PROFILE: Aplomb carried Christian to the Oval Office and back

George Christian spoke for LBJ, while his work on countless Texas legislative issues and political campaigns speak for his true passion. Sherri Deatherage Green reports.

George Christian spoke for LBJ, while his work on countless Texas legislative issues and political campaigns speak for his true passion. Sherri Deatherage Green reports.

George Christian never wanted a public affairs empire. A former Presidential press secretary, Christian employed at most a handful of people after hanging out his own shingle in 1969. Yet gently and courteously, he left his fingerprints on more Texas legislation and political campaigns than arguably any other consultant in the last half century.

"I've been accused of not having enough ambition,

Christian admits.

He's never lacked self-confidence though, and his institutional memory and understanding of Texas politics run deeper than the Rio Grande.

Except for service in World War II, Christian's only non-Texas addresses have been in the Washington, DC area. His drafting by President Lyndon Johnson may have seemed unlikely at the time. Although well acquainted with some Texans in Washington, Christian didn't know Johnson, and had little contact with the White House before November 1963.

President Kennedy's tour of Texas was to have culminated in an Austin fundraiser. Christian was busy with preparations there when Kennedy and then Gov. John Connally were shot. Christian flew to Dallas, and quickly set up a satellite governor's office at Parkland Hospital.

Julian Read, now chairman of Austin's GCI Read-Poland, ran Connally's gubernatorial campaign. He worked so closely with Christian, that the pair became known as "Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside,

Read says. At a recent Texas Public Relations Association forum, the two recounted arranging a bedside ABC interview in which Connally gave his account of the shooting.

When the White House call came in 1966, Christian debated heeding it.

Ultimately, he was summoned to Washington for an urgent trip to Vietnam that never happened. "I'll never know if that was a ruse to get me to make a decision,

Christian muses.

Christian lived in the White House at first, and took his morning coffee with Johnson. "The President's desire was to keep me totally up to snuff about what was going on,

Christian recalls. Johnson told Christian to wander in anytime he wanted to if more than one person was visiting the Oval Office, with the understanding that the President would kick him out if he didn't want him around. Reporters would tolerate the occasional refusal to discuss sensitive topics so long as they were confident Christian had the President's ear. "If they thought you lost your contact and (the President) was inaccessible to you, they doubted what you said,

Christian explains.

Johnson had a long record of dissatisfaction with press secretaries.

Kennedy's holdover, Pierre Salinger, didn't last long. Johnson lost confidence in George Ready, and while Bill Moyers' influence transcended the press office, Johnson became irritated by leaks on Moyers' watch. Christian's first job was to stem the flow, and stop the snide remarks being made about the President.

Many of those leaks, however, came straight from Johnson. He often dropped in on press briefings unexpectedly. Christian thinks this made his job easier, since he describes the press secretary's function as "speaking when the President doesn't want to speak."

Christian lasted longer than his predecessors, serving until the end of Johnson's final term. His calm demeanor, willingness to take flak for his boss, and ability to abide Johnson's strong will kept him in front of the mike.

"I didn't have any ego tied up in it,

Christian admits. "I was there to do a job, and as soon as that job was over, I was coming home to Texas." In fact, Christian lobbied the President not to seek a second term.

After three years in close quarters with Johnson, Christian wanted his space. He declined to work for Johnson after returning home. "He was a smothering personality,

Christian explains.

"I had to wiggle my way loose.

Johnson seemed hurt by the rebuff, and the two were not close in later years.

Christian set up his own public affairs practice, working on political races for most of Texas' heavy-hitting Democrats of the '70s and '80s.

His last campaign was Lloyd Bentsen's successful 1988 Senate race, run concurrently with a doomed VP bid. For business clients, Christian helped influence Texas voters to allow sale of liquor by the drink, and founded groups like the Texas Civil Justice League, which advocates tort reform.

Working now with his wife, Jo Anne, and one of his six children, George Scott Christian, he still advises clients like Shell Oil, Eli Lilly, and TXU.

"He has more insight about public affairs than a room full of Solomons," retired Congressman Jake Pickle recently told the Austin American-Statesman.

Even people Christian doesn't work for seek that insight, including the current President.

Christian approached his career the way he now approaches mortality - on his own terms. Diagnosed with lung cancer in October, he quit chemotherapy to better enjoy his remaining days.

Friends feted him with a gala 75th birthday party in January. Speaker after speaker lauded his loyalty, integrity, and civility. "He's so honest, you can shoot dice with him on the telephone,

Dan Rather joked in a videotaped message.

Christian, in characteristically unflappable fashion, claims the eulogies are premature. He's got his sights set on the next legislative session.

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