God, Guns & Kombucha

Is Steve Stockman a committed crackpot, or just a hapless goofball?

It wasn't the deer-in-the-headlights look on Steve Stockman's face the day in April when he called a press conference to explain that he had gotten no advance notice of the bombing in Oklahoma City or had any direct affiliation with the citizen militias whose profile had risen considerably in the wake of the mass slaughter. No, the look on Stockman's pallid face was that of the deer a few moments after it had been struck head-on. The congressman from the 9th District of Texas was roadkill. He was coming apart in public, and he hadn't even had a chance to put himself together.

Stockman already had given some people cause to wonder. There was the letter he wrote in March to Attorney General Janet Reno, expressing concern over reports he had heard ("while information is scarce") that the government was secretly preparing to carry out raids on private militias. But, as it turned out, Stockman had been done a minor injustice in the early reporting of the "cryptic fax" (as it was later described ad nauseam) sent to his congressional office on the morning of the Oklahoma City bombing from an associate of "Mark from Michigan," the janitor-cum-conspiracy theorist who expounds on nationally broadcast call-in shows. Contrary to suggestions in some initial reports, Stockman's office had received the fax after the bombing and promptly passed it on to the FBI (ironically, the initial misunderstanding about the fax was propagated by the National Rifle Association, Stockman's chief patron).

It was difficult, though, for the people in Southeast Texas who've closely watched Stockman over the past five years to muster much sympathy for the new congressman from Friendswood, given his own history of dissembling and shading the truth. But to the gun enthusiasts and evangelicals whose support finally helped elect Stockman to Congress, the episode must have served to confirm the essential wickedness of them.

It's not a stretch to consider Steve Stockman the protagonist of a neat little populist morality play. His victory last November over 40-year incumbent Jack Brooks was certainly testament to the durability of the great American myth that almost anybody can get elected to public office in this country. Steve Stockman, you see, is just a regular guy -- a spiritual antecedent of Beavis & Butt-head who, but for the grace of God or sheer dumb luck, might have found himself driving aimlessly with those two hapless, beer-guzzling drifters who were temporarily detained by the FBI because their ramblings strangely coincided with accused bomber Timothy McVeigh's. And, indeed, Stockman has said that he started on the road to finding the Lord a decade ago while eating pizza and watching television, although he still never seemed to be able to find steady work until he managed to get himself elected to Congress.

Unfortunately, Steve Stockman is a regular guy with an ideology, one that he seems to have pulled together from whatever he's been told or handed. He has said he ran for Congress because he was "mad" at the government. Anger, of course, can be a useful and clarifying emotion. But there's a point where legitimate argument over the powers of the Federal Reserve or the right to bear arms or the government's intrusion into so many corners of our lives blurs into the rank, teeth-grinding weirdness now spinning madly into the mainstream from the far reaches of the shortwave bands -- the International Jewish Bankers-Knights Templar-United Nations-whatever-conspiracy that killed Vince Foster and carried out the bombing in Oklahoma City to take away our guns and makes us slaves of the New World Order. Steve Stockman seems to have had difficulty discerning where that point is, but it's anybody's guess whether he's a truly committed crackpot or simply a goofball opportunist who's ignorant of history and doesn't understand the consequences of what he says.

Kent Adams, a thoughtful-sounding Beaumont lawyer who chairs the Jefferson County Republican Party and is close to Stockman, notes that the congressman now regrets "some of the language he used" in the article that appeared under his byline in the June issue of Guns & Ammo magazine, wherein Stockman suggested that the burning of the Branch Davidians' compound was staged by President Clinton and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to justify the ban on assault weapons.

"That was written within two weeks of when he took office," says Adams. "It was written with the help and encouragement of the NRA and some of those folks, who also helped and encouraged him in writing the letter to Janet Reno. I think that there probably was some element of the NRA taking advantage of a freshman congressman who was trying to learn the ropes up there, and probably they were a little bit overly enthusiastic in selling him on the merits of that article and that letter. I think he has a much clearer understanding of that now." (As of press time, the NRA hadn't responded to our request for comment).

Adams was trying to be helpful to Stockman, but his portrayal of the congressman as an obliging patsy of the NRA is more damning than the possibility that Stockman actually believes what he represented himself as having written. It's unlikely that Stockman, prior to allegedly taking pen in hand, even had much reason to thumb through Guns & Ammo, since, according to Adams, he didn't own a firearm -- not so much as a deer rifle or a shotgun -- until after he was elected to Congress. And what he now owns is a piddly .22-caliber pistol given to him by a supporter (hopefully, a firearms training class was included in the gift, given Stockman's proclivity for shooting himself in the foot).

Perhaps Stockman was just a newly arrived rube who let the NRA do his thinking for him, but it's unlikely the NRA put him up to his December 28 interview on Radio Free America, the radio show sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Liberty Lobby, which the Anti-Defamation League has branded "the nation's leading anti-Semitic propagandist" for, among other things, its founder's questioning of the authenticity of the Holocaust. The host of Radio Free America -- "the talk show for intelligent Americans" -- is Tom Valentine, who during commercial breaks peddles the reputed wonders of kombucha, a "pancake mix" health drink concocted from fermented yeasts and bacteria and touted in some quarters as a cure for everything from cancer to acne.

Although Stockman appeared a bit peaked after Oklahoma City, it's unknown whether he sought restoration from kombucha. What is known is that he told Tom Valentine how pleased he was to be on his show "because you and I see eye to eye on a lot of items."

One of those items is dislike of the Federal Reserve, and Stockman solemnly vowed to caller "Don from Akron" that as a member of the House banking committee he would work to rid the monetary system of influence from "outside elements." And when Valentine asked Stockman if he subscribed to any "populist ideology," Stockman eagerly related that he counts himself as a "personal, close friend" and adherent of David Barton, a quasi-scholarly ideologist well-known in Christian conservative circles in Texas for his writing and lectures positing that the constitutional separation of church and state is a "myth" that needs to be discarded.

"He's a gentleman," explained Stockman, who after taking office required his staff to begin its day with a 45-minute Bible study on the taxpayers' dime, "that looks at America from what I consider our founding fathers' belief, which is Christian, and I feel that the nation needs to head back to that direction which it was founded on. You know, when you cook a cake and it comes out great, you don't change the recipe, and this country's falling apart in large part because they're changing the recipe to success. And that's something that I think alarms many citizens, in particular the moral decline."

Back in 1984, the office building at 3317 Montrose, just off Westheimer, was known as the Associated Engineering Building, and among its tenants were the Montrose Voice, the gay weekly newspaper, and something called the Gestalt Training Center. It was also the address that Stephen E. Stockman listed on the certificate of ownership he filed in the fall of 1983 with the Harris County Clerk for a business known as "Stephen S. Studios."

The building has since been demolished, and any record of what sort of business Stephen S. Studios may have conducted there has been lost in the dim mists of time. Stephen S. Studios did live again briefly in an 11th-hour commercial that Jack Brooks ran against Stockman last fall, the one in which an announcer in full leer informed viewers that Stockman once operated "a studio in Montrose." The appearance of that commercial signaled that Jack Brooks would shortly be retired from Congress.

Stockman at the time offered a few fuzzy explanations for Stephen S. Studios, claiming that the address was used as "a post office box for a painting business" he and some friends had. But, come to find out, it wouldn't have been unusual to find Stockman at the crossroads of hipster street life in Houston back in the early '80s. He's always been of a man of the counter-culture. Back then, though, it wasn't the counterculture of Mark from Michigan and David Barton that Stockman considered himself part of, but the one that former pot smoker Newt Gingrich has condemned as the source of many of our current ills -- the one of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

In a remarkable little confessional that appeared in the June 11 Dallas Morning News, Stockman revealed to Richard Whittle of the paper's Washington bureau that he had whiled away his post-adolescence in Michigan as a drug-taking, ne'er-do-well "partier" who shook his young booty at "the Tull concert, the Yes concert, the Who concert, the Stones concert." (At last, I thought as I read Whittle's story: an elected official whose youth I can relate to.) Stockman was even popped for drugs, and the congressman's version of the story is such a priceless bit of Stockmania that it bears repeating in detail: Reporting for a weekend stay in jail for a traffic violation, the future member of the House banking committee was strip-searched by -------ers, who discovered three Valiums hidden in a cellophane cigarette wrapper that was stowed in his underwear. Stockman told Whittle that his girlfriend had tucked the Valiums in his drawers to make his jail stay bearable. He was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance.

At least he wasn't worried about maintaining his political viability. But Stockman did have something in common with Bill Clinton: he professed to Whittle to having been something of a "studerino" who had lots of "hot babes" back in his salad days.

All that changed a few years after Stockman had drifted down to Houston. It was in 1984 when he and his future wife Patti were heating up some pizza and channel surfing that some unseen hand guided them to John Bisagno, the pastor of First Baptist Church. Bisagno was sermonizing on the Book of Revelations. He apparently held the channel-clicking couple's interest, and soon thereafter Stockman and his wife-to-be were born again and regular attendees at First Baptist. It was all uphill for the ex-studerino after that: a degree in accounting from UH-Clear Lake, the state chairmanship of the Young Conservatives of Texas (at the not-so-young age of 31) and then, in 1990, the first of his three runs for Brooks' seat, culminating in his ousting of the incumbent last year. Stockman managed to accomplish all this while puffing and obscuring his background and rarely holding a job (he reported no earned income for 1994 on the financial disclosure he filed last week; fortunately for him, his wife has a good-paying position at Johnson Space Center).

But it's pretty much been all downhill for Stockman since he went to Washington to draw his $130,000-a-year salary, and he's kept a decidedly low profile after reaping all that post-Oklahoma City publicity. We tried for more than a month to arrange an interview with Stockman or to be notified in advance of his public appearances in the 9th District, but his congressional chief of staff, a weasel named Jeff Fisher, was less than cooperative.

Stockman, however, is supposed to surface in Houston on July 1 to address the opening of the Libertarian Party's state conference. It's kind of an odd venue for the David Barton disciple, who, on Radio Free America, averred that "one thing where I differ a little bit with Libertarians" is on the need for "some kind of morality in our government, where I feel that things in our country are going wrong and we need to correct." Perhaps Stockman will tell the Libertarians how he'd make those corrections, or maybe he will discourse on how those who happen to disagree with him are somehow lacking in "morality."

Or maybe he could just tell them what he told "Tom from Houston," who phoned Radio Free America to inform Stockman that Congressman Jack Fields, the conservative Republican from Humble, had sold out to the "international bankers" shortly after first winning election 15 years ago. Furthermore, Tom related with the surety of a regular caller to talk shows, all members of Congress who voted for almost any legislation in the past few years -- particularly NAFTA, GATT and the Brady Bill -- are "traitors" who should be tried for treason. And that included Newt Gingrich. But Tom said he saw great promise in Steve Stockman, and hoped he wouldn't fall prey to their blandishments.

"Well, I've been running for five years," replied Stockman, "so I hope I don't change ... I can't tell you that I'm not gonna change, but, I mean, these are my core beliefs, and I haven't run from 'em. I've a ... I dunno, this is just me. I was like you -- I got mad and ran for office.

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