A Few Thoughts About Wayne Slater…
When I first learned former Dallas Morning News political writer Wayne Slater died in a fatal car accident several days ago, my mind basically shut down for several hours to contemplate this horrific Christmas holiday tragedy. I’d been working on a writing project, but that became a slog amid the pervasive sadness.
As reminiscences pored forth on Twitter and other platforms, I considered adding my own. But I opted out. A short Tweet seemed cursory; too fleeting and superficially top-of-mind considering the gravity of the matter at hand.
Besides continuing to exchange emails and calls with stunned friends, I concluded I’d say nothing — just roll through the holiday season with sad thoughts interjecting themselves into my consciousness. I decided otherwise, and cobbled together a few thoughts I hope are worthy of Wayne’s memory.
Thirty one years have passed since parachuting into Austin from DC to serve as press secretary for Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, in his bid against then-State Treasurer, Ann Richards. No one likes to talk about their losses — especially this one. But famously (or infamously, more appropriately), we booted the race.
Yet I ended up being lucky on many, many counts. First, just for the opportunity. Richards vs. Williams was a marquee national contest. Still in my twenties — my first experience working a nationally-watched statewide contest outside of the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region — I also had the good fortune to work with the Texas press corps.
I learned quickly this group of seasoned journalists played at a different level. A contest of that magnitude, intensity and cutthroat vitriol — covered by professionals of that caliber — was an eye-opener.
I loved it.
Among the many reasons why was dealing with aggressive, no B.S. pros like Wayne Slater and his DMN Austin bureau partner, Sam Attlesey. What a tag team duo.
Slater, Attlesey and their DMN Austin colleagues were the best group of state capitol-based journalists I encountered, anywhere. I’d be remiss not to also note the Texas press corps, as a collective, remains the very best of all the states in which I worked.
The competition between Slater and his Austin DMN crew — against a battery of skilled competitors at the Houston Chronicle, Houston Post, Austin American Statesman, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star Telegram, San Antonio Express News, AP/Austin, and others — was vicious.
But everyone I knew and dealt with at the time liked “Slater”. They respected his dogged professionalism, knowledge and integrity. Bullshitting him was a fruitless nonstarter — especially if you were the new guy in town. But he relished the daily shootout as much as anyone. There was plenty of fun to be had with the DMN folks. I learned along the way he was also just a great guy.
On election night, 1990, Wayne was reporting from Ann Richards’ victory headquarters. It was big, national news. Well after midnight, Slater left a message to call. Why? I wondered. He surely didn’t need a react, or anything on the record. Attlesey, his DMN colleague, was still at our headquarters reporting on how we fumbled away a lead, and the race itself.
Reaching Wayne, he conveyed how incredible the race had been to cover. He expressed sympathy that I’d been the Claytie Williams spokesperson — explaining and defending the candidate’s many colorful statements. At the time, I wasn’t looking for sympathy, I was looking for another drink. Slater went on, in a tone more of wonderment, that it was a race and experience we’d both remember for the rest of our lives. Indeed it was.
I didn’t feel any better after his courtesy call, but it was an act of kindness I never forgot. Upon learning of his death, that election night conversation reverberated in my head. Over the years, we stayed in touch. He’d periodically call for a quote or observation for one of his state or national stories — always playing the “Remember the time when?” game about all of the ’90 campaign’s bizarre incidents, pratfalls and gaffes that live on to this day in Texas political lore.
Years later — after he became a nationally-recognized national political analyst, author, TV pundit, and chronicler of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial and White House eras — Wayne and I chatted about his talented son, rock poster artist Todd Slater. He’d found success and notice in a very different line of work.
Around 2012 or so, I got involved with Headcount, the non-partisan, non-profit that registers voters at music festivals. By pure happenstance, while doing artist research for a Headcount poster project I was pursuing, I learned Wayne was Todd’s dad.
What an incredibly cool, karmic coincidence. Todd’s prints of bands I still see— like Widespread Panic and the Avett Brothers — are highly collectible.
I called Wayne to share my pleasure in learning Todd was his son — and a top notch artist in the realm of live music, one of my own interests. We had a delightful, lengthy conversation that filled out so much more about him as a dad, and as a person.
He gushed about Todd’s work, talent and enterprise — expressing gratitude his son had achieved success on his own terms.
Indeed. Besides happiness, what else could we want for our sons or daughters? Succeeding professionally on one’s own terms is but a dream to most.
Wayne Slater dealt with hundreds of press and communications folks through his decades of Texas and national political reporting. And so many in Texas with whom he worked daily, for years, knew him far better than I did.
But I’m lucky to have known him professionally in the unique context of our shared 1990 campaign experience — and to have later learned through our conversation that his public success as a journalist was matched by his personal success and happiness as a proud father. This is the memory I’ve chosen to focus upon.