Clayton Wheat Williams Jr. got his first taste of the American political process as a high school student in Fort Stockton, Texas.
Clayton, or Claytie, as he's better known, was a junior when he ran for president of the Student Council of Texas. Three candidates, all friends, stood off in the primary election, and when the polls closed all three were tied. After the final votes were tallied in the ensuing runoff, Claytie came up short. He was defeated in his first bid for political office.
It wasn't until after the runoff that Claytie learned that his campaign manager, Bryan Hale, had failed to vote in the primary. Had Hale cast a vote in Claytie's favor, there would have been no need for a runoff. Claytie would have won the primary outright.
He describes that high school election as a turning point in his life—a point at which Claytie adopted a particular philosophy: "to heck with politics."
That philosophy held until the 1990 Texas gubernatorial race, when Claytie once again entered the political fray, winning the Republican nomination and facing off against Democratic candidate Ann Richards. Opinion polls initially showed Claytie leading the race by 20 points, but a series of what might be generously described as politically incorrect missteps ultimately doomed Claytie's second bid for office. He lost his bid for governorship of Texas to Richards.
He lost by a margin of two percentage points.
Lesson Learned "Any mistake that could be made, I've probably made it," Claytie says today. "I ought to be smarter. You're supposed to learn from your mistakes, but sometimes I've done the same dumb things two or three times."
Self-deprecation aside, Claytie did learn one very important lesson from his earlier political efforts: Every vote counts.
Now, at the age of 79 and with that lesson in mind, Claytie Williams is once again entering the political arena, but not as a candidate. This time, he plays the role of an American citizen fed up with the political elite and concerned about his beloved country's future.
"A life's journey is like sharpening a knife against a rough stone.""We're losing our country," Claytie says. "We're losing our freedoms."
He's not alone in that belief.
Prior to the 2010 midterm elections, opinion polls painted a picture of an American populace increasingly distrustful of its leadership and convinced that the nation was headed in the wrong direction.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Sept. 15 showed that 62 percent of likely voters felt that Congress was doing a poor job. Only 10 percent thought Congress was doing an excellent, or even good, job. A Gallup poll released around the same time showed a record-low 36 percent of Americans had either a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in the U.S. legislative branch. Perhaps most telling of all, a Rasmussen poll released Sept. 22 showed that fully two-thirds of likely voters believe our nation is heading down the wrong track.
Claytie is not unusual. He sits firmly in this majority of angry Americans. In one way, though, he is a bit of a rarity: He's an angry American willing to put his energy and his money where his mouth is. With a $1 million gift, Claytie has joined the National Rifle Association's Golden Ring of Freedom. His generous act also marks his reentry into politics: Claytie's monetary gift is earmarked specifically to support the NRA's Freedom Action Foundation, which seeks to register and educate unregistered voters.
As he says in his West Texas drawl, Claytie has "hitched his wagon to the NRA" and joined what he sees as a fight to save the country he loves.
Life in the Land of Opportunity Claytie's life story is one that could have been written only in the "land of opportunity." All the elements are there: hard work, perseverance, success followed by defeat followed once again by success. It's the story of the American dream.
The Claytie Williams saga started during the Great Depression. It was during those dark days in our nation's history that he was born, not in the family's hometown of Fort Stockton, Texas, but one town over in Alpine—because his father couldn't afford to pay the light bill in Fort Stockton. Despite the hardships of the time, Claytie's young days were happy and not at all atypical of a boy growing up in rural America. He caught the hunting bug early, dispatching many a rabbit with his .22 rifle and taking his first deer at the age of 12. The Boy Scouts of America were a formative influence, and Claytie eventually attained the rank of Eagle Scout.
Being a Texan, young Claytie, of course, played football. Friday nights, he lined up at fullback for the Fort Stockton High School football team.
"They said about the Fort Stockton Panthers, 'They're small, but boy are they slow,'" Claytie jokes. "We were 5-and-5. We lost five at home, five on the road."
After graduating from Texas A&M in 1954, Claytie embarked on a professional career that saw him wear a veritable wardrobe-full of hats, which included (in no particular order and far from all-inclusive) that of an insurance salesman, a farmer, a rancher, a banker, an oilfield lease broker, a wildcatter and a long-distance company operator.
His professional history is marked by so many ups and downs, successes and failures, that one quickly loses count. He has appeared in the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans—and he has appeared in bankruptcy court. He has learned as much from his failures as from his successes.
"Adversity hones you," Claytie says. "A life's journey is like sharpening a knife against a rough stone. If you deal with adversity, you become better, tougher and more focused. If you don't deal with it, you break apart."
The sum total of his live experiences, both good and bad, have made him what he is today: a hard-nosed, warm-hearted American who, above all else, loves his country.
Claytie currently serves as chairman of the board, president, chief executive officer and director of Clayton Williams Energy Inc., the independent energy company he founded in 1991. These are by no means figurehead positions. Claytie remains the visible and active leader of his company.
"People count on me," Claytie says. "I hope to run this company until I'm 90. Then maybe I'll retire and go hunting."
Claytie says he's always regarded hunting as a reward for working. He and his wife of 45 years, Modesta Williams, have hunted all over the world, and it's been during those hunts to far-flung nations that Claytie and Modesta have gained an even greater appreciation for the American way.
"Vote your beliefs. If you don't vote, you're not participating in protecting our freedoms."
"As Modesta and I have hunted over the world, we've seen abject poverty in Ethiopia and in the slums of the former Soviet Union. We've been to communist countries. We've seen how people live under dictatorships. We've seen the desire of all people to be free. It just makes you appreciate freedom all the more.
"When we first went to Mongolia in 1977, we landed in Moscow and the communists were in control," Claytie recalls. "There was a lot of poverty there, and we were fearful. The last two times we've been through Russia, you see more prosperity. Not that there aren't still problems, but you see freedom. People are 10 times happier there now."
Modesta Williams has witnessed this same desire for and appreciation of freedom, particularly evident amongst those who don't enjoy it. She's also seen where the true compassion, and ultimately the true power, of a free nation lies.
"We've been able to hunt and fish and travel all over the world," says Modesta. "We've always found that everywhere in the world we've gone, it's the regular people who make the difference. That's true in the United States. That's who is fighting for our freedom."
A Gift with a Grand Purpose Claytie Williams truly loves the nation that has afforded him so many opportunities for success, so many failures from which to learn and so many rewards for a lifetime of hard work. Now, his efforts are focused on saving this land he loves. He sees the current political ruling elite as a true danger to America and to the freedoms upon which the country was founded.
But he understands full well that in a democracy the people have the power. When the people are dissatisfied with their leaders, when they are dissatisfied with the direction their nation is headed, they have one very powerful method of recourse.
"Capital letters: V-O-T-E," Claytie says.
"Vote your beliefs. If you don't vote, you're not participating in protecting our freedoms."
He's sworn off politics at least twice in his life, but Claytie is back out there campaigning—not for votes, but for dollars to supplement what he has already provided to the NRA's Freedom Action Foundation. During a speech at the 2010 NRA Annual Meetings, Claytie referred to himself as "a money beggar." He knows that the political tide in America can be turned, but it will take reaching out to the silent majority: the millions of gun owners, Second Amendment supporters and fellow freedom lovers who are not currently registered to vote.
And he knows she can't do it alone. That's why, he says, he joined up with the NRA and why he's reaching out for support from anyone who'll listen.
"There's no place like the United States. You just travel a little bit and you'll understand it," Claytie says. "We're rare and precious and we've got to fight for it. We've always had to fight for it. Of course our men and women in armed services have fought. But now the body of the NRA, which is who we are ... we must fight and we must stand up, whether it's giving money, going out and registering voters, working at the polls.
"Every member that I could touch, I say for God's sake please help us in fighting to keep our freedoms."
Every vote does count. Through his work with the NRA, Claytie is ensuring those votes are cast—and cast correctly, for the freedoms upon which his beloved country was founded.