Ben Barnes, who claimed on CBS’s “60 Minutes II” last week that he pulled strings 36 years ago to get young George W. Bush a place in the Texas Air National Guard, is a longtime Democratic war horse who, because of his fund-raising prowess, was once dubbed “the 51st Democratic senator” by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D.-S.D.).
The 64-year-old Barnes was the Democratic speaker of the Texas House in 1968, when he now claims he helped the Republican Bush get into the Guard to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
But Barnes himself has denied having any direct contact with anyone in the Bush family about getting Bush into the Guard.
In 1999, for example, he told the Associated Press: “I never spoke to Congressman [George H.W.] Bush about his son” and that a magazine report charging he had helped the younger Bush get into the Guard was “false.” As the New York Times reported on February 15 of this year in reference to Barnes’s claims, “[T]here is no direct evidence that Mr. Bush’s family pulled strings to get him into the 147th.”
In the 1960s, Barnes was one of the most promising young politicians in Texas. Elected to the state legislature in 1962 at age 22, the former vacuum cleaner salesman became the youngest-ever Texas House speaker at 26 in 1966. Two years later he became lieutenant governor. Lyndon Johnson predicted his young friend would someday be President and toasted Barnes at a Christmas party with the words: “Where you lead, we will follow.”
But Barnes’ political career crashed in 1972 amid the “Sharpstown scandal.” Following revelations that Houston financier Frank Sharp had arranged quick-profit stock sales for state officials to speed passage of banking laws he favored, more than two dozen officials were accused of bribery. Although Barnes was never indicted, several of his close associates were. In the Democratic gubernatorial primary that year, former “superstar” Barnes placed a weak third.
In the early 1980s, along with former Texas Gov. John Connally, who was then his business partner, Barnes borrowed heavily on oil investments to develop condominiums and shopping malls. With the energy slump that began in 1982, however, the gamble failed. Connally declared bankruptcy in 1982. (In memoirs published shortly before his death in 1993, Connally wrote of Barnes: “I doubt that either of us would go back into business with the other.”)
In 1998, New Jersey prosecutors alleged that Barnes, then a lobbyist for the Gtech Holdings Corp., which operates the Texas lottery, funneled $500,000 to Gtech’s former national sales manager, who had been sentenced to 63 months in federal prison for stealing from the company. Barnes denied any wrongdoing, admitted that he gave money to the imprisoned former manager but maintained that it was for work unconnected to the lottery. (Gtech later bought out Barnes’ contract for $23 million.)
For all the controversy surrounding his career, Barnes remains a much in-demand fund-raiser for national Democrats. In 1997, documents detailing the now-infamous “Clinton coffees” in the White House designed to raise big Democratic dollars included one in which Clinton campaign chairman Peter Knight predicted they would generate $500,000 from twenty Texans. Among them was–you guessed it–Ben Barnes.
Asked about her father’s claims to have helped Bush, daughter Amy Barnes told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on September 10 that “he told me in 2000 that he did not help Bush get into the National Guard, because I asked him during the election of 2000 when this first came out and he said no. And then 2004, just about three months ago, he told me that he did and that he–in fact, he was writing a book, a kind of an autobiographical book.”