Pioneer Spirit, Used Humor, Bush Beat, & God Watch
On July 14, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Tony Garza honored veteran Dallas oil investor Louis Beecherl, Jr. with the Commission’s Pioneer Award, given annually to a “true leader and pioneer in the Texas oil and gas community.” Over the last two decades, Beecherl has also been a pioneer in funding the Republican takeover of Texas — a fact not lost on Garza and his two fellow Republican colleagues at the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry where Beecherl made his fortune. Beecherl underwrote Bill Clements’ successful 1978 campaign for governor, and was rewarded with a seat on the University of Texas Board of Regents, where he fulfilled his pledge to help the Governor oust a liberal board chairman from the previous administration. In 1990, he served as Dallas County finance chairman for the short-lived gubernatorial campaign of Kent Hance, a good friend who also happened to be chairman of the Railroad Commission. In 1994, he donated generously to Kay Bailey Hutchison’s legal defense fund, when the junior Senator was accused of abuse of office. Beecherl’s largesse has been peaking of late. From 1996 to 1998, he dumped $395,000 into the Republican party and its candidates, including large donations to Rick Perry, George W. Bush, and Carole Keeton Rylander, another Railroad Commission buddy. Most recently, Beecherl has been named one of W’s presidential campaign “Pioneers,” a title bestowed on the short list of elite funders who have raised over $100,000 for his presidential run.
And where did Beecherl, the man Garza called the “spirit of the Texas energy sector,” get the dough? Principally by sucking dry other people’s oil and gas wells, according to a 1984 Fortune magazine profile of Beecherl’s company, Texas Oil & Gas Corporation. After Beecherl took over as C.E.O. in the late fifties, TXO began aggressively purchasing land near active wellsites and drilling as close to the other company’s property line as possible. The idea was to take advantage of a competitor’s expensive exploratory work by sinking a new well into the same reservoir, a practice derisively known in the oil patch as “corner shooting.” It was not an uncommon occurrence, particularly among independent drillers, but TXO took corner shooting to a new level. Whereas most independents drill a handful of wells per year, TXO began drilling hundreds, quickly growing into the state’s major shallow well producer, and generating numerous lawsuits from competitors in the process. The growing company then took the show on the road, expanding into California, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
“I certainly remember TXO,” independent northern California operator Rodney Nahama told Left Field. Nahama says TXO leased a small parcel of land next to his operation and began pumping from his find. “Everything was set up for them,” Nahama said, “and it’s all legal, there’s nothing you can do about it.… They not only did it to us, they did it all over California,” he recalled. In one case, “They leased a narrow canal between two [natural gas] leases and sank a directional well in the canal to get a perfect position in the reservoir.” With that small lease, Nahama says, TXO managed to pull out forty percent of the gas in the reservoir. “He made his living — he made an awful good living — just doing that,” said Nahama. By the mid-eighties, when Beecherl had moved to the company’s board of directors, TXO’s stock was worth $5 billion, making it one of the most valuable companies in Texas, and Beecherl was worth over $100 million, well on his way to becoming the spirit of the new Texas GOP.
Used Humor For Sale
What do Left Field and the Austin American-Statesman’s John Kelso have in common? More and more as the year goes on: the Observer’s newest department and the Statesman’s veteran humor columnist keep hitting on the same subjects, in a convergence of creativity not seen since Newton and Leibniz both came up with calculus.
First, there was political free food. In the January 22 Observer, we honored Representative Elliott Naishtat, the Austin Democrat, for his mastery of “one of the more peculiar legislative arts: grazing.” Then in the January 29 Statesman, Kelso wrote a column on the subject of legislators and free food, calling Naishtat “a known grazer.” This was a complete coincidence! (An Observer editor who mistakenly thought otherwise, and e-mailed Kelso to remind him that proper attribution is something we both enjoy and need, was set straight in a reply from Statesman Assistant Managing Editor Fred Zipp: “John got the inspiration for his column before seeing your Left Field item on Elliott Naishtat. The coincidence isn’t cosmic; as are your reporters, John’s smart and well-informed. They all noticed an interesting phenomenon.” Yep, and they even used the same word to describe it!)
The next interesting phenomenon we all noticed was Talmadge Heflin’s hair. Left Field called attention to Heflin’s “tonsorial excess” in a March 19 item, “House of Bad Hair.” In May, Kelso wrote a column about Heflin’s “un-GOPish hairdo” — a particularly serendipitous choice of subjects when you consider Kelso doesn’t spend a whole lot of time at the Capitol.
Most recently, Kelso wrote a July 4 column about Amarillo impresario Stanley Marsh’s whimsical road signs; Left Field featured an interview with Marsh about his signs last March. As it appears from the column that Kelso did actually find himself in Amarillo, one can’t fault him for seeking out Marsh and writing about the signs, which are prominent and pretty great. And this is not to suggest that he should be faulted for the other columns. Left Field would just like to acknowledge Kelso’s hard work, and credit him for those concepts of his which we used in advance.
Wichita Falls God Watch
The battle over religious censorship continues in Wichita Falls, where the evangelicals remain determined to sort the sexual wheat from the chaff at the public library. In the wake of a new city ordinance allowing 300 petitioners to bump books from the library’s children’s section into the adult section (to be shelved with such kiddie fare as The Kinsey Report, fundamentalist Christian groups recently submitted petitions to relocate Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate, books about gay parents attacked as “promoting sodomy” (see Left Field, March 5). They’ve also recruited national allies — including Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and Gary Bauer’s Family Research Council — to provide a free “legal umbrella” for their actions, in the form of something called the Free Market Foundation, represented by the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute. Opponents, led by the Wichita Falls Coalition Against Censorship and including several area churches, promise to continue the fight the ordinance, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Library Association. On July 20, in response to an A.C.L.U. lawsuit, a federal judge had granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the library from moving the books.
Meanwhile, at Wichita Falls’ Midwestern State University, controversy continues over the ongoing practice of prayer at commencement ceremonies. It began with an embarrassing episode at the 1998 M.S.U. ceremony, when a student collapsed in — was it anxiety or ecstasy? — while delivering a highly beJesused invocation and benediction (see “Jesus vs. Humanism at M.S.U.”). The faculty senate subsequently voted to drop the prayer from the commencement exercises, only to be overruled by M.S.U. President Louis Rodríguez, who commented, “I believe that the culture of this area is such that this needs to be taken into consideration on this issue…. This culture has a strong tradition of religious beliefs.” Rodríguez has substituted a “non-sectarian” prayer, which yet thanks the “Lord” for watching over the university and asks for his benevolence. M.S.U. professor and former Methodist minister Gene Newton objected in a letter to President Rodríguez; Texas A.C.L.U. director Jay Jacobson commented, “What they are going to do now is water down a prayer so it is acceptable as the lowest common denominator…. A government should never be involved in editing a prayer.”
When Left Field requested a copy of the videotape of the 1998 ceremony, M.S.U. spokeswoman Janice (“Rosemary Woods”) Buss said that on the advice of counsel, the prayer episode had been deleted “to protect the privacy of the student.” Asked if the university attorney had advised the potentially felonious destruction of a public record, Buss had no response.
Jesus vs. Humanism at M.S.U.
During the May 1998 commencement ceremonies at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, student Mary King gave the following Invocation and Benediction (transcribed from a videotape of the ceremony):
[As she approaches the lectern, King is visibly trembling]
Before I ask you to bless myself and my fellow graduates, I repent for myself and my peers for the sin of idolatry. Forgive us Lord, for worshipping the intellectual mind. I repent for the humanism that we have embraced. I repent for our attempt to fill the void in our lives with anything other than you. I repent for impure passions and desires, for our compromise, for our disobedience.
Now Lord, I ask you to just bless this generation. The young and the old. Let us be truly a people branded with the name of Christ, a people of God, a people who will know God intimately.
Now Holy Spirit, I ask you to descend on this place with your presence and prepare our hearts, our souls and our spirits for this day of destiny. This will be a day of death to old habits thoughts and ideas. This will be a day of new life.
We praise you God. We worship and adore you. We stand in awe of the king of the universe who is so passionately in love with his creation. It was because of this love that he sent his son to suffer through all our sins on the cross.
Thank you Jesus for your death. We do not esteem it lightly. You are holy and you alone will be lifted up in this place and in all of our lives. Amen.
Peace, hope and love. These three, but the greatest of these is love. Lord have mercy on us this day. We cry out for mercy rather than judgment. Mercy on our country, mercy on our lives. Lord we need your love to make it through this world.
[Again, King is visibly trembling]
Father, God, I just ask right now that you just let your glory fall into this place. Lord, Jesus let you pour out your mercy on this place. Lord, I know there are people here who don’t know you. People who are making wrong decisions. People who are not living their lives as you’ve called them to live.
[King is now struggling to speak, mumbling]
Have mercy on them, Lord.
[Vice-president Howard Farrell steps up behind King and whispers “okay” as she continues to tremble]
Mercy on them, Jesus.
[Farrell whispers, “It’s okay” as he grabs King’s notes and holds on to her as she collapses to the floor, shaking, whining and sobbing. Farrell asks President Rodríguez to call for an ambulance; Rodríguez does so, as he dismisses the crowd and cues the band.]
The Bush Beat
Among the Faithful
Why did the Governor appear on a fundamentalist preacher’s television program, framed by requests for money and crackpot Y2K ads? So asked Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy, following Bush’s January appearance on the James Robison Ministry’s “Life Today.”
Actually, Robison’s show is relatively tame: no on-air curing of deafness or healing of spinal injuries. Like the Governor, Reverend Robison stays on message, raising money for the orphanage his son is operating in Romania, defending the rights of the unborn, and tearfully relating the story of his own conception — his biological mother was raped. (Robison is convinced he would have been aborted had Roe v. Wade been decided before he was born.)
Kennedy might well have asked the same question about Bush’s interview with the publishers of True Believer (www.truebeliever.com), an Austin magazine of “Christian art, entertainment and lifestyle,” (Like “Life Today,” True Believer is on the moderate end of the wacky scale; the ads are more fun than the copy. “Shred Doc” does confidential document destruction on your premises, Millennium Associates will find you a place to live, St. Paul Shoes sells Christian footwear, and Church on the Move is, well, a church on the move.) But why is the Governor making eyes at even the milder elements of the Christian fringe?
Candidates use these forums to speak to evangelicals in a language familiar to them, substituting “an evangelical style for a substantive stand,” the Washington Post’s Hanna Rosin has written. According to Rosin, Bush and Elizabeth Dole have mastered the art of the campaign testimonial, in which the candidate confesses how at some crucial moment in their lives a personal religious experience led the future world leader out of a valley of worldly despair.
Bush’s salvation testimonial is more dramatic that Dole’s because it involves drink, women — and perhaps other “youthful indiscretions.” Dole only got to be saved from perfunctory church attendance and a life in which God was “neatly compartmentalized, crammed into a crowded file draw of my life, somewhere between gardening and government.” Both candidates regularly tell their stories to Christian congregations and gatherings.
But what is Governor Bush’s message to Christian audiences? Bush spoke from several mainstream pulpits in the week before he announced his exploratory committee, and his rhetoric — which included his personal salvation testimonial — was as conventional as the congregations he spoke to. With the wackies, he’s not much different. Not even in exchange for a substantial love offering would “Life Today” provide Left Field with copies of Reverend Robison’s two-part interview with the Governor, although he reportedly talked about the dangers of teen sex and perils of adult promiscuity. There are no great revelations in his interview with True Believer. The Governor told the story of his personal salvation, as he routinely does, which has Billy Graham leading him back to Christ.
Beyond that, there’s not much. On Billy Graham: “He’s an interesting guy. I mean, he’s a wonderful man. He is a hero, and should be for all of us. He’s really a decent guy.” On his record as Governor: “My proudest achievement so far is that my family has been happy since I have been the Governor.” On his legacy to Texas: “That a man came, he had a vision, he worked hard to implement the vision, and he brought honor to the office.”
The Governor did discuss policy, arguing against social promotion in the public schools and making the case for that Christian right cure-all for failings in the public schools: phonics. He also discussed welfare reform: “Dependency upon government, as opposed to dependency upon self, saps the soul and drains the spirit…. Now, one of my jobs as the Governor is to help unleash the compassion of our faith-based organizations. So, everywhere I go in the state of Texas, I am reminding people that within our churches and synagogues often times exist the best welfare programs.”
All of this seems to support Rosin’s analysis. No political capital expended, no risks taken. To wit: no commitment to restrict women’s access to abortion, no offer to fight for a voucher program, no mention of the loopier legislative initiatives advocated by the Christian right — such as “covenant marriages” or “creation science” requirements for the public schools. From Bush, the Christian right gets a promise but not a ring. And despite the protestations of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and the tentative candidacy of Gar
Bauer, in return for that promise the Governor will get the support of many evangelical Christians.
Reverend Dobson might describe this relationship as political promiscuity.