Left Field

Bad Hair, Odessa American, The Bush Beat, Dr. Pepper, Stealing Sounds


Not since Craig Washington arrived with a full-blown Afro in 1973 has any man in the State House really used his hair to make a political statement. This session, conservative Republican Talmadge Heflin’s tonsorial excess is a statement of some kind – but nobody seems certain what the rotund Republican from Houston is trying to say. If you can be said to “spin” bad hair, he’s even done that recently, appearing in dreadlocks on the day the House voted to make dreadlocked Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams an honorary Texan. After Ricky Williams Day, Heflin went straight, but he has yet to cut his hair. “All I’m saying,” Heflin told Left Field, “is that I got one bad haircut and I decided I’m not going to pay somebody to make me look bad. Anyone who thinks I’m now a liberal Republican can watch my light to see how I vote.”

Heflin’s colleague Dennis Bonnen believes there’s more to it than Heflin wants to admit. “Talmadge has the hair of a great philosopher, of a truly great thinker,” Bonnen said. “If you look back in history you’ll see where that haircut came from.”

Bonnen, a Republican in his second session, hasn’t changed his hairstyle; instead, he has forsaken hair. Whereas he arrived last session with a respectable prep-school cut, this time he’s gone soccer hooligan. “I didn’t have a choice,” Bonnen said, perhaps referring to the potential in Heflin’s leonine mane. “I just gave in to baldness.” Bonnen claims it’s also practical. During the session, he said, he only showers once every two weeks, and having no hair to wash makes his life easier.

Perhaps the most drastic intersession makeover is Tommy Merritt’s abandoning of his 1950s flat-top for the straight-back, no-part look of a young M.B.A. working the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “He did that,” Bonnen said, “so he would look more like Jack Nicholson. And I’ll tell you something else about Tommy. He has Jack Nicholson’s personality.” Merritt hasn’t hired an agent, but leaning into an intense discussion with a fellow Republican at the back rail, he does bear a resemblance to Jack Nicholson – until he speaks.

“Naw,” the East Texas Republican said. “That’s not true. I looked more like Nicholson when I had the flat-top. In fact that all started the day I wore my purple sunglasses on the floor, because I was trying to draw some attention to the importance of my purple paint bill – you remember, painting property lines purple. Everybody started telling me, even the pages were calling me Jack.”

Left Field’s recollection of the purple paint bill is a little vague, but we remember the flat-top well – surely both are better off consigned to our state’s hairy history.

Free Odessa Americans!*

*(while supplies last)

Every spring, as winter oil consumption falls off and the Internal Revenue Service comes knocking, the Odessa American gives something back to its beleaguered readers: the annual R. C. Hoiles award, which honors “the resident of the Permian Basin whose accomplishments best personify libertarian ideals.” Born in Ohio in 1878, R.C. Hoiles was the father of what is now the Freedom Communications chain, which he started with the Southern California Orange County Register. It has since grown to include over sixty newspapers (including the Odessa American), two dozen magazines, and several radio and television stations, all at least nominally aligned with the libertarian philosophy – though not necessarily the political party. The Register, Hoiles’ flagship, remains one of the most conservative papers printed in the English language.

Freedom chain employees attend occasional seminars on libertarian thought, and most editors in the chain “make an effort to adhere to the basic guidelines” of the philosophy, according to Ken Brodnax, editorial page editor at the Odessa American. Nevertheless, “I don’t think that they all necessarily understand, you know, the intricacies involved in it,” he said. To help educate the fuzzy-headed, Odessa American publisher Bill Salter invented the annual R.C. Hoiles award, which has since spread to other Freedom papers. The winner, according to the paper’s website, will be “above all…devoted to the ideals of capitalism and free enterprise, realizing that an economic engine runs the most efficiently without all those sticky ‘additives’ that government insists on providing.”

Oil-patch libertarianism can get particularly intricate. To get right to the source, Left Field tracked down last year’s award winner, Don Williams. Williams, eighty-six, owns an oil equipment supply company in Odessa, where he has worked in the oil business since the early 1930s. “They were looking for a libertarian in the true sense of the word,” Williams said of his selection. “That’s someone that doesn’t want any more government than he has to have and wants the government to keep their nose out of their business and to abide by the Constitution,” he explained in his soft, lifetime-smoker’s rasp. When Williams worked in the oil fields in the early thirties, earning less than five dollars per day, there were no “goodies” like unemployment insurance or workman’s compensation. “When you got your pay, that was all; and sometimes if it didn’t play out, you didn’t even get that,” he said.

Of course, oil was selling for ten to twelve cents a barrel in those days. Things improved, Williams recalled, when the Railroad Commission came along and placed limits on production, driving the price up. It’s here that the Odessa school of libertarian thought admits a certain looseness of doctrine. Regulation of production is not strictly free-market per se, Williams admitted, “but at ten cents a barrel, nobody could make any money.”

Such philosophical dilemmas must be grappled with regularly on the Odessa American’s editorial page, especially lately, as tough times in the oil patch have tested Odessa’s libertarian mettle. Take the recent spate of oil company mergers, which have led to severe layoffs in the Permian Basin. “We haven’t said anything about that … what these private companies are doing is really their own business and it’s not our place to say really whether it’s right or wrong,” Brodnax said. The paper has seen fit to editorialize about excessive taxation of the industry, and yet it’s not just the taxes that hurt local producers, Brodnax conceded, it’s also the foreign oil glut. How about some import restrictions? Sorry. “Hey, this is the market, you know, operating, and one of the tenets of libertarian philosophy is that you let the market take care of the problem and you don’t do it with artificial tariffs,” Brodnax explained. That’s one opinion he keeps to himself, since, he said, “it wouldn’t be a very popular stance with a lot of people around here.” You can’t get too far ahead of the people. “Obviously we’re sympathetic to the fact that people are losing their jobs, but you know, that’s a fact of life out here.”

The Bush Beat

On March 2, when Governor Bush invited the Texas press corps onto the lawn of the Governor’s Mansion to announce that he’s forming an exploratory committee to advise him on whether to run for the presidency, the questions weren’t exactly challenging. The answers were worse. To wit, ritual softball:

As you listen to people tell you how to run, what kind of alternative will you offer them?

I will lay out a vision of what I think is right for America, should I decide to run. You just heard the beginnings of it. I want to make sure this plan encourages prosperity. But I want to make sure this prosperity is for everybody. Not just a handful. I want prosperity to spread its wings all across America. I don’t want anybody left behind.

Mrs. Bush, is there any advice that your mother-in-law has given you?

No. (The Governor, aside: “Don’t dye your hair.”) Barbara Bush is a great mother-in-law. She doesn’t give her daughters-in-law advice.

Governor, will your family be campaigning for you?

Well, we’ll put Mother out there first. Listen, my family, we’re a very close family. And I suspect, should I decide to move forward, it’s a real benefit to have your little brother as governor of Florida. That’s why I was nice to him all those years. I hope to have my family out front. Obviously I’m going to have to carry the message. I’m going to have to lay out the vision. One of the things you learn as governor of a big state is how to lead. It’s important to see a better tomorrow. It’s important to explain the better tomorrow so everybody can understand it. It’s important … [blah blah blah] It’s important … [etc.] It’s important …. But it’s also important to have friends and family to be willing to go out and campaign on my behalf.

How are your parents counseling you on this?

My parents will love me either way. And they have said do what you think is right.

Did you get any advice from your father?

Not really, he just said, “Go out and be yourself.”

Governor, are there any skeletons in your closet?

Had there been any skeletons that would have destroyed a candidacy, you would have heard about them in 1994 and 1998. [Good to have that out of the way.]

How do you expect to use the Internet. Or do you expect to have a website?

I do. I do.…

Do you have a Website address yet?

Yes we do. Check with me later.

NASA, Inc?

Nestled among the dilapidated structures of Waco’s warehouse district is an Italianate palace of yellow and red brick: the Dr Pepper Museum. Inside are the expected exhibits on Dr Pepper’s origins (invented in Waco), history (the company went bankrupt early in this century, only to rebound), and bottling (there once was a period in the drink’s name). There’s an olde-tyme soda fountain, and the requisite souvenir shop. But neither the signs for the museum along Interstate 35 nor the displays downstairs prepare the visitor for the third floor, home of the W. W. “Foots” Clements Free Enterprise Institute.

The Institute is named for the Chairman Emeritus of the Dr Pepper company, and it operates as a non-profit educational facility for elementary and middle school students. Its funders include the Hillcrest Foundation of Dallas, the Waco Foundation, and the Waco Independent School District. Visitors may wander through the Soft Drink Hall of Fame – a small room honoring individuals who have played key roles in the expansion of the soft drink industry– and view the continuously-running Institute video, a futuristic fantasy in which a group of econo-tourists from a distant galaxy visit Earth. The following are excerpts from that video:

As we move closer, you will see that the life-forms here on Earth have created some rather remarkable things: great art and architecture, ingenious machines, cities that reach toward the sky. But we in the outer galaxies know them best for their most famous export to the many worlds among the stars. It is from Earth that Dr Pepper came, and Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Dad’s Old Fashioned Root Beer, Delaware Punch and all the other wonderful soft drinks Earth’s space scooters brought to the galaxies. This is where it all began. On this far planet called Earth, in a nation called America, in a state called Texas, in the little town of Waco.…

It was the beginning of a great industry that would bring enjoyment all the way to our own world in our own time. Here in Waco they dedicated a museum to honor the soft drink industry, but it was created to honor something else, something more: not just an industry and its products, but a spirit, a certain way to look at the world and work and opportunity that is rarely found in other worlds. It is the spirit of free enterprise.…

In our own time, we often forget it was the free enterprise system that first enabled our great-great-grandparents to move out from Earth to worlds among the stars. How bold the spirit of those inventions was! How innovative were the machines that carried them into worlds beyond their own! The exploration of the heavens was the free enterprise system’s finest hour. But its first hours were in those old-time soda fountains and bottling companies in small towns. Of all industries, it is the American soft drink industry of Earth that most typifies free enterprise and the spirit that has created so much progress in so many worlds.…

Consider the most successful companies on Earth: Ford, General Motors, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Microsoft, Dr Pepper, and countless others. They all started small with an idea in a little shop or even a garage, and then they formed these partnerships – franchises – with companies that could market and distribute their invention to far more people in a much wider area. Soon the old corner drugstores, machine shops, and laboratories had become giant international corporations.…

By the year 2000 as reckoned in Earth time, there were more than a million millionaires. Eighty percent of them were not born into wealth; they made it on their own. Two-thirds of them owned their own business. Many started with nothing but an idea and a dream.

And it was not just wealth they created. They created better, more rewarding, more humane communities. Now we know how a whole new generation of Earth’s people brought prosperity and peace and happiness to their planet. And it’s because they learned the lessons to be learned at the old corner drug stores of America. They learned that we can be anything we imagine, that anything we can dream we can do.

Slipped Discs

Back in the 1980s, when Tipper Gore rallied suburban mothers to join her crusade against the spread of so-called “explicit” lyrics in popular music, it was the Recording Industry Association of America (R.I.A.A.) that caved into her Tupperware team. The R.I.A.A. represents the five major music publishing companies, which are all owned by multinational firms and together produce about ninety percent of everything recorded in the United States. To head off a showdown in Congress, the R.I.A.A. agreed to begin the noxious practice of “parental advisory” labeling on the covers of certain albums published by its membership, and this labeling allowed some chains, most notably Wal-Mart, to more efficiently cull their shelves of “offensive” material.

Now the R.I.A.A. is engaged in a form of censorship of its own design, this time targeting the opposite end of the production chain — compact disc pressing plants. The new bogey-man is not indecency but piracy, the illegal reproduction and selling of copyrighted material, which the R.I.A.A. targeted in a new set of guidelines sent to pressing plants last summer. The broadly-written guidelines draw no distinction between outright piracy and mere sampling, which is the widespread practice — most commonly associated with hip-hop music — of incorporating selected fragments of previously published material into an original composition. In the past, the record company and artists involved have been generally held liable for any copyright violations on their releases, but through the new guidelines the R.I.A.A. has served notice on pressing plants that they also can be sued, and must take responsibility for screening everything they press for illegal appropriations. The group, which has no actual regulatory authority, has said the guidelines are merely “suggestions.” But the sheer wealth and power of the industry’s membership, together with several recent lawsuits against CD pressing firms, lend those suggestions considerable weight.

One of the first groups to feel the impact of the new guidelines is Negativland, an experimental band whose work often takes the form of collage: album-length satirical commentaries on a single subject, composed of snippets gathered from a wide range of sources, some copyrighted, others merely “found sounds,” taken from the airwaves, television broadcasts, phone conversations, and elsewhere. In response to the R.I.A.A. guidelines, the group’s Plano-based pressing plant, Disctr
nics, refused to press the band’s CD “Over the Edge, Vol. 3: The Weatherman’s Dumb Stupid Come-Out Line.” The plant further announced that it was reviewing Negativland’s entire catalogue for “uncleared” samples (of which there are literally thousands), and has since refused to press any of the band’s titles. “They’ve effectively shut us down,” said band member Mark Hosler, recently in Texas to promote a new video project and spread the word about the R.I.A.A.’s latest end run around the First Amendment. “It’s really a brilliant tactic — don’t go after the artist, instead intimidate the manufacturer.” Suing the pressing plant, he said, was analogous to suing a printing press for libel, rather than going after the magazine or the individual writer. It may also amount to a form of “prior restraint,” the illegal censoring of expression before it is even produced.

An e-mail campaign initiated by Negativland persuaded the R.I.A.A. to soften its position somewhat, by adding a short paragraph in which the trade group acknowledged, for the first time ever in writing, that sampling existed in a “gray area” of the law, and was possibly protected under “fair use” provisions of U.S. copyright law. Although it was a major concession from the notoriously hard-line R.I.A.A., it wasn’t enough to reassure Disctronics, and Negativland is still seeking a small pressing plant willing to take a chance on them. Hosler feels the ratcheting up of enforcement is being driven by the industry’s effort to adjust to technological changes such as recordable compact discs and downloadable Internet files. With the advent and proliferation of digital communications, intellectual property has become more valuable, but also much harder to exclusively control.