WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. Bob Krueger, human rights advocate and the last Texas Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate, passed away of congestive heart failure in his hometown of New Braunfels on April 30, according to local reports.
Krueger was among the last of the once-dominant conservative Texas Democrats, with a political career that spanned the party’s slow collapse across the state. He briefly achieved his highest aspiration in 1993, when Gov. Ann Richards appointed him to serve in the U.S. Senate.
He served only five months, losing a bruising special election to future Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who would serve out the remainder of that term and win reelection three more times.
But in defeat, Krueger established a legacy that will outlive many Senate careers.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton named Krueger the U.S. ambassador to Burundi, an African country neighboring Rwanda, which was amid civil war at the time.
In this role, Krueger came under physical threat and seized the mantle as the United States’ foremost advocate against human rights abuses in a destabilized East Africa. His eyewitness accounts to the horrors of genocide are frequently cited within the human rights community, including on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
A generation ago, the 1976 edition of The Almanac of American Politics described the then-freshman congressman and Shakespeare scholar as “about as far removed from the stereotype of a Texas politician as one could imagine.” In reporting on his passing, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper declared him “this city’s favorite native son.”
A descendant of German immigrants who settled in the Texas Hill Country, Robert Charles Krueger was born on Sept. 19, 1935. A product of New Braunfels public schools, he was one of the brightest minds of his generation. He graduated in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree from Southern Methodist University. He went on to earn his master’s from Duke University, where he would later serve as a college dean, and he earned additional master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. While at Oxford, he mastered the works of Shakespeare.
Eventually, he returned to his hometown in 1973 to run a family business, the Comal Hosiery Mills, a top New Braunfels employer. In 1974, he ran as a Democrat in an open-seat U.S. House race.
The 21st Congressional District should have been the next logical pickup for Republicans looking to make gains within the Texas congressional delegation. At that time, it stretched from conservative northern San Antonio into its other population center, San Angelo in West Texas. Two years before, President Richard Nixon defeated Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern there by 52 points.
With the help of future Texas Land Commissioner Garry Mauro and Texas advertising man Roy Spence, Krueger ran well-funded, underdog campaigns in both the Democratic primary and in the general election. He won both, earning a place in the 1974 class of Democratic members who became known as the “Watergate Babies.”
While his tenure in the House was short — he served two terms — he earned a reputation for concentrating his time on energy policy.
But he aspired for a higher office across the Capitol. He unsuccessfully ran three times for Senate, first challenging Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower in 1978. Six years later, he lost to now-U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett in the 1984 Democratic primary, in a race that Republican U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm eventually won.
In 1993, Krueger left his post as Texas railroad commissioner to achieve the pinnacle of his political career. After Democratic U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen vacated his seat to serve as U.S. treasury secretary, Richards appointed Krueger to finally serve in the U.S. Senate.
That dream only lasted five months.
Upon his appointment, Krueger faced a fast-approaching special election to serve out the remainder of that term. The 1994 GOP wave was nigh, and Texas was turning against Democrats in the 1990s — particularly those who were cerebral in nature. Krueger lost his bid to serve the remainder of Bentsen’s term when state Treasurer Hutchison soundly defeated him in the June 1993 special election.
Clinton and Richards staffers were furious with the scale of his political defeat. Clinton appointed Krueger to serve as ambassador to Burundi, an assignment they internally mocked, according to Brian McCall’s book The Power of the Texas Governor: Connally to Bush.
But diplomacy in East Africa in 1994 was anything but a joke, and the continent would become the center of his professional portfolio.
That year, Krueger and his wife, Kathleen, and their two young daughters moved to Burundi, a country that neighbored Rwanda. At the time, Rwanda was in the middle of a horrific civil war that brought genocide to the region. Refugees spilled into nearby countries, including Burundi.
“Almost alone among Clinton’s diplomats, Krueger helped protect people from slaughter,” wrote Richards biographer Jan Reid. “When he challenged Tutsi [tribal] marauders, two newspapers called for his assassination, and an ambush was soon attempted, leaving Bob unhurt but two people dead and eight more wounded.”
“One day his wife, Kathleen, faced down a dozen African soldiers who were intent on killing one of their household workers,” he added.
The Kruegers penned a book about their experiences, From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi, which is listed on the Briscoe Center for American History website, among many other sources.
The Kruegers left that post in 1996, and he went on to serve in the Clinton administration as the U.S. Ambassador to Botswana and as a special representative of the U.S. secretary of state to the Southern African Development Community.
Krueger ended his career as a professor, returning to Oxford as a research fellow in 2000. Over the course of his academic career, he taught Shakespeare and history to students at the state’s preeminent higher education institutions: Rice University, the University of Texas at Austin, Texas Tech University and Texas State University.
Despite his achievements in academia, politics and diplomacy, Krueger’s hometown paper pointed most directly to his personal decency as his legacy.
Krueger “was known to all by his informal name Bob and for an inclusive outlook borne of a time when participants in the political arena prided themselves on their fellowship and ability to work across the aisle with colleagues of any party,” the Herald Zeitung newspaper stated in its Sunday obituary.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.