Why would anyone read a book about a Texas politician whose political career, which never reached higher than lieutenant governor, spanned a total of 12 years from 1960 to 1972? First, Ben Barnes is a Texan, which means he can spin a hell of a good yarn. Second, his friendships with national political leaders during one of the most dramatic periods of political change in the nation’s history put him at the center of the controversy. Third, he continues to be active in the political arena - former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle once called him the "51st Democratic Senator." And, finally, in a manner similar to that described in J. Brian Smith’s John Rhodes, Man of the House, Barnes practiced the true spirit of the bipartisanship before it became just another rhetorical tool to undermine one’s opponents.
Co-authored with Lisa Dickey, Ben Barnes’ Barn Burning, Barn Building is a tale of the fall of the Texas Democrats from almost complete control of the state to the status of a minor party and links that to the fall of the national party. "Where once the names Johnson, Rayburn, and Connally were synonymous with political power, the 21st century brought us Bush, Rove, and DeLay."
Democrats are still asking, "How did we get to this point?" and "Where do we go from here?" In response, Barnes begins when Democrats ruled the roost and shows how events, large and small, created cracks in what was once thought an unshakable foundation. The value of the book is that he largely succeeds. (Ironically, many of the cracks in the Democrat’s apparently invulnerable foundation seem to be appearing today in the Republican Party.)
The Democratic rise to power began with Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential victory in 1932, and Texans were in power virtually everywhere - including getting one of their own, John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, elected Vice President. It also didn’t hurt that Texans headed eight of the major House Committees. Sam Rayburn emerged as one of the most powerful Democrats in the country, starting his run as the longest-serving Speaker of the House in 1940. When Lyndon Johnson took over the leadership of the Senate in the 1950s, it was hard to imagine how the Texas or national Republicans could ever recover.
Barnes came somewhat late to the game in 1959, at 22 winning a seat in the Texas State Legislature. Born on a central Texas farm in Comanche county, he grew up thinking long hours and hard work were simply the way everyone lived. His first experience with the power of government came during the Depression, when Roosevelt forced through the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to the farms in rural Texas. "From then on," he writes, "I thought of government as something that helped make people’s lives better." He also cites Sam Rayburn who said, "Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one... These days there’s a lot more barn burning in politics than barn building." Barnes was determined to be a barn builder.