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GRAMM’S JOURNEY: Candidate Faced Brink Early In Life

January 17, 1996

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) _ Home for Christmas, 19-year-old Phil Gramm found an ugly scene: his mother desperately trying to get an ex-boyfriend out of her life.

Florence Gramm, widowed four years earlier, had dated James Neese. Then came acrimony and lawsuits. Neese charged Mrs. Gramm was harassing him, interfering with his marriage and trying to make him lose his job. She countersued, saying she thought Neese was single and charging him with harassment, blackmail and trying to ruin her reputation.

During one of Neese’s persistent telephone calls, Gramm got on the line and warned him to stay away from his mother. The 210-pound Neese invited the gangly teen-ager to meet him so he could ``beat (Gramm’s) brains out,″ according to 1961 court records.

Gramm went to the assigned place and watched Neese drive by without stopping. The harassment ended.

``It was just one of those unhappy events,″ Gramm recalled in a recent interview. ``The word they would use today is `stalker.′ He was a big guy, he was a tough guy.″

Gramm found out only last year that Neese was more than a stalker; he was a paroled killer who had also served time for armed robbery.

``Nobody knew this guy’s background. I knew he was no good. I didn’t have any idea that he was a murderer,″ Gramm said. ``You do stuff at that age ...″

While Bill Clinton’s similar defense of his mother against an abusive stepfather was an often-repeated formative tale of his youth, Gramm doesn’t like talking about the incident.

He says it’s embarrassing to his mother, now 82 and in bad health in her hilly, middle-class neighborhood in Phenix City, Ala., across the Chattahoochee River from here. She deserves her privacy, Gramm says.

Nevertheless, as a presidential candidate, the Republican senator from Texas has quoted ``my mama″ so much that you expect him to declare any day now that life is, indeed, like a box of chocolates ala Forrest Gump.

He likes to tell how mama would drive him through the wealthy neighborhoods in this Georgia-Alabama border city and counsel him that he could live in a fancy house some day if he worked hard. And long before he earned a Ph.D. in economics, Gramm says, he learned his most important economic lessons by watching ``mama and my big brothers″ sitting around the kitchen table trying to decide which bills to pay.

``My mama prodded me every step of the way ... because in the world I grew up in, mothers’ dreams did not die easily in America. Too many mothers’ dreams are dying too easily in America today. I want our America back,″ Gramm says in campaign speeches.

Behind the poignant, homespun rhetoric is a politician who, in other vernacular from his home region, has been described as smart as a whip and meaner than a junkyard dog.

Gramm’s used to coming back from slow starts. He failed three grades in school before becoming a scholar who earned a doctorate and a professorship by age 30. He was trounced in his first run for public office but hasn’t lost since.

``I have worked very hard,″ Gramm said in an interview. ``I’m blessed in that I have the capacity to work hard, to campaign long hours.″

Friends and relatives who go back to the early days of Gramm’s two decades in politics say he is not just trying to spin away the uphill look of his campaign. If there’s a way to outsmart, outwork and out-tough the other candidates, they say, he’ll find it.

Former Texas GOP chairman Fred Meyer wanted to lift Gramm’s spirits after a series of reports about his campaign faltering several months ago, but found there was no need.

``He said, `Fred, don’t worry about that, man. I’m up, I’m ready, I’m in it for the long haul.′ He says `nobody’s going to outwork me,′ and they’re not,″ Meyer said.

In explanation, Gramm invokes yet another philosophy from his mama: ``Her view was if you work hard enough, you don’t fail.″

___

Florence Scroggins Gramm was already locked into a hard life when she gave birth to William Philip Gramm on July 8, 1942, at Fort Benning, Ga. She already had two sons, Charles and Donald White, from a first marriage that ended in divorce.

Even before he was born, Gramm says, his mother was dreaming of a college education for him. Neither of his parents made it through high school.

When he was a toddler, Gramm’s father, Master Sgt. Kenneth Marsh Gramm, suffered a massive heart attack followed by stroke, and the resulting disabilities transformed ``a strapping fellow who was the picture of health,″ brother Don White remembers, into ``a walking dead man for all practical purposes.″

With her husband in and out of VA hospitals, Mrs. Gramm, who had worked in a cotton mill here, worked double shifts doing home nursing.

``Probably both of them had the idea that education was all important because of the fact that they had little education,″ White says. ``My mother had come into contact with affluent people and she knew that education had something to do with it.″

Gramm showed little interest in such dreams. The senior Gramm liked his son to sit at his feet while he read aloud from military histories and classic works, but the boy was more interested in hunting, swimming and playing army with his friends.

When Phil was about 8, they moved to a two-bedroom home chosen by his mother because it was near the locally prestigious Wynnton Elementary School.

Phil continued to skip classes, lose books and draw spankings, switchings and stern lectures from his mother. The health of his father, who would die in 1957, continued to decline and Phil became more rebellious than ever.

``She would say `You’re going to school if I have to call an ambulance to take you,′ ″ recounts White. ``She was exasperated. She said: `Let me explain something to you. You’re going to school, you’re getting an education. Do you understand what I’m telling you?′ ″

When a ninth-grade teacher suggested that Gramm might be better off looking into trade school because he lacked ability, she snapped: ``What’s ability got to do with it? He’s going to college or I’m going to kill him!″

Today, Gramm says with a laugh, ``Given the choice between death and book learning, I chose learning.″

Gramm, who repeated third grade and needed summer school to avoid repeating seventh and ninth, didn’t really buckle down until he was sent off, with his late father’s GI benefits, to Georgia Military Academy near Atlanta. A last straw was when he was caught taking the family car joyriding.

He got one last lecture from White, who graduated from North Georgia College and then began an Army career. (The oldest brother, Charles, was mentally slow and worked sporadically as a laborer before retiring in Columbus.)

White warned his half-brother that the military academy was his last chance, the last stop between Gramm and hard work in the cotton mills. He also told him that on the first day of school, to look over his classmates and say to himself: ``I’m smarter than you and I’m going to prove it.″

Gramm fed on competition and was inspired by a series of teachers such as Jack Farobee, who teased Gramm by writing in his yearbook: ``After all is said and done, more is said than done.″

He graduated with honors, then went to the University of Georgia, where his classmates and friends included James Miller III, later to be President Reagan’s budget director. Gramm, now married, was headed for a banking career when he was offered a business school scholarship. He accepted, and was on his way to the economics study that would lead him into politics.

Heavily influenced by free-market, anti-regulation economists, Gramm moved on to Texas A&M and became a full professor.

Divorced from his Georgia wife, he made a quick move on a teaching applicant named Wendy Lee. She accepted his third proposal; they’ve been married 25 years now and have two sons.

Gramm, who taught himself how to coach a Boys’ Club football team and then how to restore a swimming pool at the house they built, next began learning to become a politician.

He mailed out a circular to chambers of commerce and community clubs offering himself as a speaker.

The only invitation he got was a from Lions Club in Wortham, Tex. Among his listeners there was Dicky Flatt, who ran a family printing business in tiny Mexia. Impressed, he asked the professor to come speak in his town.

At The Tender Steer Steakhouse in Mexia, Gramm drew about a dozen people and ``just seemed to be so smart,″ says Flatt, who promised Gramm then he’d work for him if he ever ran.

Gramm’s first foray was in 1976 against entrenched Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

``He taught himself how to campaign. He learned from his mistakes,″ Flatt says, chuckling at Gramm seeking votes at Little League games, where he probably did more harm than good by distracting the spectators. Flatt also held a ladder for Gramm while he climbed up to talk to roofers on the job.

``It was a slow process,″ Gramm says.

They invented gimmicks such as ``Gramm crackers″ and a ``jam for Gramm″ rally with music by ``the balanced-budget boogie boys.″

Years later, Flatt would gain fame as a Gramm trademark _ the ``Dicky Flatt test.″ Gramm refuses to commit funding to any program unless it’s worth taking money out of the pocket of his hard-working friend who, as Gramm says and a recent visitor found, never seems to get the ink off his fingers.

Gramm got just 29 percent of the vote against Bentsen. It’s the only election he ever lost.

___

Elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1978, Gramm’s economic expertise won him a seat on the House budget committee. But his laissez-faire beliefs quickly turned him into ``a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.″ Some Democrats thought he was more of a spy, and kicked him off the committee.

Returning home, Gramm challenged the odds by resigning his seat and reclaiming it as a Republican.

He moved to the Senate in 1984, and then gained notoriety with the zero-based budgeting Gramm-Rudman-Hollings bill. He also gained a reputation among some peers for ``Gramm-standing″ (taking credit for others’ work) and as a cutthroat politician.

Some suggest contradictions in his hawkish talk on the Vietnam War, even though he used college deferments to stay out of service, and in his anti-spending rhetoric when his own education is owed largely to government benefits and scholarships.

Joking about his reputation for being mean, he tells audiences he keeps his heart in a jar on his desk.

``I do fight hard for what I believe in,″ Gramm said. ``And I think you have to be tough to say `no’ in Washington.″

Gramm has said that perhaps his greatest regret in life is that his father never saw any of his achievements. His mother long ago was satisfied.

``My mother never wanted me to get into politics. She cried the day I quit my job to run,″ Gramm said.

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