Too Pharr-out?

The GOP tried to peddle a story about Ann Richards' own "Willie Horton," but the state's press corps wasn't buying

The voice of a local Republican activist had a conspiratorial edge when he phoned two weeks ago, asking if the Press would be interested in a story revealing how Ann Richards helped an old buddy obtain an early parole from prison.

"Well, sure, who wouldn't?" was the answer.
The caller quickly provided the phone numbers of several people who he said could supply details on the adventures of one William Howard Pharr, a flamboyant Austin businessman turned bank robber turned murderer who had known the governor since they attended high school together in Waco.

The incontrovertible facts about Pharr are these: using a showy gold Porsche from his own car dealership as a getaway vehicle, he pulled off two bank heists in the vicinity of his own home, was captured by authorities and drew a relatively light 12-year prison sentence in 1988. But in 1992 he was released from prison and, using directions given him by another inmate, made a beeline for Anahuac, where he promptly robbed and murdered an elderly couple.

In the closing weeks of Richards' campaign against George W. Bush, Republican operatives energetically shopped the outlines of the Pharr saga to reporters around the state, adding this one bit of still-undocumented spin: the governor, they said, had used her influence to spring her old acquaintance from prison in 1992. But the story never surfaced in print before the election, and if Richards managed to scratch out a victory over Bush (the votes were being counted as we went to press Tuesday night), she may owe her victory in part to the restraint of Texas journalists and the tenacity of a lawyer hired by her campaign to keep the story out of the papers.

Pharr wasn't the only late-inning game going. As Republicans were peddling his story, media sources said, some in the Richards camp were trying to steer into print a story that would allege that Bush's father had helped him get into the National Guard back in those confusing Vietnam-era years that have came back to haunt Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle. But the Democrats' gambit also failed to produce a story. As a result, both sides muddled to a punchless conclusion, with the only drama being provided by Richards' last-minute embrace from Ross Perot.

However the election turned out, the story behind the "story" of William Pharr provides a textbook example of the way the field generals of modern political campaigns attempt to use news reporters as part of their strategies. According to one well-placed GOP source, Bush's camp hoped to link the candidate's advertisements on the inadequacies of the new state penal code to a media unveiling of the Pharr story, thus painting Richards as soft on killers -- at least those who are longtime acquaintances.

"They [Bush strategists] were going to pop this story," the source said when it appeared there was little possibility the Pharr story would see daylight. "That was their two-fer ... a hard news story that would serve as a prelude to the ad. Then the ad comes up, Richards cries foul, and they say 'No, look at that story that ran in X,Y,Z paper. Proves our point.' They wanted to talk about this like crazy, but if they can't get into print, they can't do it."

As the GOP source noted, the "window" for the appearance of such a story was open until about a week before Election Day, after which most of the state's mainstream media would begin to observe their informal, self-imposed "fairness" rule against breaking last-minute stories that reveal new charges or allegations about candidates.

"That window is closed. The story's dead now," the source said. "But if you look at the timetable, two weeks ago Bush had kind of a buzz-on... [His] mother going out in the field, the soft thing is working, and he could have had this hard-line story. I think because the penal code attack line was weakened by his being unable to corroborate that story, his campaign suffered a bit of a stalling factor. It didn't have the horsepower it needed at the end."

Richards strategist George Shipley said he had no doubt that Bush supporters shopped the Pharr story. "I've been told that by at least four members of the state and national press," said Shipley, whose own purveying to the press of damaging information on Republicans has earned him the sobriquet "Dr. Dirt."

Shipley said Texas Republicans were trying to follow "the exact same strategy" that George W. Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, employed in Florida in his effort to unseat Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles. Jeb Bush's campaign aired a commercial in which the mother of a murdered child complained that Chiles had refused to sign death warrants for the killer and was "liberal" on crime. But it turned out that the murderer's case was still on appeal and Chiles had not been asked to sign off on his execution, and Jeb Bush was widely criticized for the ad.

"In retrospect, we might have let them do it if we thought it would backfire on them," Shipley said of Richards' opposition, "but that's kind of high-risk."

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