Bill Clinton met Bob Armstrong in 1972. Clinton, 26, was organizing Texas for the 1972 Democratic presidential campaign of George McGovern and Sargent Shriver.
Armstrong, 39, had been elected Texas Land Commissioner in 1970. While other statewide Democratic officials avoided McGovern and Shriver like lepers, Armstrong and Agriculture Commissioner John C. White stepped up to front the campaign.
The Clinton/Armstrong friendship continued through Armstrong’s death March 1, 2015, of congestive heart failure. He was 82.
After 1972, Armstrong was land commissioner through 1982, when Mark White beat him in the Democratic governor’s primary. White unseated Republican Gov. Bill Clements, and in 1985, named Armstrong to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. Armstrong and parks acquisition manager Andy Sansom saw their 17-year dream come true, when Texas finally bought a 212,000-thousand acre ranch next to Big Bend National Park. Now the Big Bend Ranch State Park, it more than doubled state park acreage.
From 1991 until 1993, Armstrong was energy adviser for Gov. Ann Richards.
Clinton, meanwhile, was elected Arkansas attorney general, then governor, and in 1992, President of the United States.
Clinton named Armstrong assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the United States Department of the Interior in 1993. He served until 1998.
At Armstrong’s memorial service Thursday, March 6, at Austin’s University United Methodist Church, Armstrong’s wife of 31 years, Linda Aaker, read a letter Clinton sent to her, their son Will, and Armstrong’s older children from his previous marriage, Martha Louise, Shannon and Landis:
“Hillary and I so wish we could be with you and all Bob’s friends to celebrate his life and the joy he brought into all of our lives.
“Like many of you, I’ve spent the last couple of days reliving my life with Bob Armstrong. When I first met him in 1972, he already felt like an old friend.
“He agreed to co-chair the state McGovern Campaign, a really smart career move for an up and coming politician in Texas. And he did it with good humor, gusto, and the hands-on leadership he brought to every job.”
Armstrong never got rattled, Clinton wrote, even when Shriver’s plane was two hours late for a Texarkana rally.
“Bob was so upbeat that afterward we went to the Texarkana Howard Johnson’s and stayed up all night as he picked his guitar and told his stories.
“A couple of days later we lost Texas two to one. Bob kept us smiling. I remember thinking it’s a good thing we didn’t win; then Bob would have been so high we would have had to give him tranquilizers.
“For more than forty years, from Texas to Washington and back, on golf courses and in his Austin haunts, I loved every minute of the ride. Roy Spence said Bob’s law of life seemed to be: Be Happy and Do Good.
“We can never forget how much good he did in Texas as Land Commissioner and on the Parks and Wildlife Commission, and across the country as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, where he led the efforts to establish the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and to save Yellowstone Park by acquiring a massive mining operation nearby before it could do any harm.
“And he always did it the right way—he never treated any of his opponents as enemies, and they wound up respecting and liking him. Every President should be so lucky to be represented by someone like Bob.
“After Bob came to Washington, we enjoyed a lot of golf, even though Linda laughed at us when (son) Will beat us both badly and often. We also exchanged several letters. His were better than mine. Here’s a portion of one of my favorites:
I know you have the best and smartest advisers in the world any time you need them. But I want to offer another kind of deal:
If you ever need someone to laugh with, or cry with, or someone to scream at to keep from going “plumb off” or to tell a new joke to or hear a new joke from, or someone with whom you can just put your mind in neutral and just be plain you for a while, remember that most of the time I’m just 3 blocks away.
This service is called “Dial a Bro.” I know you have lots of new friends. But you sure do have one proud old one named Bob.
“That was Bob in a nutshell. He was the ultimate Be Happy Do Good Guy. He made those of us he touched happier and want to do better. We’ll miss you Bob. We’ll always love you, always remember, and always with a smile.”
DAVE MCNEELY is a political columnist. You may contact him at davemcneely111@ gmail or (512)458 2963.