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Energy Book Review: “The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes,” Bryan Burrough (Penguin 2009)

Now that it looks like at least four of the Republican Presidential candidates claim a Texas connection – Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Perry – a look back at where the Texas connection to the White House began (hint: it wasn’t LBJ) is well-timed. “The Big Rich,” by Texan and author of the seminal “Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco,” Bryan Burrough, tells the fascinating story of the 20th century creation of the Texas oilman and how that led to the Texas place in presidential politics. This tale of oil and politics, (and movie stars, bigamy, island mansions, art, drugs and bankruptcies) is told through the lives of Roy Cullen of Houston, Sid Richardson and the Bass brothers of Fort Worth, Clint Murchison and H.L. Hunt of Dallas. Burrough explains, “If Texas oil had a Mount Rushmore, their faces would adorn it. A good ol’ boy. A scold. A genius. A bigamist. Known in their heyday as the Big Four, they became the founders of the greatest Texas family fortunes, headstrong adventurers who rose from nowhere to take turns being acclaimed America’s wealthiest men.” But this book is more than a biographical quartet; Burrough brings a reporter’s political analysis and lively writing style to put these lives and the birth of the modern oil and gas industry into the larger context of U.S. politics and popular culture. Texas oil and the money it created shaped our modern world including the politics of today. These Texans also shaped popular culture from the image of Spindletop, to Edna Ferber’s “Giant,” to “Dallas” and J.R. Ewing and the Dallas Cowboys. And, Burrough’s descriptions of how these four oilmen responded to the fluctuations of supply and demand and used and abused leveraged debt provide some food for thought for our 21st century era of low oil prices. A great read for anyone interested in U.S. history and the oil and gas industry.