Philanthropist Bernard Rapoport at his office in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte.)
Bernard Rapoport’s death at the age of ninety-four has brought to a close one of the storied chapters in the history of American liberalism.
Rapoport was among the last of a robust generation of enlightened capitalists who steered sizeable portions of their enormous wealth toward the advancement of social progress. I first encountered B., as he was universally known, in the company of Palmer Weber, the charismatic and tireless labor and civil rights campaigner from Virginia who ran afoul of the blacklist following his close association with the 1948 Henry Wallace campaign. Weber became a Wall Street analyst in the 1950’s, and specialized in ferreting out independent energy companies and other promising ventures below the radar. He famously tithed his wealthy liberal clients a portion of their profits for progressive organizations, with the ACLU, the NAACP and The Nation, thankfully, high on his list.
Palmer and I traveled to Texas together in the 1970’s to make the rounds of libertarian oilmen, progressive insurance executives and blacklisted television and radio personalities who for different reasons understood and valued the independent press. I returned to Texas often over the years and came to know and appreciate many of the courageous and colorful characters who comprised the intellectual and cultural left in the state – the wise and contrary columnist Maury Maverick; Sissy Farenthold, the liberal Texas state legislator whose name was placed in nomination for Vice President at the Democratic Convention in 1972, only the third woman to have been so honored by that time; Ronnie Dugger, founder of the Texas Observer, which Bernard helped sustain for forty years; John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted radio personality who took McCarthy to court and won; the famed populist Jim Hightower; Molly Ivins, of course, the peerless raconteuse whose wry chronicle of the preposterous Texas state legislature (lately starring Rick "Governor Good Hair" Perry), discerning columns and best-selling books established her among the leading progressives and most sought after speakers of her era; J.R. Parten, the oil and gas king and former New Dealer, "the real JR" in Molly’s account, who together with Bernard helped to finance Democrats across the state, including both of Sissy’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns; and now Lou Dubose, the former Editor of the Texas Observer who together with Molly co-wrote Shrub and Bushwhacked on the rise of Texas’ favorite prodigal son, and with whom I am now grateful to be collaborating on our mutual stewardship of the Washington Spectator.
Surrounded by books and papers in his offices at the Wells Fargo Bank Building in Waco, B. presided raucously over the lives, aspirations and welfare of these and countless other Texans drawn from all walks of life. And casting his shadow well beyond Texas, he contributed to the coffers of just about any Democrat with a pulse, and left his mark on countless publicly spirited enterprises – among them Robert Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara , the Institute for Policy Studies and the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, and The Nation and the Roosevelt Institute in New York.
B.’s rags to riches story is well-chronicled – born to Russian immigrant parents who taught him the value of an education, he grew up in poverty in San Antonio 12 blocks from Frio and Buena Vista streets, the junction that would become UT San Antonio’s Downtown Campus. It was a site he was instrumental in developing decades later while serving as Chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and a campus he always called a "drawbridge" for the disadvantaged children of the West Side. B. worked his way through UT, and settled eventually in Waco with Audre, his wife of seventy years, where based in part on the sale of low-cost policies to union members, he built an insurance combine that was eventually sold for half a billion dollars. Asked by an interviewer for the secret to his success, Bernard famously replied: “During my childhood, my father taught me Marxism and hard work. My mother taught me to love learning. To know these simple facts is to know much about who I am and why I have led my life the way I have.”