Tuesday, January 31, 2006

This Week in Wal-Mart Nation, By the Numbers (Speak, Monkey, Speak)

1. “The Commerce Department reported Monday that American’s personal savings fell into negative territory of minus 0.5. percent last year. That means that people not only spent all of their after-tax income last year but had to dip into previous savings or increase borrowing. The savings rate has been negative for an entire year only twice before---in 1932 and 1933 …" -- "Americans are living large," the Associated Press via the Houston Chronicle

2. "In the last fiscal year, American drivers were caught 4.078 times on suspicion of smuggling [Mexican] migrants through the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry into San Diego. The figure has hovered around 4,000 cases since the number of car smuggling cases spiked about six years ago … The American drivers come from all walks of life---homeless veterans, single mothers, senior citizens and college students … some drivers are drug addicts or gamblers down on their luck … [Mexican coyote] Felix has a code word for U.S. drivers: “monos”---monkeys. “Siempre llegan los monos,” Felix says with a glint in his eye. [U.S. citizen and driver] Trent … spends his earnings on a ‘weakness for Latina babes.’ "-- Los Angeles Times

3.. “[Texas] collects a sales tax on sporting goods to help raise money to pay for state parks. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s office estimated the sporting goods tax would generate $100.6 million in the current fiscal year. But lawmakers capped how much parks could receive from that source at $22 million. The rest goes to general revenue to help pay for other state services. And parks don’t even get the $32 million they’re allowed. Only $20.5 million from that tax goes to state and local parks, or about 20 ppercent.” -- “State parks funding caught in budget battles,” Associated Press, via Corpus Christi Caller-Times

4. Of the 12 Iraq War vets seeking congressional seats in this year’s elections, 10 are running as Democrats opposed to the war. – CBS Evening News

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Lesson of Enron

Friends, as we gather here today to pass judgment on these two once-glib sons of the Great Midwest, let us resolve to never, ever forget the bitter lesson of Enron.

And the lesson of Enron is, of course ... is … um … wait, it’ll come to us … the lesson was … hold on … lessee … lesson … Enron … uh …

In the meantime, as we try to recall the bitter lesson of Enron, we would beseech our brethren and sisteren in the media to please spare us, at least for the duration of this trial, anymore sob stories about those Enron employees who “lost it all” when Enron proved a fraud (or was toppled by the “run on the banks,” whichever your prefer). We’ve pretty much run out of sympathy---and never had much in the first place---for those who thought it was wise to invest every nickel of their retirement and more in the company stock, in blatant disregard of that constant drumbeat of advice and evidence about the need to diversify one’s assets (which we don’t recall was somehow found invalid back in what seems like those long-ago days of irrational exuberance). You may have been sold a bill of goods, but you bought in willing---even if you couldn’t clearly explain exactly what it was that your employer did to make money---and you were happy to keep buying in as long as the stock up kept heading up. In your own small way, you were as greedy as Andy, or as obtuse as Ken claims to have been.

Now: the lesson of Enron was … um …. Oh yeah: Everything is just as it’s advertised, and nothing---absolutely nothing!---is too good to be true.

Enjoy the trial.


Friday, January 27, 2006

The Blues Had a Baby and They Called it “Destination Entertainment”

We heard one of the developers of Houston Pavilions saying on TV earlier this week that the House of Blues slated for his planned downtown mega-development will be the only House of Blues in the Houston area.

Our very own House of Blues. And the only one in town! Just like the dozen or so other towns that have House of Blues franchises (Myrtle Beach, for instance). According to an approving correspondent on the Houston Architecture Info Forum, Houston Pavilions is “the exact same thing as the one in Denver.” That one's called Denver Pavilions.

Then we read in the Chronicle that one of the Los Angeles-based developers of the project had declared that Houston Pavilions will be the “focus of downtown.” We must have missed it when this was decided---that the focus of downtown will be a so-very-distinctive retail/residential development whose big tenants thus far are a franchised music venue and, in a particularly Houstonesque touch, a “minor emergency center and wellness clinic” (in case you get a hold of a bad baloney sandwich at the House of Blues, we suppose.)

If we’re lucky we won’t have reason to visit either venue, although we realize this is a free country and the developers can pretty much do whatever the hell they please with their property. Yet Houston Pavilions isn’t exactly a triumph of free enterprise---according to the Chronicle and the Houston Business Journal, the developers have received “assistance” in the form of $8.8 million in infrastructure development grants from the city of Houston and “$4.4 million from Harris County” (in addition to a $1 million grant from the quasi-governmental Downtown Management District). Y’know, to make it work. So, even though we won’t be darkening its door, as a payer of federal, city and county taxes we feel like we have at least a wee ownership stake in Houston Pavilions, and as a part-owner we demand that we be consulted before any more tenants are recruited (it appears the development would be the perfect location for a new Harrah’s, once we get casino gambling here in Texas).

In the meantime, we have questions, such as why, when there’s so much concern in the air about “affordable housing,” local governments are using tax dollars (yeah, the ones from the federal government come from taxes, too) to subsidize a development that will offer what we heard described on TV as “luxury condos” in its 12-story residential tower. (Yes, we know the canned answer: The development is supposed to be a “catalyst” for further nearby development---the usual vague and unquantifiable justification that’s tossed out when public money is funneled to splashy private projects [if a “minor emergency center” can be considered “splashy”].)

Slampo's English-As-A-Second-Language Weekend Special: Sign on the windshield of an older model auto in the greater Alief area: "Sail 4." We think they meant "For Sale," but we're not positive of that.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nation of Poopy-Diaper Babies, Installment No. 436

The Citgo station up on the corner gives a 5-cent (and sometimes higher) discount per gallon if you make your purchase with “cash money,” as the dour bearded gent behind the register first explained to us some months ago.

Instead of having the clerk reset the price from inside, Citgo issues cash-money customers a plastic “cash card” with a magnetic strip that you insert into the credit card slot at the pump to get your discount. When we asked why that was necessary, the bearded gent said something we didn’t understand and then shrugged, as if it were a matter best left to Allah. We were told that the cards were reusable, though, so we’ve been replenishing our original when we stop in to drop some cash money on the Citgo. For some reason ours is decorated with an especially colorful picture of a striped bass that appears to be swallowing some smaller form of aquatic life. Below the fine print on the back is this suggestion: “Protect this card and treat it as you would cash.”

Apparently other, less virtuous customers don’t bother reusing the cards, and they certainly aren’t treating them as they would cash. Today as we were filling our tank we looked down and noticed that the ground around the pumps seemed to be covered with discarded cash cards. We counted 17 of them, then stopped. We were beginning to feel like the Indian chief in that 1970s public-service commercial, the one who stared out at the mountains of garbage covering his native land as a single tear ran down his cheek.

(Sniff …)


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Real Story Behind That DeLay Poll

We’ve been faintly amused by the controversy pinging around the local neck of Bloggersville (as Banjo Jones calls it) over the Houston Chronicle’s recent poll showing Tom DeLay limping a bit as he readies to face the voters this year (overhwelmingly comprehensive linkage at blogHouston).

We have nothing of substance to add to the issue, primarily because our interest in these matters (polls and polling methodology, etc.) long ago diminished past the point of nullity. However, we’re confident in dismissing, without hesitation or equivocation, the notion that UH’s Dick Murray would be party to a cooking of numbers to show DeLay in a bad light. (And yeah, the paper should have noted, and high up in its story on the poll, that Murray’s son worked for Nick Lampson, DeLay’s probable Democratic opponent. The omission of something so obviously begging for disclosure not only provided an easy point of attack for critics but points up what we and others have discerned to be a general lack of quality control at the daily newspaper).

Having worked with Murray a bit in the distant past, we found him to be a person of high professional integrity (that is, forthright, cautious and even self-deprecating in his explanations of sample sizes, weighting, developments affecting responses, etc.) It’s laughable to think he’d spoil his reputation as a technician on some cheesy partisan ploy. (We never had much truck with Bob “You-Need-A-Quote” Stein, so we’ll reserve comment on his involvement with the poll in question.)

Of course, we’ve also heard Murray once (maybe twice) declare that “polls are bullshit,” although we were past the legal limit for being shit-faced at the time and can’t recall exactly why he maintained so.

Whatever the margin of error on sub-samples, it defies logic to maintain that DeLay hasn’t been hurt at least an itsy bitsy bit in his district by the cascade of bad news that’s fallen on him of late. His 60 percent unfavorable rating in the Chronicle poll would seem to be a fairly unambiguous reading of that development. At the same time, common sense (that is, a recognition of the demographic realities of the district and DeLay’s established presence and relentless spadework there) suggests that the smilin' shakedown artist from Sugar Land will win his GOP primary handily and probably be re-elected in November (barring further legal developments).

As for the Chronicle’s bias against DeLay … yes, it does seem that the newspaper (along with a good portion of the rest of the Western Hemisphere) has finally turned on the congressman. It wasn’t too many years ago, however, that the paper’s editorial page was generally supportive of DeLay and endorsed him for re-election, and before the end of the last century its news pages were about the last place you’d look to find anything truly negative on the old boy, unless it was a story wired from the Washington Post or elsewhere.

We’re not sure what benefit the paper would derive from rigging a poll against DeLay. In a strict news-value sense, a survey showing “Despite Troubles, DeLay Still Stronger Than Spicy Fresh Mexican Horseradish” would have had more impact than one reinforcing the obvious. But given the paper’s past support of DeLay, it crossed our mind---no, actually, we believe this wholeheartedly---that the entire poll was cooked up by DeLay and the Chronicle to boost his fund-raising, with Murray and Stein abetting.

It makes sense: the poll doesn’t come close to suggesting that DeLay’s a hopeless loser, so it’s not gonna make money fly from him, but it does indicate that he’s gonna have to get out and hump it to keep his nipped-and-tucked visage at the public trough---and for that he’ll need more money. And more. “Dear donor, A recent poll has shown that the merciless pummeling of Ted Kennedy and Michael Moore has left Tom DeLay fighting for his political life. Tom needs your help like never before …"

That’s it: the Chronicle and Tom DeLay, in the sack, again.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Smoke ’Em If Ya Got ’Em

You remember the picture: the dazed and sweaty Marine with the Marlboro hanging off his lip, trying to settle his mind or steady his nerves after the fighting in Fallujah in 2004. It was the kind of photo that can lift newsroom editors from their late-night torpor and cause them to issue breathy exhalations of wonder, and it summarily appeared on the front pages of papers across the nation, including the one in Houston.

We were struck by the picture, taken by a Los Angeles Times photographer, but what really took us aback were two letters the Houston Chronicle subsequently printed from apparently real people who accused the Marine of setting a bad example for the nation’s youth. One, from a Dr. Daniel Maloney of The Woodlands, deserves repeating:
I was shocked to see the large photograph on Nov. 10. A tired, dirty and brave Marine rests after a battle--- but with a cigarette dangling from his mouth! Lots of children, particularly boys, play "army" and like to imitate this young man. The clear message of the photo is that the way to relax after a battle is with a cigarette. The truth is very different from that message. Most of our troops don't smoke. And most importantly, this young man is far more likely to die a horrible death from his tobacco addiction than from his tour of duty in Iraq.
Yes, the picture did indeed make both combat and cigarette smoking seem sooooo appealing. (When it comes to handling stress we prefer yoga to cigarettes these days, although we realize that in some places [Fallujah being one] it’s probably not convenient to unfurl a sticky mat and throw down an Adho Mukha Svanasana.)

The Lexington Herald-Tribune recently updated the whereabouts of the Marine, 21-year-old Blake Miller of Pike Country, Ky., who survived both the war and the cigarette and is back home after receiving an early but honorable discharge. At the time Miller was caught in his Willie-and-Joe Kodak moment, he was smoking about five packs a day, according to the paper---a level of consumption more commonly associated with Bangkok cab drivers or coronary-bound New York ad executives of the 1950s. He still carries shrapnel scars from the war and
began having problems soon after returning from Iraq early last year: sleeplessness, nightmares, times when he would "blank out," not knowing what he was doing. Then, just after Hurricane Katrina last fall, Miller was sent to New Orleans, where he and other Marines waded through flooded neighborhoods, recovering bodies. Somewhere along the way, all the stresses piled up, and they boiled over a few days later while Miller was on board the USS Iwo Jima, a Navy ship on hurricane duty off the Gulf Coast.

"I was coming out of the galley, when this sailor made a whistling noise that resembled the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade," Miller said. " ... They said that I grabbed him, threw him against the bulkhead and put him down on the deck, with me on top of him. But I have no recollection of it whatsoever."
Jesus. If anybody deserves to be left alone to smoke in peace, it’s Blake Miller.

The good news, though, is that he’s down to one pack a day.

He’s also had second thoughts about the war.

Pike County, by the way, is in the Kentucky coal country that is the setting for the Frontline special Country Boys that PBS aired over three nights earlier this month. We stumbled into the middle of the first installment of this documentary and couldn’t stop watching. See it, if you get the chance.

Slampo’s English-As-A-Second-Language Weekend Special: Spotted on a hand-scrawled sign near the corner of Kirkwood and Bechnut in Southwest Houston: “Big Garage Sale Frayday.” We figured this was a mere typo, the result of the kind of mental glitch that afflicts us about every 30 seconds. But farther down the street we saw a similar sign, same handwriting: “Big Garage Sale Frayday.” It kind of works, phonetically.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Big, Stiff, Genetically Engineered Product of a Command Economy (With a Dollop of Seal’s Penis)

Five possibly pertinent points about Yao Ming, while waiting for the Rockets’ center’s left big toe to heal, as related by Brook Larmer in his excellent Operation Yao Ming:

1. Yao was the product of a marriage arranged by Shanghai sports officials who wanted two of the tallest basketball players in the nation to produce a giant who could help give China an edge in international competition (pages 39-41).

2. Yao’s mother, Fang Fengdi (Da Feng, who now lives in the Houston area with Yao’s dad), was a gung-ho member of the Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and as such was part of cadre that imprisoned a former top sports official and “some three other dozen top coaches and administrators in makeshift jails” in a Shanghai sports center. “At night the young captors took turns harassing and haranguing their former bosses to keep them from sleeping. During the day they forced the haggard leaders to read Mao’s works or write ‘self criticism’ confessing to crimes ranging from having relatives living abroad or not showing enough enthusiasm while singing the final chorus of The Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention.” (page 29)

3. “Most Chinese sports teams rely heavily on secret homegrown brews that have passed down generation to generation …. [some] remain resolutely foreign, such as the tonic made of dog’s kidneys or the popular liquid elixir brewed from seal’s penis and testes.” (page 89)

4. “… the ‘caterpillar fungus,’ the rare, grass-like growth found on the carcasses of dead moths and caterpillars high in the Tibetan mountains … is a licorice-tasting respiratory tonic that is supposedly 50 times more powerful than ginseng. In the 1990s it became one of the elixirs fueling … Yao Ming.” (page 102)

5. “Yao’s passivity [on the court in the NBA] wasn’t simply a function of personality, but also of the insulated atmosphere in which he had been raised. Being an athlete in China, Yao explained, was ‘like being a plant growing in a greenhouse.’ The Chinese sports system may have helped him to develop his skills, but it shielded him from the kind of harsh, competitive forces that most other athletes around the world face everyday.” (page 315)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Nobody’s a Negro Tonight! (Happy MLK Day)

We know of no better way to observe Martin Luther King Day than by cracking open, if you haven’t already, Taylor Branch’s monumental (as it’s described on the writer’s Web site, but the description is true) trilogy on MLK and the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters, continuing with Pillar of Fire (an even better and more profound book) and ending with the just-published final installment, At Canaan’s Edge.

Branch, a onetime Texas Monthly writer and a longtime friend and advisor to former president Clinton, does history right. His books are prodigiously reported and meticulously documented and present an almost day-by-day contextualization of the movement, from its post-World War II and pre-Brown vs. Board stirrings through the crazed hothouse bloomings of the late 1960s. King is the central character, but Branch draws in dozens of lesser-knowns and near-forgotten episodes that had an impact on King and propelled the pitched battle to end segregation forward. There’s nothing pompous or strained about the titles: This is one story that has real biblical sweep.

Pillar of Fire was notable for laying out the full scope of J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless and insanely intrusive surveillance (blessed by Robert Kenney) and hounding of King and his family. Read this, and you’ll find it hard to get too worked up over President Bush’s authorizing the NSA to wiretap potential terrorists without judicial approval, and it becomes easier to understand why some members of King’s family would give credence to the notion that he was killed as the result of a government-engineered conspiracy.

The revelation that drew the most attention when Pillar of Fire was published seven years ago was Branch’s recounting of the contents of an FBI tape of what is described as a 14-hour party in D.C.’s Willard Hotel in January 1964, during which King could be heard shouting ecstatically, apparently in the throes of intercourse with prostitute, “I’m fucking for God!” and “I’m not a Negro tonight!”

When we first read of this episode, we thought, “Gee that’s sad---here he is rolling around with a whore in some tawdry wall-to-wall orgy and he’s caught on tape by the FBI screaming out this odd proclamation of self-denial …” But the more we thought about it, the more it seemed like a pained cry of liberation---not only from the burden of being the saintly MLK (“Fucking for God”) but from the shackles of being a “Negro.” After all, King was a “Negro” only in relation to something else---at the time, that something else was whiteness (and it still is, a bit, though much, much less so). A “Negro” wasn’t who King was, but it was what America forced him to be, and he was reminded of that fact almost every moment of his waking life---and probably in his dreams.

Like all of us, King was flawed, maybe more than most. The portrait that has emerged since his death reveals a man who was horrible to women and whose personal life was unsavory (to be polite). But his greatness can’t be denied, even if it’s simply as the leading player in the great American story—African-Americans’ long struggle up from slavery and segregation to something approaching near equality (yeah). But King was so much more than the embodiment of a movement, as Branch makes clear.

When we think about the world we came up in---one that was strictly segregated, where the word “nigger” constantly and savagely echoed about* (although never, ever in our parents’ home---that’s where you get it from)---we can only marvel at the one we’ve managed to live long enough to see. Things are better, much better, and while there is of course “more work to do” (there’s always "more work to do"), to say otherwise is an inexcusable lie.

That’s why Monday is a good day not to be a Negro, or an African-American. Or a white person. Or whatever you are in relation to others.

It’s a good day just to be human.

*We still hear the word occasionally, but it’s always from the mouth of a younger African American. Always. We can’t remember the last time we actually heard a white person use the word in our presence.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Let Andrea Yates Be the Very Best Andrea Yates She Can Be

One of our New Year's resolutions was to stop taking these silly Houston Chronicle columnists too seriously, but we couldn't restrain our self after reading Friday's offering from Rick Casey.

Casey's topic was Andrea Yates and the locale to which she should be dispatched after the charges that she killed her five kids are resolved (her capital murder conviction was overturned by a state appeals court last year, you'll recall). Because there's no question that Yates did the crime (we'll call it that, if that's OK), the paramount issue, according to Casey, is where she should do her time---either in the psychiatric ward of a state prison or, as Casey would prefer, in a maximum-security state psychiatric hospital, if she's found not guilty by reason of insanity in a retrial or the state allows her to so plead (meaning it will have been determined that she did not know right from wrong when she committed the, er, crime---promotion of said notion being the real agenda of Casey's column).

Either way, as Casey correctly suggests, it's unlikely Yates will ever be returned to what we call the free world, since it would take a judge's order to spring her from the mental health system and only a certifiably insane judge would risk the public wrath that would assuredly follow her release (one good reason to keep electing judges).

So what's the difference? Why should Yates be sent to a mental hospital instead of stuck in the penal system? For the answer he wants, Casey turns to the head of prison system's branch that deals with insane convicts, who observes: "In the mental health system, the focus is on maximizing the person's potential. [Emphasis added] In the criminal justice system it's on public safety."

We'll concede that poor Andrea Yates is unlikely to pose any threat to the public, and that there may be a good reason or reasons to pack her off her to a psychiatric hospital. But the opportunity to "maximize her potential" isn't one of them (old-fashioned mercy would suffice as a reason, we suppose). We certainly wouldn't deny the possibility that humans can change and transform themselves, but we'd draw the line at the state enabling that transformation for a person who killed her five children, even if voices in her head were commanding her to do it.

Perhaps that's mean. Perhaps it would be possible for Andrea Yates, with lots of love and attention, with a goodly serving of newfound self-esteem, with morning tai chi sessions and afternoons with Dr. Phil videos, and, most importantly, with a finely calibrated regimen of pharmaceuticals (we'd suggest it include whatever medication that Lea Fastow lady was/is on---that looked to be some powerfully good shit) to maximize her potential, to somehow set aside the nagging fact that she killed her kids and live a most fulfilling and productive life in psychiatric confinement. Perhaps she could write a book (perhaps Rick Casey could be co-author!) and be temporarily furloughed to be interviewed on Oprah, or to make a blockbuster-ratings appearance being chatted up by Diane Sawyer from the inside.

After all, when you're maximizing your potential, the sky's the limit.

Deeper inside Friday's newspaper we found yet another commentator making yet another pleading on behalf of yet another special class of victim (and Andrea Yates is in a class almost by herself---it's just her and that lady who threw her kids in Buffalo Bayou many years back). This one marked the debut by a columnizer who goes under the name of Memo, or MeMo, as the Chronicle spells it, which, for the benefit of our three or four English-speaking readers, is the diminutive for the Spanish name Guillermo (that's William to you).

Anyway, this Guillermo pretended to whip herself into a lather over the fact that female firefighter Beda Kent had to take the Houston Fire Department's exam for promotion to captain just 12 hours after giving birth to a daughter. We were moved by this column to read the paper's page 1 story on the firefighter mom, and a most strange story it was: a conventional "yeah but" lead immediately followed by three longish paragraphs of opinion from a law prof---including two of nothing but direct quotation---that the state law making all prospective captains take the exam at the same time very well may discriminate against a "protected group." It's not until the very last paragraph of the story that the supposed aggrieved representative of this protected group is quoted directly, and at that late point a "clearly annoyed" Kent is brought on stage to say that it would have been nice if the department would have provided her a proctor so she could have stayed with her baby while taking the exam at the same time as her brother and sister firefighters.

Even though Kent isn't willing to play the role in which Guillermo would cast her, the columnizer weirdly calls on "mote-and beam bloggers" and right-wing pontificators Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, as well as the mayor and firefighters union, to join her in her outrage (although, as it usually does with smug and too-comfortable commentators, the "outrage" here sounds entirely feigned). Apparently the mote and/or beam in Guillermo's eye so obscured her vision that she couldn't closely read her own paper's front-page story, wherein it's clearly stated that state law dictated Kent's circumstance. Once the eye problem clears up, maybe for her next writing assignment the columnist could find out the names of her state rep and senator and dash off angry letters to them (or better yet, try to figure out the relations between local lawmakers and the city's uniformed-employee groups---that'd keep anybody busy for the next decade).

In the meantime, we applaud soon-to-be Capt. Kent and the way she maximized her potential, without whining or playing the victim. We hope she one day takes her generous HFD retirement and enters local politics. We see her as a future mayor of Houston, either right before or just after the Vince Young administration (seriously!).

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Way Things Used to Get Done

The Washington Post’s David Broder set the Wayback Machine this week to recount an episode first revealed in the 7-year-old book Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. Broder’s intention was to ground Tom DeLay in a long-standing Texas tradition of “mixing money and politics, business and government” dating back to the Tory Democrats’ control of the state and personified on its grandest scale by LBJ. But the episode tells as much about the way Houston operated (or was operated) as it does about the supposed similarities between today’s premeier congressional shakedown artist and the corruptible Olympians of old.

Broder quotes a summary of the events by Taking Charge editor and presidential scholar Michael Beschloss, who relates that George R. Brown (founder of Brown & Root, antecedent of KBR, and namesake of the Brown Convention Center) was an acting as emissary to LBJ on behalf of Gus Wortham (of American General, namesake of the Wortham Theater Center, the Wortham Fountain, Wortham Park etc.) and John Jones (nephew of Jesse, then running the Houston Chronicle), who wanted the new president to ensure that the Justice Department would not raise objections to their proposed merger of two Houston banks.

LBJ was down for his end of the request, but he wanted something in return. “As a master horse trader,” Beschloss wrote in his commentary on the tapes, “Johnson … wants a written promise from Jones that the Chronicle will support him as long as he is president.” (Whether this letter would bind the newspaper in perpetuity, past Johnson’s death and the eventual change of the paper’s ownership, is unclear.)*

But Brown tells Johnson that Congressman Albert Thomas, another fixer of local renown who famously exerted his clout to ensure that NASA located in Houston, thought the deal “too much of a cash-and-carry thing” and potentially hurtful to all the involved parties (a man with scruples!)

LBJ, though, was undeterred. He promised to steamroller any opposition to the bank merger and pointedly told Brown that the boys in Houston would in turn provide him with his desired written profession of support “to hold their own jobs.”

Broder ends the anecdote there, probably because it goes without saying that LBJ did get his letter. Afterward, he rang up Jones and told him: "From here on out we're partners."

"Thank you," Jones replied. "Sure are."

“By the way, John,” LBJ added before concluding the conversation, “you shore got a pretty mouth.”**

This truly was in another world: Not only were the banks and media outlets and other sizable commercial enterprises owned by the same interlocking select bunch of locals, but the “support” of the Houston Chronicle was considered worthy of a presidential strong-arming.

Actually, the Chronicle support probably wasn’t worth all that much to a president back in 1964. LBJ just had that great need to be loved by everybody, even if he had to pay for it (not something we’ve ever imagined was a problem for DeLay---the need to be loved by all, that is).

*Not really.
**Just kidding! But he should have!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Karachi Calling, Revisited: Mystery of District F Council Election Revealed, Perhaps, Unintentionally and Belatedly

Edward Hegstrom reported in Monday's Houston Chronicle on a “simmering feud” (is there a feud that doth not simmer?) within Houston’s Pakistani community between bankrupt restaurateur Ghulam Bombaywala and Slampo’s Place’s man on City Council, M.J. Khan. The exact origin of this feud is not explained in the story, most likely ’cause it’s way too abstruse for a mere mortal to get a handle on, although one of the proximate causes appears to be the direction of the Pakistani-American Association of Greater Houston and the decision by Bombaywala, the organization’s president, not to purchase an old grocery store (current owner unspecified) in southwest Houston to house what the story describes as a “multimillion-dollar” Pakistani Community Center.

We’ll take a not-so-wild swing here and conjecture that this feud was behind the November general election challenge to M. J. Khan by mystery man K. A. Khan, who as is our practice will henceforth be referred to as “Scooter” so we can avoid confusing our Khans. This challenge (on which we waxed semi-eloquently here and here), had, as we suspected, nothing to do with routine dissatisfaction with an incumbent and everything to do with some dispute among local Pakistanis that remained unknown and unintelligible to the larger world, most especially to the residents of M. J. Khan’s District F. M. J. claims he doesn’t know what it’s about, either.

The election turned out OK (that is, to our satisfaction), and K. A. “Scooter” (Christian name: Khalid) managed to pull only 14 percent of the vote (truly disturbing was the 16 or so percent tallied by crazy man John Shike, who must have benefited by having the only English-sounding name in the all-Pakistani race), but only after voters were hit with a flurry of last-minute recorded phone messages on Councilman Khan’s behalf from the likes of Mayor Bill White, Sylvester Turner and Sheila Jackson Lee (White was particularly exacting in emphasizing the incumbent’s initials: “That’s M.J. Khan for City Council.”)

However, as we noted, Scooter Khan managed to scare up a sizable amount of money for a challenger to a council incumbent---more than $60,000, according to his pre-election disclosure---and it appears that all of it came from fellow Pakistanis (including a $5,000 chip from a Shuaib Bumbaywala [sic]). Meanwhile, M.J. Khan raised what appeared to be a legitimate question about whether Scooter actually had a residence in the district that would qualify him to hold the office (we’ll bore you some other time with the story of the verbal confrontation we had outside our polling place with four of Scooter’s card pushers---three African-Americans who sounded as if they were from New Orleans and a tall, sleepy-eyed Pakistani gent in a baseball cap who was introduced to us, sort of, as Scooter’s brother).

All this sound may sound like trivial, teeth-grinding bullshit, yet the mere possibility that our representation on city council could be the plaything of some opaque “feud” is a tad sobering, no? It leaves us wondering why the Chronicle made no effort to get to the bottom of this “feud” before the election. The newspaper is big on self-righteous and/or sentimental evocations of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” (it shares with the storied Fort Wayne Sentinel the distinction of running that inane “Cultural Coach” column), yet it rarely expends the energy to tell the larger world what’s really going on locally in these diverse communities (this fellow Hegstrom was one of the only local reporters, if not the only one, who did make the effort, so it figures that he has taken leave of the Chronicle, or so we're told---hope he's still being paid for those bylines).

We despair of ever learning the true nature of this a'simmerin' feud, so we’ll close out now with this, from the media critic William Powers, No. 2 in his series of “Seven Steps to Salvation” for the “old media,” as found in the Spring 2005 issue of the Wilson Quarterly (we retrieved our copy from one of the Bellaire city recycling bins and have been carrying it around in hopes that people we’ll think we’re smart):
2. Enjoy yourselves: If only your news products were pout together in the same spirit of exuberant creativity [as the Apple iPOD]. Sadly, traditional news outlets have become joyless things. Most American broadsheet newspapers are dull, fearful creatures. There’s little effort to be different or original, whether with Washington news or the latest tawdry true-crime trial. Pack journalism rules, because it’s safe.”

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Plucky Ollie Luck, Stadium Builder, and Other Fables for the Upcoming Hectic Spring

A Houston Chronicle sportswriter was at it again this morning, filing the paper’s latest installment in its episodic hagiography of Oliver Luck, the former CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority turned president of the city’s new Major League Soccer franchise. This one, by the paper’s soccer writer, Glenn Davis, appeared under the headline “Team president faces a hectic spring” and as far as we could discern contained no new information (musta been a slow week in local soccer news, what with the big Necaxa vs. Cruz Azul game packing ’em in at Reliant Stadium ).

Davis did, however, manage to tout Luck’s alleged background as an overseer of new stadium construction, a credential that the paper’s sportswriters deem essential to Luck’s quest for a new “soccer-specific” venue in Houston. To wit: “Luck’s experience in getting taxpayer-funded stadiums built in Houston---Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and Toyota Center---will come in handy in finding MLS a new home.”

Let’s recap with a handy timeline that Davis and other Chronicle sportswriters can print out for future reference: Luck was named to head the Sports Authority’s operations in December 2001. Enron Field, as Minute Maid Park was then known, opened for play in the spring of 2000. Ground was broken for Reliant Stadium at about the same time. Construction began on the Toyota Center in the summer of 2001. So, to spell it out: The ballpark was open for play and construction was well under way on the other two venues before Luck assumed his position at the public trough. Perhaps Luck’s courtiers at the Chronicle equate this valuable “stadium-building experience” with ribbon-cutting and getting your picture taken in a hard hat.

Done with the resume-padding, Davis goes on to re-emphasize Luck’s claim that the MLS franchise won’t be seeking “taxpayer money” for a new soccer stadium but is “in discussion” about partnering with “various school districts,” including HISD. So far, Luck’s friends at the Chronicle haven’t seen fit to provide details---or maybe they haven’t bothered to ask (“Not my job”)---but we probably should assume any such partnership would involve a lease-purchase arrangement with a school district and/or the use of its bonding authority to secure cheaper debt for the construction. Either way, that would be a use of “taxpayer money” (taxpayers being behind the school districts’ full faith and credit, etc), and, as we’ve noted here previously, it has absolutely nothing to do with the mission of a public school district, at least the way it’s defined by the state of Texas.

In the meantime, the local MLS entry will have to make do with Robertson Stadium, an arrangement that, as Davis reports, will force fans to endure the sorry spectacle of soccer on artificial turf.


The blinkered pimping on Luck’s has left us wondering again whether the daily newspaper is charging its own writers to use its archives, thus making it prohibitive for them to do the routine backgrounding. This had struck us earlier after reading the paper’s breathless report that a resident of our neck of the city was asking the Guardian Angels to come to town to fight crime (yeah, that’ll stop the murderin’ and indiscriminate firing of shotguns into crowds, as happened in one of those Katrina vs.The Locals set-tos last week at an apartment complex on the southeast side).

Damn, we thought, it seems like only yesterday that the newspaper(s) and TV stations were running one story after another on the Guardian Angels being in Houston, and we faintly recall seeing those red berets all about the Montrose area for a while. But the fact that the Angels had previously come---and gone---went unmentioned in the story, forcing the paper to do a follow-up noting that, yes, the group had a presence here back in the ’80s and '90s.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Still Waiting for A Real Independent Candidate (Or a Reasonable Facsimile Thereof)

Texas isn’t big enough for two independent gubernatorial candidates. It’s probably not big enough for one, thanks to the Repubocrat near-monopoly on ballot access.

The decision by Carole Keeton Strayhorn, she of many surnames and sundry political affiliations, to run as an independent somewhat complicates the prospect that either she or Kinky Friedman will be on the ballot this November against Rick Perry and Chris Bell, the Democrats’ likely sacrificial stiff. Each must obtain signatures of 45,000 or so voters who did not participate in either party primary, and those non-affiliated voters will be limited to signing a ballot petition for just one prospective candidate (can’t have their Kinky and Carole Keeton, too).

Not that Strayhorn and Friedman have overlapping constituencies, or fan bases, as we should properly call them. We surmise that Friedman’s is composed primarily of people who, if they bothered to vote, did or would do so in the Democratic primary but don’t feel comfortable in the party or care much about it its paltry offerings. Strayhorn’s base is made up mostly of moderate Republicans … some moderate Republicans … and others in the GOP who’ve had their fill of Perry but won't be able to bring their outlying-suburban selves to vote for Friedman or a Democrat.

At present Friedman’s chances of getting on the ballot seem better than Strayhorn’s, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the comptroller found some excuse to leave the race before she’s embarrassed (we’ll explain why in a later posting---you’ll want to mark that on your calendar).

However: What Strayhorn has going for her is the absolute vacuity of Friedman’s campaign thus far, which leaves a vast expanse of available territory for a smart, supple and truly independent candidate to claim. Somehow we don’t see One Tough Grandma as one to light out for the territory, but who knows what she might be capable of now that she’s freed of the ideological shackles of the Texas GOP. (OK, here’s one from us, gratis, a no-brainer for any insurgent independent: Step right up and propose doing away with our absurd system of “bilingual” education, as they did in California, where a return to English-language immersion famously resulted in a rise in test scores.)

We’ve beat our gums about this before, but, because we like Friedman’s attitude and the idea of his campaign, we’ll say it again: He’s got to offer more than one liners (and get some new ones while he’s at it) and make some effort to seriously address public policy issues (yeah, government doesn’t have to be a solemn business, but it is a serious business). For instance, somebody’s bound to be pointing out any day now that under No Child Left Behind it will be a tad difficult to do away with the TAKS, as Friedman proposes, and that the state would just have to cook up another measure of accountability to comply with the federal law (contrary to what Friedman is told by these boo-hooing teachers who supposedly come up to him and cry on his shoulder because their pedagogical genius is being stifled by having to “teach to the test,” both the TAKS and the state curriculum on which it is based are sound instruments, although they can always stand refinement, as can the TEA ratings system).

As we’ve also noted here previously, the hurricanes left voters in the mood for competent government without all the noisome ideological trimmings (and Perry is getting good marks in polls for his hurricane performance). A good one-liner won’t get anybody out of town any faster the next time we all hit the freeways at once.