We’re Expecting Some Turbulence

Normally we spend our time reporting on what is referred to in polite society (and in our bio at the end of the “Las Americas†columns) as “mulilateral malfeasance,†with an emphasis on dirty dealings south of the Rio Grande. But, alas, all’s fair in love and war, and in the spirit of the times (four more years with one of the sorriest piece of works to ever come out of Midland, Texas), we thought we’d present a rundown on some of the Texas políticos whom we’ve been observing during our tenure in Washington, D.C.

From petty cheating to deadlier and more grandiose types of fraud, such as igniting the Vietnam War, there’s quite a crew of Texas politicians who have left their mark during the past 50 years, Phil and Wendy Gramm, John Connally, John Tower, Lloyd Bentsen, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Lyndon Baines Johnson, to name just a few, are the leading lights in a long parade of has-been Texas politicians exiting Washington over the course of the last half century. May the list, one day, grow longer still.

This is not to say that many Texans here do not simply retire and lobby peacefully, such as Dick Armey, who, we understand, now spends much of his time buying drinks for cronies over at Blackie’s House of Beef. Still, you can’t help noticing that the higher-profile Texans are typically ejected from our nation’s capital. LBJ, of course, set the standard for spectacular falls from grace by un-beloved Texans, and we cannot do justice to his story here. Robert Caro, his hostile biographer, has compiled a metric ton of text about him, but it’s probably enough to mention Johnson’s bogus 1964 claim that a U.S. ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, with which he justified the escalation of the Vietnam War. This caper alone ensured Johnson’s admission to the Presidents-We-Wish-Had-Not-Happened Hall of Fame, and helped establish a bad habit for future war-mongering presidents from Texas that we are still trying to break. In his defense, however, it must be said that LBJ, after launching an inflationary spiral that would not end for 15 years and increasing the number of troops in Southeast Asia to more than 500,000, did have the good grace to step down in 1968, rather than run again. Unlike our current president who, having touched off a nasty little war that can only get worse, is still insisting to the impoverished populations of de-industrialized “battleground†states that “Democracy is coming to the greater Middle East,†(although it has recently departed from the Middle West along with the rest of the United States thanks to him).

In the end, LBJ’s retreat from the Washington scene was just the beginning of the bad-to-worse plague of Texans on the national political scene, clearing the way, as it did, for the Richard Nixon presidency and his own top Texan—John Connally—Secretary of the Treasury. Appropriately, you can still find Connally’s signature on those older dollar bills still in circulation. A fitting memento. Connally, a former governor of Texas, joined the Republican party just as the Watergate crisis was breaking here, prompting astounded commentators to observe that this was the first time in Washington history that the rat swam toward the sinking ship.

He did not last long. Connally made a bid to replace then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was relieved of his high office in 1973 amidst charges of bribery, extortion, and income tax evasion. But the country was spared a Connally regime. He too had been badly soiled by Watergate and splattered with unseemly allegations concerning an illegal scheme to inflate the price of milk.

So let’s see, who came next? During the Reagan years, we were treated to the John Tower Show, wherein the former Senator-turned-defense contractor assumed responsibility for investigating the Iran/Contra caper involving Greater Persia and Nicaragua. As chair of the President’s Special Review Board, Tower absolved Reagan of wrongdoing on this one after the president declared (perhaps truthfully) that he couldn’t remember a goddamn thing about either of these two countries.

And, of course, throughout the 1980s we had grown accustomed to the unsettling sight of Vice President Poppy Bush in the background, together with his unscrupulous adult children and his malicious wife Bar. When he assumed the presidency in 1988, the John Tower Horror Show continued: Poppy rewarded Tower for going easy on Reagan with a nomination for the position of Secretary of Defense. In humiliating testimony during his confirmation hearings, however, it emerged that Senator Tower had been drunk for most of his tenure in the United States Senate, and was not a good bet for keeping the nuclear peace. Moreover, he liked to dress up in a Superman costume and frequent Capitol Hill bars, where he lunged at the ladies. The secretary of defense, you will recall, is the person in the government responsible for advising the President to declare a war. Or not. Frightening isn’t it?

Poppy’s tenure was relatively undistinguished, given the rather low expectations established for Texans in this part of the country. His crew behaved comparatively well for awhile. That is, until Poppy and his sidekick Jim Baker decided to celebrate the end of the Cold War by compulsively invading Panama. As of this moment, no one in Washington can fully recall the reason for doing this. The two invading Texans claimed they undertook this mission—Operation Just Cause—because they were convinced that Panamanian “Strongman†Manuel Noriega was dealing drugs out of Central America. Unfortunately, no drugs were found, although the Special Forces did report confiscating a white powdery substance from Noriega’s refrigerator that turned out to be tortilla flour.

In response to the mediocrity at the White House, Texas Democrats retaliated by placing Jim Wright in charge over at the Capitol, their own pedestrian representative. He was not the best card the Texans could have played either. He got himself marginally mixed up in the savings and loan mess, although not nearly so deeply as Neil “Don’t Steal†Bush, and was easily brought down by Newt Gingrich for improprieties that, although they netted him little, made up for it by looking really bad. Among other things, Wright assembled his speeches into a small book and sold them in bulk orders to lobbyists who wanted favors. And he allowed one of his corporate backers to put his wife Betty on the payroll for $18,000 a year while she did nothing but drive the company car. So Wright lost his job without even pocketing very much.

By 1992, Poppy and Bar had proved themselves so dreary and unpopular that Washington finally sent them, too, packing. Pardon me, that is not strictly correct. It wasn’t actually Washington that sent Poppy packing. Another Texan did. H. Ross Perot accomplished this by splitting the right-wing nut turnout in 1992 and depriving Poppy of his expected quotient of the lunatic vote.

Which brings us to Lloyd Bentsen, long-time Texas Senator who ill-advisedly hitched his wagon to the presidential potential of Michael Dukakis. Needless to say, on that ride, the wagon did not go far. As of today, Bentsen is perhaps best known for noticing in a 1988 vice-presidential debate that Dan Quayle was not Jack Kennedy. In 1993, however, Bentsen returned to Washington as Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, just as the stock market ballooned. In his book The Roaring Nineties, Joseph Stiglitz, then Chairman of Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, credits Bentsen with blowing an enormous quantity of hot air into the stock market bubble, so that it burst with maximum mega-ton yield in 2001. Early in Clinton’s administration, the Council proposed auditing rules that required CEOs and others to account for the cost of their stock options to their respective companies. As secretary of the treasury, Bentsen overruled the Council. Through the use of these options, average payouts to corporate managers grew to about 500 times the wages of the average U.S. employee by 2000 and contributed to the collapse of the stock market as the real debt levels of major corporations came to light.

Bentsen had bipartisan Texas help on this: Phil and Wendy Gramm were champions of the looser accounting rules that allowed companies such as Enron to obscure their real debt levels. For their part, Phil, as chair of the Senate Banking Committee, and Wendy, as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, both did their bit to benefit Enron, Phil’s major campaign contributor. In particular, she pushed through a key regulatory exemption for the company in January 1993—just as she was about to leave office—and in February she joined Enron’s board of directors, where she served on the audit committee. Meanwhile, Phil Gramm led the drive to pass the Gramm-Leach Act, deregulating the banking, insurance and securities industries. He was also responsible for passing the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in December 2002, deregulating energy futures for Enron. After the implosion at Enron, Phil Gramm did have the good sense to retire from the Senate, although his rumored plans to assume the presidency of Texas A&M University apparently unraveled. Still, he landed on his feet and joined the UBS Investment Bank. The Bank is part of the UBS empire that now owns Enron’s gas and energy online trading platform, which it acquired for virtually nothing.

Speaking of virtually nothing, that reminds me of our sitting president, George W. Bush, also, of course from Texas, who was recently denounced by Senator Joseph Biden, of the Foreign Relations Committee, as “brain dead.†The Republican Party was quick to take offense, and in a weird metaphorical contortion described the remark as “below-the-belt.†While we try to figure that one out, let’s tally up W.’s achievements in Washington, shall we? A Johnson-type war and a Reagan-type deficit with Cheney-type carpetbagging, and a pending flu epidemic. Plus a congressional climate of hatred, rage, and deception—and a traffic pattern so screwed up with terrorist-prevention blockades that not even the buses can get across town.

You’d think those blockbuster triumphs alone would have earned him a seat in first class back to Texas this past November 2. But damned if Baby Bush isn’t still here, together with Tom “The Hammer†DeLay, who controls the House of Representatives, although he may be indicted. As the majority party, the Republicans recently passed a new rule in the House: Majority leaders under indictment may retain their leadership status. With their customary foresight, the Republicans were not about to allow DeLay to suffer the same fate as Jim Wright.

And so, on the morning of November 3, our president began celebrating his electoral victory by extinguishing 600 “insurgents†(and counting) and naming Alberto “Torture Memo†Gonzales to head the Justice Department. Wild rumors are circulating that Sam Walton is about to take over the Department of Labor. Not really. (Hey, the guy is dead. But you never know.)

Meanwhile, we are all looking forward to the inaugural ball, when we can expect the Armeys, the Gramms, and Poppy and Bar to settle themselves into those wide-bottomed seats again, help themselves to free drinks and hot nuts, and fly right back into town. Oh, boy. Four more years indeed.

A native of Houston, Gabriela Bocagrande now lives in Washington, D.C. She has written for the “Las Americas†section of the Observer since 1998. As this issue went to press, she was last spotted on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

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Published at 12:00 am CST