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Bash-Free Zone

The annual Texas Book Festival was lovingly nurtured by Laura Bush back when she was first lady of Texas. Now, some say, the festival is returning the favor.

Authors have been grumbling that the Austin event, scheduled for October 28-31, is taking pains this year to ensure that criticism of the Bushes remains muted and marginalized. Since Bush-bashing books have become a cornerstone of the publishing economy, that seems like a difficult feat to pull off, but critics say the festival is doing its best to accomplish it. Coveted high-profile spots at the event are not going to writers critical of the president, they say.

"There's been an enormous outpouring of anti-Bush books this year, a lot of them by Texans, but they're not getting a hearing," says thriller writer David Lindsey. "From what I hear about the discussions at the board meetings, they're definitely putting a cap on them."

"Laura Bush started this. I hardly expect that books criticizing her husband are going to get any kind of prominent place," says Robert Bryce, author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes and the Rise of Texas.

Festival officials pooh-pooh the concerns. "I've heard [the rumors] myself," says Edward Nawotka, the event's programming manager. "I was at a book reading this week, and I had four authors come up to me with varying degrees of hostility."

He calls the festival's lineup "a wonderful balance" and notes a panel celebrating 50 years of the liberal Texas Observer.

Bill Crawford, an author who was on the festival's selection committee, says it was difficult to line up political writers because the event takes place the weekend before Election Day, and that's "the big money week for people...to be in Washington or New York and have their heads on TV."

He also notes that political panels are dicey these days: "We try to have a nice enjoyable discussion on the panels, but this year I don't think you can do that because people tend to perform as they would on a TV talk show. They turn it into a screaming match," he says.

Better then to just ignore the whole election thing, we suppose.

What About Gay Pets?

We know some people don't like gay folks, what with all their sodomizin' and showtunes and lack of babies. But treating them worse than a dog?

That's what Houston corporate giant Waste Management, Inc. does, according to the activist group called the Human Rights Campaign.

Waste Management is one of only four Fortune 500 companies that offer their employees pet insurance, but not health insurance for domestic partners. HRC has a campaign highlighting such semi-farsighted businesses.

The Home Depot caved in to HRC recently, but not Waste Management, which specializes in hauling trash. "We've had an excellent and enormous response among American companies ensuring fairness," says the HRC's Steven Fisher. "We're going to continue to work on the companies that are still not there."

In response, a spokeswoman for Waste Management says it will rectify the disparity immediately -- by canceling the pet-insurance program.

Actually, spokeswoman Heather Browne says the company is "carefully evaluating" whether to add domestic-partner coverage. And the company doesn't actually offer pet insurance, she says, it offers employees "access to a Web site that offers them various assistance in obtaining...pet insurance and the like." And "the like" does not include domestic-partner coverage.

And hey -- now you can play the home version of the Hair Balls game! Browne served as spokeswoman for the Houston school district until being ousted a year ago. Now she represents a waste-management company. Insert joke here.

Don't Drink to Him

There's been a lot of Democratic hand-wringing over Ralph Nader being on the ballot, but that's because Democrats are sniveling wimps. You don't see Republicans whining about the Earl Dodge-Howard Lydick ticket, even though the slate of the Prohibition Party may peel off some Christian-right votes.

Sure, the Prohibition Party is on the ballot only in Colorado, but Colorado could be a battleground. Vice-presidential hopeful Lydick, who lives in Richardson, is confident the party can even improve on its 2000 performance, where it garnered more than 200 votes. (Exactly eight more.)

Q. So you believe there should be a constitutional amendment banning the sale of alcohol?

A. Yes. Definitely. I've been in this for 50 years and things are finally turning around.

Q. So you'd say support is picking up?

A. Definitely.

Q. What about nonalcoholic beer?

A. That's a bunch of bullshit. It's strictly an effort to try to get young people introduced to the idea so they will drink beer.

Q. So how would NASCAR survive without beer?

A. That I don't know. They'd have to find someone else to sponsor them.

Q. No, I mean has anyone actually ever watched a NASCAR race without drinking like a fish?

A. I really can't answer that question.

Q. What about critics who say the last time there was Prohibition it caused organized crime and speakeasies?

A. The answer to that is, it's total bullshit.

Q. Okay...So, are you excited to be a vice-presidential candidate?

A. I've been active in politics for over 50 years.

Q. But this is the vice-presidency. It's every kid's dream, or at least every kid's little brother's dream.

A. It's just that I've been in it too long...It's exciting, yes, but not like it would have been, say, 30 years ago.

Cleveland Rocks, Houston Reels

When most Houstonians hear the name "East Cleveland," they may find themselves surprised that the tiny Montgomery County town of Cleveland has a suburb.

But, it turns out, there is also a city of sorts named Cleveland, in a state called "Ohio." And that Cleveland has a suburb to the east, an impoverished, mostly minority enclave of 27,000.

Why the geography lesson? Because the politics of East Cleveland may come to play an intriguing role in the politics of Houston.

Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor was convicted last month of bribery, racketeering and tax fraud, the charges stemming from an FBI investigation of businessman Nate Gray. Gray was videotaped handing envelopes stuffed with cash to the mayor, apparently to further the interests of CH2M Hill, a company running the city's water department.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that wiretaps of Gray have led to "so many different fruitful veins of investigation," triggering probes in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans -- and Houston.

There are indeed some local connections. CH2M Hill is involved in the Port of Houston Authority's mammoth Bayport project, and it has its nose fully in the City Hall trough. In 1999 the city paid $1.6 million for the company to develop a "strategic plan" for its water system, an amount later amended to $2.5 million, which is a pretty nice amendment. A year later it got a $3.5 million design contract.

Gray also owns Etna Parking, which has a piece of the contract for shuttling car-rental customers at Bush Intercontinental Airport. A "Nate Gray" gave $500 to Mayor Bill White's campaign in December.

Whether anything comes of this is difficult to say -- Gray didn't return calls, and the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office in Cleveland refused comment.

But there's a chance that Houstonians may become more familiar with the name "East Cleveland" than they ever believed possible.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Thirty years after the fact, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian of the Texas Air National Guard is getting his 15 minutes of fame, as the author of several newly discovered (and disputed) memos depicting George W. Bush's underwhelming military career.

Killian may wind up with only a fleeting posthumous moment in the national spotlight, but he remains a legend among the flyboys of his TANG unit at Houston's Ellington Field. "Killer" Killian epitomized the tough-talking, testosterone-soaked world of fighter pilots, and tales of his exploits and warped wisdom are still traded over beers by his former colleagues.

We'll repeat just one: Killian on the subject of sex. "I never turned anything down," he once told his young pilots, "except an old man with no teeth. And I turned him facedown."

Such are the shapers of future presidents.


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