Remembering Paul Burka—The State’s Most Revered Political Writer Was the Heart and Soul of Texas Monthly

From a Texas Monthly story by Mimi Swartz headlined “Remembering Paul Burka—The State’s Most Revered Political Writer Was the Heart and Soul of Texas Monthly”:

With Paul Burka’s death Sunday night at age eighty, there are almost too many losses to count. Galveston-born, educated at Rice University and the University of Texas law school, Paul loved Texas and knew more about it than anyone else on the Texas Monthlystaff, where he worked as an editor and writer from its earliest days in 1974 until his retirement in 2015. He knew its tiniest towns, its best barbecue, its worst small-time pols and best baseball players. More important, he knew what Texas should be and could be, and devoted his life to trying, heroically, to make it so.

All these qualities made him, in turn, a great journalist, one who knew intuitively what Texans wanted—and needed—to read. Swimming holes and chili were as coverage-worthy as governors and senators, and even Chevy Suburbans, which all came within his purview. He had vision to spare in that way. Paul scared the bejesus out of Texas politicians who knew he could always outthink them, see through them, and at least try to shame them into doing the right thing. “He has no ideas, but he knows the name of every precinct chairman in Texas,” he once said of our current governor, “having no ideas” being about the worst thing Paul could think or say about anyone.

He was also a great editor, one who reminded us constantly that our primary obligation was not to the rich or the powerful or even our subjects, whoever they were, but to our readers. He hated the back-and-forth, “he said/she said” of newspaper reporting, and always pushed us toward what was right and true. He always, always made even the best pieces better—and everything had to be the best in his eyes before it went into Texas Monthly, even a dumb gossip column I wrote many years ago. (“It’s flat,” he said of my copy, as if he were describing a roadkill platter situated in the center of an otherwise glorious banquet table.) He was confident in his beliefs, and arguing with Paul could be bracing but never nasty—he just wore you down until you saw that you were sadly misguided.

Paul was also generous with all that he knew; he was a natural mentor, eager to share, as virtually all the Texas Monthly writers and, later, his students at UT learned. Maybe because he adored his wife Sarah and daughter Janet as much as his sons Barrett and Joel, his expectations for and faith in women—“girls” to him, yes—were the same as for the guys. You might not have recognized your story when you got an edit back, but you learned from it, if you were smart. Eventually your pieces would start coming back with some resemblance to what you wrote. “All the sentences were mine,” one writer bragged of his National Magazine Award–winning story. “Just in a different order,” quipped Paul, his editor.

But maybe the most wonderful thing about Paul—and the reason so many loved him so much, as I did and will to the end of my own days—was that he was as wonderfully flawed as he was brilliant and generous.  He was a man of prodigious proportions. He was the only staffer who could pose for a magazine spread with an upside-down bowl of chili on his head and still look august. But whenever he wore a tie, it came accessorized with a stain of mustard or barbecue sauce. He sometimes napped on a well-worn couch in his office, where he snored. He had absolutely no sense of time, which can be a problem in a deadline-centered world. “My pants were in the dryer” was maybe Paul’s best excuse for his perpetual lateness, but it was certainly not the only one. He loved to call at 10 p.m. just to jaw for, like, a minimum of an hour. (One fellow writer used to read—magazines, books, newspapers—while she listened to him, because he didn’t come up for air all that often.) Popular culture was lost on him— “What’s Motown?” is another infamous Burka quote. And he sometimes became so enamored of certain politicians—Henry Cisneros and George W. Bush, in particular—that they broke his heart a little when they revealed themselves to have feet of clay.

The only solace to be found in Paul’s death is that he gave so much when he was with us. He wasn’t just the institutional memory and the conscience of Texas Monthly, he was its soul. Everything the writers and editors strive to offer our readers is because of him and the example he set. None of us could bear to let him down, even now.

The following are remembrances by other Texas Monthly colleagues.

William Broyles was the magazine’s founding editor, serving until 1981. He went on to a career as an acclaimed screenwriter, receiving an Oscar nomination in 1996 for Apollo 13.

Paul was one of the Texas Monthly Originals. I met him at Rice University in 1962, the same day I met Griffin Smith and Greg Curtis. Griffin was editor of the Rice Thresher and Paul the sports editor. They convinced me to come try it out, which is how I got into journalism. The four of us were among the original brain trust of Texas Monthly back when it was still a gleam in Mike Levy’s eye. At Rice Paul played bridge in the dining commons every afternoon and evening. He roped me into bridge too. Between bridge and the Thresher, I didn’t study enough and failed freshman math. That was the thing about Paul, he could be an inspiration and a distraction, and was brilliant at both.

He was, how shall I say it, occasionally lacking in self-discipline about deadlines and personal appearance. During long editorial meeting days, Paul would go out for doughnuts and barbecue and return covered in crumbs and sauce stains, carrying empty takeout bags. That lack of discipline in areas he simply didn’t think were important stood in stark contrast to the incredible discipline of his mind. His memory was prodigious, but it wasn’t the memory of a parlor trick, it was memory married with wisdom. Paul never forgot a box score, a bridge hand, or a legislative session.

Paul couldn’t officially work for us at first because he was employed at the Legislature through the end of the 1973 session. His first contribution was to collaborate under the table with Griffin and Richard West on the first “Best and Worst Legislators” feature we inaugurated in 1973. Paul was all about judging politicians not by their politics but by their effectiveness and their character. Could they get things done? Could you trust them? If that was yes, you made the Best. If no, you made the Worst. As I recall, Burka suggested a third category, Furniture, for legislators who were indistinguishable from their desks.

His first signed story was a beautiful and evocative eulogy on the demolition of Clark Field, the legendary UT baseball park. For the first four years he worked at the magazine, he devised a monthly puzzle for the back page that exploited the corners of his mind that played bridge at master level. Then he had a sports column and went on to own the political beat. For decades he was the best political writer in Texas and arguably in America.

With his law degree, he could also handle huge and complex stories like his two-part story on Clinton Manges (still one of the longest stories Texas Monthly has ever run) and his cover story on how coastal states had taken over the Texas energy markets much as Enron did years later. His bridge background, which had taught him about bluffs, options, calculated risks, and strategies, let him enter the minds of the whiz kids who had gamed the system. Paul was also a great polemicist. The cover image of his “I Hate Chili” was Paul turning thumbs down on a bowl of red. He was Team Barbecue all the way.

But where Paul truly showed his worth was as an editor. Many great writers aren’t so great as editors, because they fall back on telling you how they would write your story. Paul was brilliant at understanding what you wanted to say, and then devising the simplest and clearest way to achieve it. He was my main editor on my “Behind the Lines” editor’s column and every feature I wrote. He kept me from falling into cliché, nonsense, bombast, self-importance. He did the same for everyone, for generations of writers. He cast his editing net across everything we did, from features to captions. The spirit of Texas Monthly, that would be Paul. He was the guardian of its soul, its gatekeeper, its conscience.

Paul loved Sarah and he loved his kids. He loved Galveston. He was BOI (Born on the Island), and once you really got to know him you learned how important to him that was. It had nothing to do with the beach—Paul was the least beachy person I knew. It had to do with its history, its smells, the complex family trees, the Gothic politics. I remember one time we crossed the Causeway from the mainland and I could feel Paul settle into his Galveston Island self.

I’m home, he said.

I hope so. Bless you Paul, I owe you so much. We all do.

Gregory Curtis came to Texas Monthly in 1972 as part of the original staff. In 1981 he became editor in chief, a position he held until 2000.

Paul was always late, but Paul was always right. I first met him in the fall of 1962 when I entered Rice University. He was a senior, an acknowledged savant in history, the best bridge player around, and a power hitter in softball. I saw him again exactly ten years later in fall of 1972, when I moved to Austin to join the nascent Texas Monthly. Paul was living in Austin too, having gone to law school at the University of Texas. He was working as, in his words, a “political hack.” After a few issues Bill Broyles, the first editor, hired Paul and the pulse of the magazine immediately quickened. His stories always came in late, but they were always worth the wait.

When I became editor in 1981, I found myself relying on Paul more and more as a writer but also as an editor. I wrote a column each month and I always turned in my copy to Paul for his advice and counsel. Paul knew how to make the argument more convincing and the narrative more clear and dramatic. He could see mistakes in structure, that your fifth paragraph should be moved up to first, and that your first paragraph should be saved for last. When my work satisfied Paul, I stopped worrying. I knew the story was solid. And his influence spread across the whole magazine. I’ve talked to others who worked closely with him and we all agree that Texas Monthly would not have thrived without Paul—and it might not have endured.

And it wasn’t all work. Paul loved to sit and talk, maybe a little too much as deadlines approached, and it was a great pleasure to talk with him. He talked about the Legislature, books, UT football, the Astros, historic Galveston, what comic crisis had made him so late, the qualities of good barbecue, and so much else. Paul may not have thought that he was teaching, but he would be astounded to know how much I learned from him.

Robert Draper was a staff writer at Texas Monthly from 1991 until 1997, and he still writes occasionally for the magazine. He also is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic

Thanks to Paul Burka, the state’s powers that be took Texas Monthlyseriously. No other writer will have his command over Texas politics.

Still, I think of his influence on a more molecular level. On my first day as a staff writer, I was riding in the office elevator with Paul and another writer. He was justly extolling the talents of our colleague Mimi Swartz. “We’re reporters,” he said to us three. “Mimi is a writer.”

I took those words as a challenge, and absolutely no one helped bring me to the next level more than Paul did. “Good writing is clear thinking,” he always said. Coming from a person who could at times appear, let’s say, disordered, his incisiveness seemed magical. His own journalism was both elegant and fearless. He was the master of the top-editing memo, the directive that explained to you how your shell of a first draft could be made into a serviceable piece of journalism. Today, it’s hard to convey the artistry of these memos and the care he put into them. Paul wasn’t lacking in ego, but he never claimed to be the genius behind someone else’s byline. Instead, he took joy in shaping Texas Monthly’s intellectual framework, issue by issue. Paul Burka was a national talent, but he belonged to Texas.

Peter Elkind was a staff writer at Texas Monthly from 1983 until 1990.

I first met Paul in 1983, after joining the Texas Monthly writing staff at age 25. Young and more than a bit foolish, I was reflexively resistant to suggestions about my writing. (I questioned the pitch-perfect addition of the word “pernicious” to my first-ever magazine story.) During seven years at Texas Monthly, I slowly learned that being edited well was a pleasure—and that there was no greater joy than a Burka edit. Paul was brilliant, incisive, and direct, explaining what I’d done wrong and exactly what needed to be done about it. Always with good humor.

Paul’s own stories were evocative and memorable, at any scale: from his epic, gothic tale about South Texas power broker Clinton Manges (Robert Caro had nothing on Paul’s portrait of Texas power and place) to his pithy and withering appraisals of Texas’ best and worst legislators to his takes on chili and baseball.

In the realm of Texas politics, where Paul’s clear-eyed judgment dominated for decades, he admired public-spirited competence, honesty, and decency, regardless of ideology. He reserved his harshest judgment for shameful behavior, less by those who were simply dolts than by those who surely knew better.

I learned much from Paul: from his work; from his personal friendship, which was always generously dispensed; and from how he treated everyone around him. In 2008, in an evocative piece about his family and his father, who died when he was four, Paul noted an example he had learned for his own behavior: “I have been married for thirty years, and I have never raised my voice to my wife in anger.”

He will be sorely missed.

Erica Grieder is a business reporter with the Houston Chronicle. From 2012 until 2016, she worked alongside Paul Burka as a senior editor at Texas Monthly, focused on politics.

When it comes to Texas politics, Paul Burka really classed up the joint—obviously, a daunting task. Before I worked with him on Texas Monthly’s biennial “Best and Worst Legislators” list, I hadn’t realized just how much research and how many conversations go into those picks. The write-ups are stylish and snappy, but the deliberations are sincere. In making his picks, Burka always emphasized values that were close to his heart and that any public servant would do well to internalize: collegiality, problem-solving, respect for the professionalism and expertise of staffers, concern for the most vulnerable among us. At times, Burka seemed amused by the political theater the Texas Legislature is famous for, but he paid close attention to what was going on beneath the surface, and sincerely appreciated legislators of both parties who put the public good first.

The comments section on his BurkaBlog was a good online analog to the discussions he would lead on panels, at events like “Bar Poll,” or in the hallways of the Capitol extension—where his every appearance would set first-year legislators aflutter and where he ran into an old friend at every step.

Burka was a gentle man; in a world of poker players, he preferred bridge. The 2014 midterms were bound to bring change to Texas, with the retirement of then-governor Rick Perry setting off a wave of change down the ballot, even as it was generally assumed that Republicans would sweep the statewide offices again (as indeed they did). Burka was worried for Texas, as the election approached: worried about what he saw as an increasing unkindness along with an ideological hardening, at least on the right. I remember him worrying at an editorial meeting that then–attorney general Greg Abbott, who was running for governor, “has no sympathy”—a consideration that wasn’t widely shared at the time, but perhaps should have been. On Monday morning, hearing that Burka had passed, I wished we had worked harder to become the kind of Texas he believed we could be.

And of course, I cannot bite into a perfect piece of brisket without thinking of Burka’s perfect description: “like cookie dough.”

Michael Hall joined the staff as a story editor in 1997 and has been a staff writer since 1999.

Paul was an enthusiastic editor on the page—sometimes subverting everything you thought you knew about your story. He was pretty enthusiastic on the base paths too. For years Texas Monthly had a softball team called the Fire Ants, a name that always seemed beer-league bland. We were also terrible; our slogan was “Texas Monthly: A great magazine, a terrible softball team.” Before the 2012 season, we sought to change our luck by changing our name. We were now the Burkas.

Paul, a huge Astros fan, was flattered by the name as well as his face on our early uniforms, which had a distinctly seventies Houston vibe (as well as his face on our sleeves). We were actually pretty good that year, going 6–3 as we prepared for our last game of the season. We got him to come out for it—and to coach third base. While the Burkas had some good players, we also had some young people who had rarely played the game before—and had no idea what to do when they approached third base. Paul, who had recently turned seventy, let them know: Go home. It didn’t matter if someone was slow or fast, if the ball was in right field or the third baseman’s mitt—he waved them home. Those of us who thought we knew how to round third—Gauge where the ball is! Weigh the odds of beating the throw!—stood in awe as Paul jumped up and down, windmilled his arms, and urged the runners to the plate. And the thing is, he absolutely knew what he was doing and almost every runner he waved home was safe. The Burkas won the game, 18–10, the only time we ever played for our namesake. I’ve always thought a great editor is like a great coach, and Paul would have been one of the best.

Stephen Harrigan has been a regular contributor to the magazine since 1973. His most recent book is The Leopard Is Loose (Knopf, 2022). 

Paul died just shy of the fiftieth anniversary of Texas Monthly, a magazine whose contours of style and integrity he did so much to shape. Could it have had the impact it did in the early years—and the longevity it earned issue after issue—without him? In a lot of ways, he was Texas Monthly’s center of gravity, the in-house expert on—among other crucial topics—politics, business, and food. (When it came to chili and barbecue, his opinion was law.) I’ve been spending some time today looking through back issues of the magazine and reencountering his writing voice while I conjure up memories of his speaking voice. In his writing he was calm, declarative, authoritative, but right now I can’t call to mind a conversation I had with him in which he wasn’t laughing and looking somewhat shyly at the floor. He was an expert on everything about Texas, past and present, but he never lorded it over beginning magazine writers like me who had a lot of catching up to do. (Thank you, Paul, for patiently explaining the Texas Railroad Commission to me.)

It is legendarily true, however, that tidiness and timeliness were not his most heralded qualities. His voice-mail box was always full, and he was often missing from his cluttered office for weeks at a time, sometimes impossible to track down. There was that time he was late to an important editorial meeting because he only had one pair of pants and they were in the dryer. In fact, Paul was always late—you could set your watch by him not being there. It can be no accident that his sister Jane Burka—who grew up with him—wrote the definitive book on procrastination. In Paul’s mind, a magazine deadline was as hazy and theoretical a concept as an event horizon. But he never missed a deadline, he just warped the idea of the magazine’s schedule—of time itself—around his own inscrutable biorhythms. He was a master of chaos, a disrupter of space and time, but somehow still and always the stable center of Texas Monthly.

Skip Hollandsworth has been a staff writer since 1989.

One afternoon, after spending a few hours wrestling with another horrible first draft of a story I had just turned in, Paul said to me, “You do understand, Skip, that the essence of good journalism is good thinking.”

“Huh?” I said.

“You string a bunch of anecdotes together,” he snapped. “That’s not writing. That’s collating. Your job is to push me to think about your story—to make me ask questions, to search for answers.”

Paul had all sorts of advice like that. For instance, he was constantly ordering me to write big-picture paragraphs that usually come toward the end of the first sections of feature stories—“paragraphs that tell the reader where you are going,” he said. He hated my obsession with adjectives (“Can you at least come up with one adjective that isn’t trite?” he once asked), and he invariably cut what I considered to be powerful, scenic endings to my stories, telling me I was “overdramatic” and “embarrassing.” I would throw up my hands and act offended, but the fact is that I was so delighted by his edits that I would always take credit for them when I was around other writers.

Paul, this comes way too late, but thank you for ripping my stories apart. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be collating.

Nicholas Lemann, a former executive editor, wrote for Texas Monthly from the late seventies to the mid-eighties.

I met Paul 44 years ago, in the spring of 1978. I was working for a perpetually struggling liberal political magazine called the Washington Monthly, but I had signed up to join the staff of Texas Monthly, which was definitely not struggling. Paul was in Washington and he called me up and said, “Let’s visit.” I hadn’t realized that visit was an intransitive verb—I guess that was the first step in an extensive Texas education by Paul.

I was inhabiting a comfortable fantasy world of politics as a pure reformist crusade, meant to save a fallen world; Paul lived deep inside the real realm of practical politics. That was the main topic of my education. He believed that politics was an honorable and important endeavor, which existed to get things done that needed to get done, and that politicians were professionals to be admired—at least if they met his standards. He disdained only the incompetents, the showboaters, and the ideologues. Paul had come of age in the era when Texas was still a one-party state run by tough, unsentimental, seigneurial conservative Democrats. In politics he was the classic tough guy with a soft heart, which was broken (tough guys’ hearts always are, aren’t they?) by the spectacle of the kinds of Texas politicians he admired becoming first Republicans and then conservative-movement Republicans. But he never gave up his fundamental faith in politics.

Just as Paul had volunteered to be the person to welcome me to Texas before I had even arrived, when I moved from Austin to New York, in 1986, he found out which flight I was on and showed up at the airport gate—you could do that then—to say goodbye. His signature gruffness was about a millimeter deep. What he really was, was tenderhearted.

John Schwartz is a professor of practice in journalism at the University of Texas.

Before Paul Burka was Texas Monthly’s revered (and feared) politics maven, he was a legislative aide for state senator A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, my dad. Babe Schwartz was a formidable, if somewhat diminutive, figure, but Paul could go toe to toe with him. Paul loved to tell the story of a report Dad had him write up on beach policy in 1969. Dad was expecting your plain-vanilla legislative report. Instead, Paul bound it in a four-color magazine stock cover with a beach scene and with the title “Footprints . . . on the Sands of Time.” Paul always laughed when he’d tell the story of Dad raging and cussing at him for that bit of literary showmanship, when all he’d wanted was a simple report on the findings of the Interim Beach Study Committee. He’d imitate Dad saying scornfully, “Footprints . . . on the Sands of Time?!” Paul especially loved telling that story over dinner with Mom and Dad and Sarah—and there were a lot of those dinners, because that was a deep, loving, and long friendship, with the conversation picking up where they left off and rolling on till desert. (It was a good report! You can see it here.) Dad appeared on Paul’s ten-best legislators list four times. Some might have said the fix was in because of their long-standing relationship, but Paul didn’t care. Dad was just that good, he said.

So a generation later, I was working part time for Paul at Texas Monthly as a researcher. It was the early eighties, and I was in law school but wanting to go into journalism. One day Paul pulled me aside for some career advice: “Johnny, you know your world very well. But it starts at the river and ends at Twenty-ninth Street.” I knew the Legislature and the campus, he was telling me, but I needed more. He told me to build a career elsewhere. Best advice I ever got, even though it hurt to hear it.

Patricia Sharpe has been a staff writer since 1974.

The magazine’s readers knew Paul as an expert in Texas politics. To the staff, he was a writing professor in residence. He edited numerous stories large and small, and the comments he wrote in the margins were legendary. He caught your embarrassing errors in spelling and grammar and would offer detailed step-by-step instructions on giving a story a dramatic arc you didn’t even realize was missing. I especially remember him emphasizing the importance of the last sentence in a paragraph. “That’s where you lose readers,” he warned. “The final sentence can’t always be a cliffhanger, but it can pose a question or raise an issue that piques their curiosity. You’ve got to keep people engaged. You need to make them care.” That sounds like pretty good advice for life, come to think of it.

Katy Vine was hired to write and edit our Around the State listings in 1997, and she moved to staff writer in 2002.

While I heard about Paul’s steel-trap memory when I first started working at Texas Monthly, I didn’t witness it until he edited a tiny piece I wrote in 1999 about a 1954 Allan Shivers TV ad. He scanned my draft, looked up at me, and asked, “Should we add that it ran on a Thursday?”

But as sharp as his memory was, it was focused on politics—pop culture might as well have been happening on another planet. I heard that when we wanted to reference Michael Jackson’s Bad on the cover, it became clear that Paul didn’t realize that Jackson had gone solo, and he asked something like, “The lead singer from the Jackson 5?”

Lawrence Wright was a staff writer at Texas Monthly from 1980 until 1992.

I first met Paul in 1980, when I came to Austin to interview with Texas Monthly. The meeting included Bill Broyles (who was still editor), Greg Curtis, Steve Harrigan, and Paul. It took place in the Pit, which was the closest barbecue joint near the office. I knew Paul was a great reporter and one of his assets was a delicious sense of humor. When he smiled, his eyes crinkled. I thought: this is a place where I’ll find friends.

Staff writer Jan Jarboe used to call Paul “The Franchise,” and it was true that much of Texas Monthly’s reputation was based on Paul’s reporting, which was informed by both his experience and his wit. He knew the political game better than anyone. He savored the great characters that take root in the Legislature, and while he was friendly to one and all, he never let affection cloud his judgment. Nor would he ever be mean to score a point. Paul was deeply respected even by those he criticized.

What I most treasure in memory is his kindness. He and Steve Harrigan edited an article my wife, Roberta, wrote for Texas Monthly about teaching in a highly stressed public school in Austin (“Do I Make a Difference?” September 1988). Roberta had never written for publication and the editing experience can be sobering. Paul gently talked her through it with all those years of experience behind him, helping Roberta make the best story possible—and the story was later nominated for a National Magazine Award. In our house, Paul was always spoken of with deep affection and gratitude.

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