High Stakes Texas Bingo


The following excerpt is from High Stakes Texas Bingo, a novel-in-progress. It is late-1980s Houston; oil prices and S&Ls are falling like swatted marsh mosquitoes. Former White House counselor and genuine political golden boy Jackie Belfast has returned to his hometown, taking a lowly job in the district attorney’s office he’d left decades earlier. He tells a few friends he’s come back to be near his daughter as she grows up, even if that means living in the same city as her mother; a few friends act as if they believe him. Soon after his reappearance, Jack is assigned to prosecute thoroughly corrupted, utterly insignificant, and highly entertaining County Constable Bailey “Bingo” Satwell. Because it’s led by Belfast, the case quickly takes unorthodox turns into outlandish territory, attracting the attention of investigative reporter (and reluctant narrator) Jason Mack. Local Republicans fulminate, as only local Republicans can. Everyone is scandalized without being particularly surprised. It’s pure Houston, and the only possible place for the only possible beginning to the grand political fiasco known, ever since and across the land, as l’affaire du Bingo.

Looking back now, and even fully indulging a highly developed tendency to doubt myself at every turn, I think it’s fair to say that during my time in Houston, I tried to be a good reporter and a decent person. I know I never wrote a single newspaper story that I didn’t believe to be true, and I am certain I never set out to hurt anyone, in either a personal or professional sense. But no one ever said life or Houston would be fair, and no one certainly was wise in that regard, because by the time Jackie Belfast came back to town, a fair number of reasonably powerful and ruthless people already believed that Jason Mack was a low and unprincipled rumor-maker who should go back to New York, or California, or whatever other liberal Yankee mudhole it was that he’d been conceived in.

You see, I’d committed the Texas sin of writing newspaper stories that contained tiny shards of truth that reflected in a slightly less than lavishly complimentary way on a couple of Houston politicians and businesspeople of modest influence. Somehow, against all precedent, the newspaper that employed me actually published a few of these offensively truthful articles and would not subsequently agree, as was customary when such mistakes had been made, to reassign me to cover the sewer board of an outlying suburb in punishment. As a result, the city’s business and political establishment was at unusual odds with my newspaper, sending occasional emissaries to tell my editors just what an ill-intentioned and poorly groomed chronicler of legally actionable defamation I was.

Given this state of affairs, I’ve never been particularly surprised or upset by the crazy and patently false claims that I ran into back then, and still run into occasionally: that I’d known Jackie Belfast for years before he came back to Houston; that we’d been childhood friends (a nice trick, given the 14-year difference in our ages); that he and I were distant relatives; that his daughter was either my sister, or my wife; that he and I had planned his return together, down to its timing, its target, and its termination. The claims, after all, play to an unwavering belief in my satanic reach that warms my heart, right down to the present hour and minute.

Just the same, there is such a thing as simple truth, even in Texas, and even in Houston, Texas, and this is it: I met Jackie Belfast through a series of referrals and hand-offs and references motivated, alternately, by fear, interest, laziness, wonder, jealousy, curiosity, admiration, and the sheer bug-eyed hatred Jackie Belfast inspires in so many people, including, sometimes, friends. The process took weeks.

Two corrupt Texas cowboys

I think I remember that it began when I was walking down a tunnel that connects the county administration building with the family courthouse, and I ran into Walter Davidson, the manipulative, brilliant, evil sprite who would have looked like Ross Perot or Howdy Doody, if Ross Perot or Howdy Doody had ever been 30 years old and worn a spiky, punk-rock hairdo. Walter was at that time the unofficial coordinator of Republican politics in Houston, Harris County, Texas, and therefore a power of enormous national reach that Walter would unconvincingly minimize whenever it was mentioned, thereby intimating that the true scope of his influence was vastly greater than could possibly have been presupposed.

“Do you know Ruthie Simpson?” he asked.

“A little,” I said.

“You should talk to her.”

“What about?” I asked.

Shaking his head, Walter answered: “You wouldn’t believe it from me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, in a hurt tone of voice that implied he had no right to suggest I might notice when he skillfully misrepresented reality.

“Just talk to Ruthie.”

Of course, because Walter had given all of his significant leaks to more pliant reporters for years now, I did not immediately alter my schedule to search out Ruthie Simpson, the bitter and unhelpful spinster who worked as court clerk and mistress for that high-handed Republican prick, Judge Homer Falcon. A week or so later, though, Howard Rhine, an ancient private investigator sponsored by the insurance industry (and therefore, by syllogism, a GOP operative), left me a phone message that ran on for 7 minutes and 34 seconds. Amid Howard’s sly, cornpone variety of self-important humor came a host of vague allegations of horrifying wrongdoing within and throughout the district attorney’s office, much of it involving this Jack Belfast character. (And had I heard what he’d done to his poor mother’s estate?) Every so often during the interminable message, Howard recommended that I call back immediately. He wanted to make sure I got the story before that reporter over at Channel 2.

Howard, Howard, Howard, three full takes of Howard Rhine on my answering machine-meaning that a 68-year-old, incredibly busy, vastly wealthy proprietor of an exceedingly successful and unethical investigations shop had phoned me, a reporter he had no reason to cultivate, three separate times. Of course, both Howard and I knew that he had never given me a story first, and never would do so, if for no other reason than that aid to me might become known to the evil genius of Walter Davidson. Amid the miasma of Howard’s improbable innuendo, after another suggestion that I talk to Ruthie Simpson, came a seemingly offhand comment-something on the order of, “Even Judge Sanchez was concerned about it”-a clue dropped obviously, and never returned to. For Howard knew that Smokin’ Jose Sanchez was one of my well-known secret sources, and I would now be required, as a matter of journalistic duty, to ask him about the supposed perfidies being perpetrated by Jack Belfast, a prosecutor I’d scarcely heard of.

When I stopped by the judge’s office, it was a few days later and after lunch, and the courtroom was empty and dark. Court was clearly over for the day, which didn’t surprise me; Jose had always been lazy. Maria, his clerk, didn’t really want to stick around and gossip, but yeah, the judge knew Jackie from way back, and so did she. Jackie, she said with a sigh that began deep in her gigantic chest and suggested experience beyond the professional, Jackie was, well … Jackie. He was OK by her, but she understood why a lot of people hated his guts. And no, she did not know why Jackie was trying to take out Bingo. But wouldn’t it be swell, she said with a smile as she cradled a pile of legal folders against her heroically restrained breasts in a way that said she was leaving, if someone actually did something about some of this crap, sometime? It was a funny thing to come from the mouth of anyone working for Jose “the plaintiff’s friend” Sanchez, but Maria sometimes actually gave me news, and I let it slide.

A few days later, during my regular troll through the DA’s Office, I ran into Hector Emiliano, an investigator for the Texas attorney general. Ordinarily, Hector worked out of Austin on matters the attorney general (or just The General, as he was more often known) found to be of special political sensitivity. Hector, who often drove The General to his appointments and who, therefore, had gained the nickname “Sugar Hector,” had always been wonderfully, expansively, courteously, Hispanically, and totally useless in regard to providing me with publishable news. As far as I can remember, in fact, he had never previously spoken to me on his own initiative.

“Hey, Mack,” he whisper-yelled, motioning in his elaborately formal way with a hand as I was leaving the office of the soporific director of the DA’s special crimes bureau, Linda Gross-Whiteman. “I talked to Maria; I have someone you need to meet.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Hey, amigo, this is not about why,” Hector said, putting an arm around my shoulder and guiding me down the hall as I made halfhearted attempts to squirm away. “This is about Jackie fucking Belfast.”

I let myself be led to Jack’s office, where, of course, I noticed the political memorabilia-a picture of what I presumed was a preadolescent Jack shaking hands with Jackie Kennedy, Jack in a variety of grip-‘n’-grin poses with more recent figures from the national Democratic Party, including the photo with Jimmy Carter and his wife at their farm. But then I could not avoid seeing what clearly had been prepared for me, the scrapbook he was leafing through, the scrapbook in which newspaper articles had been pasted, the scrapbook in which, it certainly appeared, many, perhaps most, maybe even all of the articles had been written by me. He flipped the book closed, stood, and extended a hand, talking as if we’d long been friends. I knew it was a practiced political act, a shameless bit of rehearsed flattery. Still, all the jealously and suspicion disappeared, and I felt better than I had in months when Jack Belfast made me laugh out loud by saying, “I’m so glad we got to meet before they killed you.”

Many and perhaps most Americans believe-even yet, even now-that doing a job well will bring appropriate compensation over time, that quiet excellence provides its own reward. Jackie Belfast has absolutely never, ever been one of these people. As a teenager, he had indifferent grades, despite an extraordinarily quick mind and near-total recall; made unexceptional showings on the athletic field, though he possessed a natural athlete’s strength and grace; in fact, evinced almost no specific talents or interests except for those attached to the student council. Yet the St. Thomas High School yearbook contains so many references to Jack Belfast, and so many photos of him-behind a Bunsen burner, running down the football field, writing at the blackboard-that one would swear he had been identical triplets.

Likewise, during his college days in the late 1960s, Jackie Belfast was clean-cut in an age of manes, beards, and muttonchops, yet he was always welcomed by the longhairs around the edges of (but never inside) Vietnam War protests. Then, two weeks later, he would show up in a photograph on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman, sitting next to Lynda Bird Johnson at the University of Texas football game. And no one, apparently, ever thought to bring up the contradiction-she was, after all, the daughter of the president keeping the troops in Vietnam-because Jackie Belfast was already clearly special, utterly anointed, obviously bound for glory of some vague sort that did not require application to detail or completion of plans.

The rest of Jack’s career constituted a fairy tale of confirmed early promise, an uninterrupted rise from the Harvard of the South (aka Rice University) through the finest law school in the land (that is to say, the one at the University of Texas), onto the proper committees investigating the proper scandals for the Texas Legislature, where he helped expose people responsible for indefensible political crimes that did not affect any Democrat who might further Jack’s career, and then into Congress, again as an aide de guerre, working somehow vaguely, secretly, yet importantly on the coup known as Watergate. Once the Democrats retook the White House, Jack was judged to be increasingly brilliant and young and admirable in a series of executive branch positions, each more important and interesting than the last. Finally came the prize: the unofficial number three position in the Office of the White House Counsel, a post from which he regularly briefed the president, advising him on a wide variety of domestic and international policy matters that Jack Belfast to this day, so far as I know, will not discuss, on grounds of national security, presidential privilege and useful mystery.

Then there was the resignation on three days’ notice, and the seven-year disappearance.

If this interregnum did not fit neatly with what had seemed an almost predetermined rise (and it did not), there were ways it could be dealt with. It could, for example, be Jackie’s term of exile, his days in the wilderness when Reagan Republicans ruled and no Democrat, no matter how brilliant, young, or admirable, had a reasonable chance of prospering. But for Jackie Belfast, genuine Texas political golden boy, to deal with exile, there must be an end to it, a return to glory, a story line that turned temporary defeat into triumphant recapture of birthright illegitimately assumed by usurpers. And yes, he really did intend that glorious return and triumphant recapture to be worked through the public destruction of sorry little Bingo Satwell, as absurd as that notion might seem to someone unfamiliar with politics. Or Houston.

I really can’t remember when I first heard the ridiculous suggestion that Constable Bailey “Bingo” Satwell and Vice President George H.W. Bush had a problem in common that might, somehow, disqualify both men from holding public office. But if I can’t remember a specific place or date, that doesn’t mean I can’t remember how it was initially presented, because I could never forget how hard it made me laugh.

The suggestion was posited, first and always, through a set of the “couldn’t possibly be” suppositions that were to be taken seriously only after drink, and only within Jackie Belfast’s parallel comic universe of the anarchically absurd: It couldn’t possibly be the case, for example, that, because Constable Satwell lived on a boat docked on the south side of Clear Lake, which lay outside Harris County, he was legally ineligible to be a constable of Harris County, which contains the city of Houston, because he did not technically reside in said county, and so could be removed from office through the just and speedy actions of the Texas judiciary-could it?

That’s just complete pinko horseshit, right? I can still hear Jackie Belfast propounding in his wine-fueled parody of a Texas redneck professor conducting Socratic questioning at the Right Wing School of Law. I mean, what kind of unpatriotic snake would ever file that kind of lawsuit? What Texas judge would ever-ever!-go along with that type of chickenshit lefty ankle-biting, which goes against the demonstrated will of the people and the longstanding traditions of the Great Republic of Texas? And even if Bingo were removed from office, that couldn’t possibly have meaningful implications for George Bush, the elder, who had lived in Washington D.C. for decades, maintaining a fig-leaf hotel room
n Houston that, he
claimed, made him a resident of Texas and presumptive heir to the state’s trove of electoral votes. Even though the vice president spent no more than a few weeks a year in town, no one would seriously consider the possibility that he, like Bingo Satwell, was not a Houston resident, and so could not vote or claim official residence there as he ran for the presidency. Even a communist newspaper reporter with a diseased brain like yours would realize that no real Texas prosecutor is going to go into court alleging that the vice president and probable next president of the United States has been violating the election code for decades because he is officially-legally-not a Texan, but still pretends to be, for his own political benefit, Jackie would assert in ever-rising, red-faced outrage that would be poured into a line, punctuated by a finger poking my chest, that I always laughed at, even though it isn’t particularly funny, and even though I always knew it was coming: Even someone like you knows that JUST COULDN’T POSSIBLY BE-don’t you, now, Yankee-boy? Well, don’t you?

Now, this scenario was never anything more than an inside joke. It was never publicized or acted on, or even intended to be acted on. Its persistence through time, therefore, stands as testament to Jackie’s genius for enraging enemies. Even today, if you ask around Houston business circles, likely as not you’ll get the bug-eyed, spluttering insistence that Jackie Belfast is a complete charlatan, that it was all a malicious partisan mirage, that everything he did had a single aim-to bring down a favorite son of Houston and the next president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush!

In reality, of course, l’affaire du Bingo was aimed entirely at bringing down … well, an amoral and energetic county constable named Bingo Satwell. Lined up in Jackie’s files were dozens of cases, everything from protection rackets for topless bars down to the pleasant little service known in Bingo parlance as wife-scaring, usually purchased during the latter stages of the divorce process. In Bingo Satwell’s Houston, you could discreetly obtain through law enforcement most everything that, in a normal American city, you’d have get from the mob or a street gang. Cheap hookers, arson that would be poorly investigated, quality cocaine taken from a busted dealer, political decisions that would make your business rivals wish they’d never been born, and, if nothing else worked, a simple, solid, tooth-loosening beating-it was all available, if you had the money and the blessing of the right people. And by the time Jackie’s investigation was in full swing, all the discretion had been publicized out of Bingo’s operation. With Jackie and his investigators leaking, me writing, Adderly televising, and the rest of the press scrambling in clumsy but enthusiastic pursuit, for once in Texas history a little piece of the sordid reality of government was actually being presented in all its grasping, impudent, naked avarice.

So if Bingo actually was the target, and if Jackie never wanted to prosecute the vice president, why invoke the Bush name at all? It’s a good question, and one that points up the essential contradiction, the subversive twist of mind that makes me speak of art or imagination-yes, even genius-when people ask about Jack Belfast and what really happened in l’affaire du Bingo. Of course he was joking when he suggested (always in private, always to friends, always insisting it couldn’t possibly be) that he would use Bingo Satwell to lay Bush pere low. He never had any intention whatsoever of making the tiniest legal move to link the two men.

The labyrinth of corruption

But Jackie most certainly did want to threaten to join Bingo and the vice president in some ugly, public way. Or, in Jackie’s lexicon of ironic prosecution, he wanted to threaten to threaten George H.W. Bush via Bailey “Bingo” Satwell. He wanted to send Bingo to prison, of course, but that wasn’t enough. Jackie wanted to rend Bingo Satwell limb from legal limb, and do it in such an unrestrained and erratic and intensely public way that it would send an unmistakable message into every branch of the labyrinth of corruption. He wanted no one-not even his bosses-to be sure where this might lead, or when it might stop. He wanted there to be outraged denouncements and gnashing of teeth. He wanted the unclean to quake at 2 in the morning, wondering whether their perfidy would be revealed to an avid and vengeful public. He wanted the thieves and liars to tremble in caves, and the righteous to stride the city victorious. He wanted truths to be self-evident and proven to a candid world, and he wanted to do the proving himself, in newspapers and on TV, with the wind in his face and a drink in his hand and care thrown to the hindmost dog, because whenever he had done it this way, the glory had always been his.

I’m no mind reader, but I also think that, deep down, Jackie wanted to do something decent for his hometown, so his daughter could be proud, and perhaps begin to forgive him, at least a little, for leaving her mother. Of course, Jackie never told me that, in so many words. It’s just what I like to believe, even if, all things considered, it’s not a particularly comforting belief to hold.

John Mecklin, editor of High Country News, previously worked as an investigative reporter at the late Houston Post, and as editor of Phoenix New Times and SF Weekly. He can be contacted at: [email protected].