Springtime for Bob

Lanier worship reaches an apogee at the mayor's million-dollar bash

It doesn't stretch the imagination to envision a sleepless Bob Lanier, perhaps cradling a nightcap of warm milk, looking out over the darkened city from his condo at the Huntingdon and pondering life in a more media-friendly world.

Given the mayor's recent carping about negative coverage of his administration, such a world would celebrate rather than examine Houston and extol the virtues of the man who claims with a straight face to have stopped the decay in Houston that continues to plague other big cities.

Last week, Lanier took matters into his own hands at a massive $500-a-plate fundraiser in his honor at the Westin Galleria. The evening's post-meal program seemed intended as an interpretation of a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical, complete with rosy scenarios, ditzy blonds and singing cops without side arms. And best of all, there was to be no real media to cast aspersions on the fantasy for the thousand or so movers and shakers who responded to Lanier's call of, "Hey, let's put on a show of our own."

Instead of Andy Hardy, what the customers got was an extravaganza that evoked the Mel Brooks classic movie The Producers, a farcical tale of a con artist and his accountant who purposely try to stage a Broadway flop, only to have it become a roaring success. The musical interlude, "Springtime for Hitler," featured buxom fräuleins and prancing storm troopers singing the praises of Der Fuehrer.

A considerably more benevolent theme imbued the BobFest, which broadcast sunny musical images of "gleaming sidewalks, neighborhoods so fine and 1,000 more policeman patrolling the streets."

And in case it suddenly occurred to all in attendance that they had each shelled out $500 to help a candidate who has no serious opponent and most likely won't have one come November, the opening number pointed out in three-four time that "Mayor Bob has made the city great for every one of us, and that's the reason we're all here tonight."

Well, almost everyone. The brochure promoting the show virtually screamed "must see." But on the day of the bash, Lanier flack Sara Turner told the media, "No way." Still, sensing an increased responsibility in this one-daily newspaper town, the Press dutifully dispatched a two-reporter team to monitor the shindig. Mayoral factotums Page Cullison and Robert Frelow Jr. greeted us cheerfully -- and often, turning up with a smile and a kind word whenever we ventured within spitting distance of anyone who appeared ready to say something.

But cognizant of the image-making power of the evening (the fundraiser, of course, gave fair warning of Lanier's deep campaign pockets to any potential challengers), the mayoral functionaries paid scant attention to the television cameramen, who, unencumbered by their nosy reporter sidekicks, were permitted token forays into the packed reception in the anteroom outside the main ballroom. There, a smattering of ambitious councilmembers, including future mayoral contender Helen Huey, probable at-large Position 2 hopeful Joe Roach and, in an interesting turn, Lanier irritant and all-but-declared candidate for controller Lloyd Kelley mixed with the predictable herd of contractors, downtown power lawyers and assorted politicos.

Despite the presence of Congressman Ken Bentsen, county Democratic Chairman David Mincberg and his wife, Cathy, a Houston school trustee, it was strictly B-list, however. The real powers behind Lanier, such as Metro board chairman Billy Burge and lawyer Joe B. Allen, chatted at a more select pre-dinner reception elsewhere in the hotel.

For the main event inside the ballroom, the assembled settled around 124 ten-seat tables packed wall-to-wall before a stage sporting a panorama of the downtown skyline and bracketed by red "3 Peat" banners. The message was obvious, though Mayor Bob played coy all evening about declaring his intent to stand for a third term. Some of Lanier's boosters even seemed a bit impatient to drop the posturing. Event chairman Meredith Long offered the incumbent this bit of advice from the podium: "There's no such thing as being a little bit pregnant."

Meanwhile, as the multitudes dug into a spinach and fruit salad topped with walnuts, Cullison and Frelow were going hungry, haplessly trailing the two Press reporters through the crowd. Shortly after term limits guru Clymer Wright happened by and expressed shock that the mayor's folks planned to eject the media from the party, the two media keepers finally appealed to Dave Walden, Lanier's pugnacious co-chief of staff, for help.

Widely known as the administration's enforcer, Walden provided an abrupt change of style from the firm but polite pleadings of Cullison and Frelow.

"I want your ass out of here, and I will cause a scene," threatened Walden. "And you are a true jerk," he added, addressing just one member of the Press' tag team. "What makes you so much more special that the other media, other than charm and good looks?"

Keeping our hands in full view, we answered that the media has the right to cover an event in which an elected official is sucking nearly a million dollars into his campaign account from special interests making those contributions largely because of the power of his office. We added that we believed it was worth making a scene over.

During the discussion, one reporter slipped off into the crowd and found room at the inn, not to mention a perfectly cooked filet and an abundance of fine wine, with some rather bemused architects and engineers. The other, still toe-to-toe with Walden, threatened to play Gandhi and go limp rather than voluntarily leave, raising the rather humorous prospect of a reporter being dragged like a sack of flour out of the Galleria.

Apparently Walden had a similar thought. "I am not so stupid as to throw you out and cause a scene," he conceded, before barking at his subordinates, "Let him stay, but don't stand there talking to him." For the rest of the night, while his fellow scribe made merry with Lanier cronies, the lonesome journalist played dunce in a corner with the hardworking waitstaff.

The reason for the media's banning became apparent after dinner, when Long introduced "Encore Mayor Bob Encore," (sic) the latest production from onetime That Was the Week That Was girl Nancy Ames and husband Danny Ward, who had fused their creative talents with those of Foley's vice president Linda Knight, a charter member of Elyse Lanier's Ladies Who Lunch Bunch.

Culled from a list of "hallmarks of the Lanier administration," according to Ames, the series of vignettes starred a fake TV reporter, introduced as "Michelle Smith," who was "live from the streets of Houston." Smith rushed around the stage urgently "interviewing" citizens who, overcome by the healing powers of Bob, couldn't help but burst into paeans to the First Couple, scored to a variety of pop standards.

"No other mayor could ever take me away from our guy," crooned the self-dubbed Bob Lanier Fan Club, consisting of Nellie Connally, the widow of Governor John and a neighbor of the Laniers at the Huntingdon; Rima Corral, the wife of Fire Chief Eddie Corral, whom Lanier stood staunchly behind during his Ethics Committee grilling last year; Lanier staffer Helen Chang and Warner Cable flack Pam Thorne, whose company was awarded a sweet, long-term franchise from the city under Lanier.

All multiculturally neat and tidy, the quartet shimmied and threw kisses to the audience. "Well, it's pretty clear that Mayor Bob has the women's vote," a breathless Smith reported.

A plump man, lyric sheet in hand, then moaned on for a while about "Everything's like a dream in Houston, Texas, with Mayor Bob in charge of City Hall," which prompted ersatz corespondent Smith to bleat, "Thank you very much. That's the kind of information we're looking for."

That was followed by a rainbow gaggle from the Houston Children's Chorus depicting kids who, under the twinkling eye of Mayor Bob, have eschewed a life of crime to eat all their vegetables and get plenty of sunshine and fresh air.

Too young to have absorbed the hard facts of civic life, the freshly scrubbed cherubs, in their reworking of the chestnut "Side by Side," nevertheless were able to encapsulate the business-political alliance that makes such evenings necessary: "We're happy today/ 'cause we can play/ by Bob's side," they sang.

"Well, it looks like term limits are the only limits for Mayor Bob," was reporter Smith's astute analysis. "He's got a whole new constituency growing up in Houston."

But the showstopper was the tribute to Houston's finest, who in the real world earlier in the day had dispatched a couple of overworked officers to grouse to City Council once again over the administration's failure to grant them a pay raise. But at BobFest, there would be no petulant police. Lanier -- who left the Council meeting early to doll up for his fete -- was treated to the nearly criminal perkiness of two actors dressed as cops crooning, "Happy days are here again / the cops are on the streets again / you can see us on the beat again / happy days are here again."

Thankfully, Elyse appeared to hose things down before someone got hurt and to introduce the man who by then, of course, needed no introduction.

"Me sing?" she stammered upon hitting the stage. "I just learned how to speak."

Ba-dum-bum.
Her husband's pending speech was to be the predictable self-congratulatory celebration of (supposed) safe streets, revitalized inner city neighborhoods and diversity, so it was left to Elyse to provide the only genuinely charming moment of the evening -- and perhaps the only sincere one.

"Thank you for supporting us as a couple," gushed the newly coifed first lady. "We couldn't have done it without your time, your energy -- all your money! -- and your emotional support."

Elyse also demonstrated that she can appreciate the realities of power. She described the mayor's job as one of the best elected positions in America -- especially with Houston's strong mayor form of government.

"If you like the mayor it's great," she observed. "If you're not crazy about him, it's not so wonderful."

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