than be clever . . . better to be free than be secure . . . better for people to run their own government than to beg from it . . . and better to be a good lawyer and a patriot than to be a good politician.

A good Attorney General is not genius. He can’t solve the problems of his state by sitting in an air-conditioned office and drifting into the cool stratosphere of abstract thought. He has to put his shoulder to the wheel, his hand in God’s hand and pray like a lost sinner while he totes the barges and lifts the bales. And he has found out by experience that an ounce of sweat carries more weight with God than a bucket of tears.

And what does a good Attorney General do? Therein lies the simplest question and the hardest job. A good Attorney General defends the Constitution he is sworn to uphold.

He defends it against political crooks and demagogues who creep into local government to pull down the wool curtain of secrecy, close the open doors of public office and steal away the people’s liberties.

He defends it against public apathy and indolence by searching out the ways in which local and state governments can do for themselves what ought to be done at home. He helps to put courage into local government, to stimulate local enterprise, and to assure business and industry that they can go forward without fear of being investigated, harassed and accused out of existence.

He defends the Constitution against the encroachments of big, bloated government with veracious appetites for power and against starry-eyed political judges who arrogantly assert what they think the law ought to be instead of interpreting what the law is. He helps the Attorneys General of his sister states in their struggles against the theft and seizure of their rightful and unrelinquished powers.

Yes, a good Attorney General stands boldly and courageously—thinking of the legal issues involved and not about the next election—as freedom’s advocate in defiance of corruption, social decay, public degeneracy and the rise of arbitrary power.

And at the end of it all, his reward is not great by the world’s standards. All he has is the comfortable realization that he did what he could to build his community, his state, his nation. He can say with solemn pride that while others stayed in the background, he came forward and threw down the gauntlet to all the problems and injustices that hung over his countrymen. He can say that while others were following the crowd, he followed his conscience. He was working to keep every dot and dash in the Constitution while others were concerned only with putting feathers in their cap.

It should be enough for a man if he can say, after a couple of terms in office or after a whole lifetime, that he has done what he could to keep this country the kind of place where every mother’s son is a future president . . . where men and women are free to work and enjoy the fruits of their labor . . . Where the fulfillment of our dreams is in the helping hand at the end of our own right arm.  Where opportunity is unlimited and the size of a man is not measured from his head to his feet, but from his head to the sky . . . where men can walk upright, take off a hat to nobody and serve their own God.

And these things are possible only where there is a constitutional form of government with an independent judiciary and legal profession. Because the law is a powerful force and he that holds a law book in his hand—backed by the resources and prestige of his state—holds the most sacred trust that man can bestow upon man. The law rightly used gives and preserves our liberties. But it is equally important to always in mind that wrongly used, it cannot obtain the priceless intangibles that are beyond its dominion. No Attorney General can open a law book and establish title to a sunrise over his state; no Attorney General can secure by litigation the look of trust and innocence in a child’s eyes—nor the respect of the people of his state; no Attorney General can go before a court of law and be awarded the companionship of a true friend or the love and devotion of a faithful wife. And there is no court so high that it can fabricate by decree the sound of a mother’s lullaby or the laughter of a free man.

No, you have not mastered the law nor have you done your part in preserving and improving man’s noblest Instrument of self-government—our Constitution—nor are you worthy to be its keepers nor advocates of its God-given freedom until you have impressed in your heart and soul these simple laws of liberty:

Freedom is old, not young; yet it is born anew in the first cry of a free man’s son;
It is not a living thing, yet it dies if we do not love it;
It is not weak, but strong; yet it must be defended;
It is light, yet it weighs heavy on him is without it;
It is without price, yet it dearly costs the one who sells it;
It is not small, but great; yet once lost, it is never, never found again.
Yes, to be born free is an accident;
To live free is a responsibility;
But to die free is an obligation.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]