Getting Schooled

A legendary debate teacher has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson

The rain, on this October Sunday afternoon, is coming down as a near-solid mass, the kind of rain where you wait in your parked car for five minutes vainly hoping for a slight letup.

Finally you give in and get soaked as you scramble to the Rice Village campaign headquarters of Jim Henley, a Democrat running in the very Republican seventh congressional district. There's supposed to be a blockwalking expedition taking off from the site today, but the few volunteers in the office have pretty much written it off. No one's going to go out in this weather.

But soon enough some semi-drenched folks start straggling in. High school students, older couples, younger kids with their parents. The Henley workers tell them it probably will be less of a hassle if they make phone calls instead of blockwalk through the soggy streets, but as the rain lets up the group makes a decision -- they're getting on the school bus purchased by Henley for the campaign, and they'll knock on doors throughout Meyerland. Into the drizzle they go.

Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
Daniel Kramer
Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.
Another bus ride, but this time it's to the polls, not a debate tournament.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Another bus ride, but this time it's to the polls, not a debate tournament.
Henley took to the streets to support his sister.
From The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk
Henley took to the streets to support his sister.

Why? Not because they're hardcore Democrats. A few of the parents who are accompanying their kids are Republicans, and most of the others are political neophytes who've never before volunteered for a political candidate.

The waterlogged group is there not for a political party, but for Jim Henley. Because if you've ever taken Henley's legendary debate course at Lanier Middle School, you've never forgotten it. And if he asks for help, you're not likely to say no.

Henley in the classroom is Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society -- a shouting, dramatic, hyper-enthusiastic teacher of a seemingly deadly dull course who awakens something that many kids didn't know they had inside them.

Henley outside the classroom is not quite as over-the-top, but as tenacious as the rest of his family. And that family includes his sister Susan McDougal, the woman who went to jail for 18 months rather than tell Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr what he wanted to hear, because she believed he had no interest in the truth.

As he approaches retirement after almost 20 years at Lanier, Henley has decided he wants to give his students "one last lesson plan": taking on an incumbent who he thinks epitomizes everything that's wrong with the pandering, hypocritical, ugly shoutfest that is American politics today.

And because of his volunteer army, because of the seeming wave of discontent with Republicans, because he thinks his opponent is taking reelection for granted, he believes he has a chance. He may be somewhat alone in that view among political observers, but he doesn't really care. Henley's never had a lesson plan when he's teaching, but he has one for winning the campaign, and he's sticking to it.

I.

Get Yourself an Inspired Army

Hundreds of Henley's former students have sent in donations or are volunteering in his campaign, springing their well-honed articulateness on unsuspecting residents who answer the door or the phone.

What is it about having gone through Henley's course that makes kids eager to get involved in politics?

For most people, a debate class in middle school -- when you're at an age where the only thing worse than talking politics is having to speak in public -- is nothing less than a trial. But not if you're in Henley's class.

"One of the students in our debate class was nervous about public speaking and presenting in front of the class," says Kane Kenney, now a student at Strake Jesuit. "When Mr. Henley called on him and he responded timidly, Mr. Henley ordered us all outside onto the football field. He then commanded us to scream as loud as we possibly could. After that, shy and extroverted students alike broke out of their shells."

There's "The Mother of All Timelines," where Henley wraps butcher paper around the classroom and everyone plots out the history of the world. There's the weekly Jeopardy game. There's the 11-year-olds yelling "Pig Sooey" down the halls when Henley's Arkansas Razorbacks are making noise in the NCAA tournament.

Last year the debate team won yet another tournament, but they were all convinced the judging in San Antonio had been unfair. "A lot of the debaters...could not stop complaining about their ranking," says Sesenu Woldemariam, now a Bellaire High student.

Henley ordered everyone off the bus.

"He told us that everyone had been rooting against us, hoping to see Lanier's reign as national champions end, but we had overcome adversity in the most noble of ways: by just kicking the butts of the other teams because we were just that good," says Ashley Reed, now at Lamar High. "He then pulled out from behind his back a paper grocery bag. He told us that in the bag were all of the Lanier ballots from the final round."

Henley placed the bag on the parking-lot asphalt and set it on fire. "We all shouted and sang out in joy as the graduating teams and the coaches put their arms around each other, danced around the flaming bag of ballots and sang Queen's immortal song 'We Are the Champions.'"

Mary Crowley, now a teacher in France, has already voted by absentee ballot for Henley -- even though it triggered "Soooey" memories. "Sometimes...I think, 'Wow, did I really vote for a man who was running around like a crazy person?'" she says. "But when I think of him being completely nuts, I also think about how he is an inspiring teacher as well."

Henley, a little bulldog of a guy, freely admits his methods are unorthodox. "You're not gonna find any lesson plans, any textbooks or any test papers in my classroom," he says.

His legendary status has earned him the benign neglect of Lanier's principals through the years. ("They put me in a portable building out back and they don't even know I'm there," he says.) It doesn't hurt that the debate program is recognized nationally, regularly winning tournaments against high school teams.

The team could pile up that winning record with 30 members -- in fact, it might be easier to do so -- but Henley insists that everyone in his classes participate. Why? Because the wild-guy 59-year-old teacher has more than a bit of Old Fogey in him.

Kids these days. "There's too much video games and too much text-messaging, and as far as face-to-face communication and being articulate and self-confident, they're losing that," Henley says. "They're all sounding like Valley Girls and Valley Boys -- 'Like, dude' -- and it's driving me crazy."

Still, he's had a powerful effect on a lot of Lanier grads. "Mr. Henley is the best teacher I ever had precisely because he was not a teacher," says Marc Bhargava, now a junior at Harvard University. "He never told us what to think or who to admire, but fed our excitement with questions and dreams."

Now many of those former students are on the campaign trail. When they're not calling or blockwalking, they're introducing Henley at gatherings at private homes. "It's quite amazing to hear the impact a teacher and the debate program has had on their life," Henley says.

II.

Be Stubborn as Hell

The days of Whitewater can seem like another age now, but there was a time when national reporters frantically competed for scoops about investigations into a small Arkansas land deal. The Rush Limbaughs of the land frothed mightily about how the Clintons were covering up the crime of the century, and special prosecutors relentlessly pursued every lead, usually in vain.

As it turned out, there wasn't too much to the Whitewater saga until Monica Lewinsky's oral skills entered the picture. Few people went to prison, but Susan McDougal, Henley's sister, was one of them.

She and her husband were convicted of fraud, but that's not what made her famous. She refused to answer some of Starr's questions about Clinton, saying his office was acting unethically. A judge found her in contempt, and McDougal served 18 months in jail.

"She would have died in prison, and that really scared me because I realized she was willing to do that," Henley says.

Then again, he shouldn't have been surprised. All seven of the Henleys seem to dig in their heels against authority when most people would decide it wasn't worth it.

"I know where it comes from," Henley says. "We had a father who was a master sergeant and went through the [Second World] War and the Korean War and, you know, he was a son of a bitch. And that was our authority figure, and so we've been rebelling against authority figures ever since."

McDougal, in her book The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk, describes the family dynamic as they grew up in Arkansas.

Former Master Sgt. Henley was a hardcore Republican who would rail against whatever was getting his goat at the moment, and the dinner table was a freewheeling forum, with Jim "challeng[ing] my father on virtually every one of his basic beliefs," she writes.

"Jim was a slender, thoughtful boy who loved to follow politics and, by the time he was ten, was writing earnest letters to newspapers. He also was a liberal's liberal who couldn't fathom my father's inability to see obvious truths," she adds.

A "liberal's liberal" in 1960s Arkansas was probably anyone who didn't burn Beatles records, but Henley eventually took a turn his father could approve -- he became a minister. For nine years, beginning at age 19, he served at a small church in the Ozark Mountains.

His religious calling lasted until Houston judge Paul Pressler led the move to take the Southern Baptist Convention in a hard-right direction. Henley was at Fort Worth's Southwestern Seminary at the time, getting a master's degree.

"They're taking it over, firing my professors," he says. "That purging of the professors, people who were God-fearing, Bible-believing people getting kicked out because...they weren't politically correct on all these social issues, that was it."

Henley returned to Arkansas and got in the savings and loan business with his brother, just in time for that industry's collapse. The two faced criminal charges over the bank's failure, but both were acquitted.

The prosecution was an effort to put pressure on his sister to give up dirt on Bill Clinton, Henley believes, even though the trial took place in 1990.

"Clinton was putting together his presidential campaign and Lee Atwater wanted to stop it," he says. "He was scared of Clinton, and only Clinton. He wanted to run [George H.W. Bush] against Mario Cuomo."

Whether that's true or not, Henley is convinced of it. "We've been fighting a defensive struggle here to keep our head above water as a family since 1985," he says of the business setbacks, rumors and investigations.

But he does fight. He says he never considered a plea bargain in his case. He spoke out often and loudly during McDougal's troubles, picketing in front of prosecutors' offices, showing up at her court appearances to rip into Starr for the assembled media.

It seems clear that the Henleys don't really worry about the odds when they decide something's worth fighting for. And beating Republican incumbent John Culberson is, to Henley, something that is definitely worth a fight.

III.

Know Your Opponent

Henley says one thing, and one thing only, made him decide to run for Congress just as he was retiring from Lanier: John Culberson.

Culberson, a three-term incumbent, just gets under Henley's skin.

"There's got to be one or two demagogues who are worse than John, but he's in the top three," Henley says. "I just don't believe a guy like him should go unchallenged."

Culberson is, in many ways, an utterly standard-issue Republican of the Tom DeLay era. A politician for the past 20 years, he's advocating all the hot-button issues: building a border fence, cutting non-defense spending, finding myriad ways to insure that gays don't marry. He's pushed for all this -- and some of the goofier DeLay stuff, like abolishing the IRS and replacing it with a sales tax -- without engendering that high a profile. If he's known for anything around Houston, it is for opposing just about every light-rail project that's been thought of, much like DeLay did.

But it's the rhetoric as much as the voting record that gets Henley. He'll relate in disbelief how in their one joint appearance, before the Houston Chronicle editorial board, Culberson talked of "carpet-bombing" Iraqi cities (after, it should be noted, evacuating the women and children). How Culberson compares illegal immigrants to the Visigoths who brought down Rome after being "invited in." How he regularly tells audiences that he fully expects simultaneous truck bombs to be set off in every major U.S. city at some point. How he claims Venezuela is giving fake passports to Al-Qaeda members, a claim that's been refuted by the author of the report he cites as proof.

"It's just amazing to me, and he gets by with it," Henley says. "People say, 'Oh, that's just John,' but at what point is he responsible for his fear-mongering and standing around [for photo ops] with Uzis on the border?"

(At the Chron meeting, Henley and another participant say, Culberson angrily lit into James Gibbons, the head of the paper's editorial board, over what he thought were past misrepresentations. The result was one of the Chron's odder editorials -- and that's saying something -- in which they declared Culberson was likely to win reelection but needed to be nicer to people.)

What's Culberson's take on all this? He's not backing off carpet-bombing, to be sure. See our sidebar.

Perhaps understandably, Culberson has refused Henley's open offer to debate the issues. To be fair, it'd kind of be like the guy running against Arnold Schwarzenegger agreeing to a weight-lifting contest.

IV.

Know Your District

The Seventh District is not on anyone's radar for a Democratic takeover. It voted 2-1 for Bush (and Culberson) in 2004.

It's shaped somewhat like Missouri, with the boot heel consisting of the Democratic-friendly areas of Meyerland, Montrose, Bellaire and the Medical Center; the lower border has the high-dollar enclaves of Memorial, Tanglewood and the Villages out on I-10, where the Republicans are fiscal conservatives but maybe not totally in tune with the evangelical agenda. In the northern part of the district are the less densely populated but very conservative areas around 290, like Jersey Village.

The district is designed to elect Republicans, and Culberson has had no serious opposition since replacing the legendary Bill Archer in 2000. His Democratic opponent in 2004 spent much of the campaign season in Saudi Arabia.

Most political observers think Culberson's victory margin might significantly shrink this year, but it's hard to find anyone forecasting an upset. "If Culberson loses," says one longtime Democratic activist, "that means there won't be any Republicans left."

Such analysis is "that 2-1 BS" to Henley. The 2004 elections saw Republicans eagerly voting to support Bush, he says. Culberson "got a pull of the lever in 2004 and people say he's popular -- I mean, what the hell? I could have gotten 2-1 if I had been under George Bush on the ballot," he says.

Henley's tour of the electoral map? "Guess who's really pissed off? Over in Memorial you've got one Culberson sign in 10,000 houses, why? These are country-club Republicans who are not all intellectually challenged, who are fiscal conservatives, who see the debt and the spending and all this stuff, and they're fractured," he says. "Are they really souped up to go vote this time? Who's got them motivated to vote? Perry? Culberson, Tom DeLay's best buddy? No, they're going to be disenchanted."

The boot heel portion of the district will be Democrat, he's sure, and the religious voters to the north won't come out in the numbers of previous years.

"Then you have the split of not straight-ticket voting because of the governor's race," he says, warming up. Voters who go for Strayhorn or Kinky won't be pulling the straight-Republican lever; most of the Kinky and some of the Strayhorn will lump Culberson with Perry and won't be able to bring themselves to vote for him, Henley believes.

One problem for Henley -- well, one problem beyond the fact the district is gerrymandered for a Republican -- is the inner-loop neighborhoods along Richmond. Usually they could be relied on for some Democratic support, but they are mightily pissed at Metro for trying to build a light-rail line through their neighborhoods. Culberson has made clear he agrees with them, and if reelected he'd be a formidable ally for the residents. (Although perhaps not as formidable as in the past, if Democrats take control of the House.)

Henley says it's not the job of a congressman to say where the line should go; that should be left to local residents and officials. That stance will cost him some votes he'd normally get, and he's not really in a position where he can be writing off too many of those.

Call him delusional, but he says he's glad his race is not considered winnable. It keeps it "off the radar," he says, of national groups coming in spending money to help Culberson. (Not that the money race will be tight -- Henley will spend about $125,000, Culberson closer to $600,000.)

There are other factors in the race that are unpredictable -- down-ballot battles like the intense Martha Wong-Ellen Cohen fight or the Hubert Vo-Talmadge Heflin rematch. Two things are sure: a) Henley is convinced the district is ripe for the taking, and b) most everybody else in the local political world, not so much.

V.

Pay Attention to the Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room being, in this case, the Iraq war. Henley has been against the invasion from the beginning. Going into Afghanistan, yes; he favors sending even more troops there. But Iraq was a colossal mistake, he feels; get him talking about it and the debate coach gets dangerously close to losing control and heading into rant territory.

But hey, seeing as it's the biggest issue of the year, let's have a rant.

"To say, 'Our presence [in Iraq] is destabilizing, so we're gonna stay there to stabilize it,' it makes me wonder about people. What the hell is that about? Going into that preemptively, unilaterally, Americans by themselves, into that hotbed of anti-Americanism and then occupying the country, who the hell thought that up? Not James Baker, he wrote against it. So why do you think staying there is going to make it better?"

Come on, don't stop now: "I wish to God it were required, if you're so supportive of the war, to spend a week in Fallujah...The guys who are fighting to stay have never been in combat; the guys who have been tortured, who have been fighting, who have been there, they are opposed to this. 'We Support Our Troops'? Get your ass in Fallujah for a week and then tell me what you think. 'We Support the Troops' -- Yeah, you support them, you support them a thousand miles away, not paying any taxes, not making any sacrifice, not doing a damn thing but saying you support the troops and putting a little ribbon on your car. What have you done to support the troops in a failed mission?"

Henley can do a mean imitation of what Culberson said in a public Q&A appearance recently when he was asked what America was doing in Iraq ("We're chewin' up terrorists" was the answer). At the Chronicle meeting, Culberson said he had been reading Bob Woodward's State of Denial and was beginning to think things were not going as well in Iraq as they should.

"When you see John Culberson, a man with pompoms, a cheerleader for the war, put down his pompoms, this is grim," Henley says. "But it's been grim."

VI.

Keep Doing What You're Doing

On a Saturday two weeks before Election Day, what was Jim Henley doing? Spending 15 hours squiring 100 middle schoolers to a debate tournament. ("Waiting with the bus until 10:30 [p.m.] for the parents to pick up their kids, that's the fun part," he says with a roll of the eyes.)

He peeled off when he could during the day to hit a house party, but in terms of the campaign, it wasn't a very productive day. Henley, of course, wouldn't have it any other way.

He's keeping his unorthodox ways in other matters: He's taking no money from PACs, or the national or state Democratic parties. It's not like he's turning down tens of thousands those groups are wanting to shower on him, but he has returned checks from such Web-roots organizations as ActBlue.

He's a bit of a fanatic on getting federal financing of Congressional campaigns in order to get rid of the influence of big-money groups.

If he's elected, he says, "I won't go to fund-raisers, I won't eat, meet or travel with lobbyists, I won't have them in the office. If a lobbyist wants to lobby, write a letter and we'll put it on the Congressional Web site and everybody here can see what he or she wants," he says.

If he's not elected, he says, he won't lose any sleep over it. "If they go out and vote like they've always voted," he says of his potential constituents, "then they get what they deserve."

If Culberson feels the race has tightened up in the final stages, then Henley predicts "You'll see negative radio...He'll be using my name and Susan's name and Nancy Pelosi, and Sheila Jackson Lee becoming the chair of the subcommittee on immigration...That's one of the telltale ways we'll know we're close."

And if those ads don't show up?

"It'll just mean he's still intellectually challenged. Or, yes, we're way off and we were just jousting at windmills or deluding ourselves totally, which is possible. It's possible but it's still worth the fight, by God -- I don't regret it one dadgum bit one way or the other.

"I'm retiring from Lanier after 20 years, and you can go quietly into the night and retire or give them one last lesson plan that they won't ever forget," he says. "Inspire them, get them involved, get them connected, let them know it's their responsibility to be involved in public service."

So maybe this grand lesson plan won't work, if the goal is to get elected to Congress. But maybe that isn't the most important goal, after all.

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