Scary Tales from the Tapes
The political career of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros is likely as stiff and cold as his extramarital sexual relationship with former Texas Democratic fundraiser Linda Medlar. But judging from more than 200 pages of transcripts of their conversations -- compiled by Medlar with her trusty tape recorder and purchased from her for mass distribution by television's Inside Edition -- the real passion of these two people's lives together was politics, never mind those repeated sappy references to Fritos and hot soup on cold San Antonio nights at Medlar's pad.
In the phone conversations -- which Medlar apparently began secretly taping in late 1992, when Cisneros was being considered either for an unspecified Cabinet position in the Clinton administration or for appointment by Governor Ann Richards to the U.S. Senate seat Lloyd Bentsen was vacating -- the former San Antonio mayor waxes idealistic about how he'd like to save the nation's underclass ("This is the pits, drug addicts and alleyways of big cities; I'm goin' in there to do the dirty work"), while Medlar, when she isn't ragging her former lover for money, throws in caustic asides about Bill Clinton ("A fat Elvis ... ugly red face").
There's a very dark tragicomedy lurking in the transcripts, one that calls for a multiethnic Tracy-Hepburn pairing to bring to life on the big screen. Even after all of Medlar's threats, demands for money and deception, toward the end of the transcripts Cisneros professes: "Let me tell you something you're not going to believe. I trust you after all we've been through and everything that's been said .... I trust you with my life." To which Medlar sensibly replies: "I wouldn't go that far."
Cisneros acknowledged his affair with Medlar in 1988, during his last term as mayor. The physical relationship reportedly ended after he left office in 1989, although the still-married Cisneros has admitted making payments to Medlar before and after he was sworn in as Clinton's HUD secretary, including more than $50,000 since he joined the Cabinet in early 1993. Medlar, who moved to Lubbock with her daughter after the affair dissolved, sued Cisneros two months ago, claiming he reneged on a promise to continue monthly payments to her. The Justice Department is now weighing whether a criminal investigation is warranted to determine whether Cisneros, while the FBI was compiling its background check on him for his Cabinet post, misled the agency as to the purpose, source and amount of payments he was making to support Medlar. The role of shadowy Texas businessman Morris Jaffe in providing Medlar with loans is also in question.
But never mind the sex and money. It's the political ruminations of these two, conducted over highly insecure phone lines with who knows how many recorders whirring, that fascinates and informs.
Take, for instance, Cisneros' discussion of why he doesn't expect to be named HUD secretary. When Cisneros tells Medlar all the good Cabinet posts have been taken, she retorts, "Well, HUD isn't." Cisneros explains: "Yes, it is. It makes more sense to name a black ... that's who runs the cities these days." The ever-practical Medlar is nonplused: "Hispanics don't?" Answers Cisneros: "Not in the same number as blacks. The big cities north are black."
Medlar comes across as much more politically astute than Cisneros. From the beginning of the conversations, she counsels the ex-mayor that the continuing complications from their relationship and Cisneros' past relationships with other women make it impractical for him to take a national political post. As she points out and then goes on to prove bigtime, Cisneros cannot keep his mouth shut.
"I cannot believe the press doesn't know -- I know they do -- I mean you were the one who told that Marie Brenner [Vanity Fair writer] half your life history," Medlar says. Cisneros then hopefully observes that "the times have changed," provoking this gem from his ex-mistress about another alleged ex-mistress: "No, the times haven't changed Henry .... That Gennifer Flowers was some sort of lunatic bimbo who Clinton dumped at the last minute because he wanted to run for president. That's just the truth, and so she decided she was going to do something at that time." But Medlar, who isn't finished with Cisneros by a long shot, figures Clinton isn't out of the woods, either. "The deal isn't over with Clinton. He may be on a honeymoon right now, but it's not going to stay that way."
Medlar's instincts were also on-the-money when it came to Clinton's ill-fated nomination of Zoe Baird to be his attorney general. While Cisneros burbles about the prospect of the nation's first woman attorney general, Medlar is cool: "Like I said, I'd have to look into it before I say that's a good thing just because she's a woman."
In one conversation, Cisneros tells Medlar that Texas Comptroller John Sharp, a Catholic with a long record of opposition to abortion, won't be appointed by Richards to Bentsen's Senate seat because of his anti-abortion stance. But Sharp will be changing his position to run for governor in the future, Cisneros adds. "Good thing to go to hell for," laughs the keenly appraising Medlar.
And Medlar smells blood the moment Cisneros tells her Richards is planning to name the hapless Bob Krueger to the Senate post. "I don't think he's a good choice .... He may be the only choice, but put up a good Republican and he'll beat Krueger." Cisneros protests, "Come on," and Medlar cracks, "Betcha."
Neither is Medlar an admirer of Clinton. When she says the president is "bad" and reminds her of "a fat Elvis," Cisneros says, "They call him Elvis, or W.C. Fields." But Hillary Clinton seems to be one of the few political figures both Cisneros and Medlar admire.
Medlar: "I don't care what anybody says, she is going to be a helluva force ...."
Cisneros: "Actually, I'll go around a lot of folks to Hillary to get things done."
Medlar: "Well then, that's going to make him [Clinton] mad."
Cisneros: "That has been my experience that that's the best way to get things done .... Do you know she is more of a producer ... a detail person. I hate to admit that, but I send her back channel faxes and stuff -- because I know if you can turn her on you can get to him."
Medlar: "Yeah, but basically it's because he's -- it's like you've said ...."
Cisneros: "She's real smart."
Medlar: "He's not a good decision maker."
Throughout the transcripts, Cisneros stands out in bold relief as a naive, far-too-chatty softy against the backdrop of Medlar's cynical pragmatism. "I'm just saying don't think that everything is just dead and buried because it's not," she warns in advance of the HUD nomination hearing. "I mean there is a disaster and it's not me waiting to happen .... I can't believe you don't know that ... the scrutiny that you will come under will be about you, your past, about your financial dealings, your dealings about being a politician, i.e. Morris Jaffe."
When Cisneros assures her there's no problem, Medlar scoffs: "There's no problem there? Henry, you took cash from him." When Cisneros protests, "No," Medlar fires back: "You would go over there and you would have to sit in his office and you would bring an envelope back with $10,000. Now you can try to tell me that's not true, but I'm sorry Henry, I was there." (Cisneros recently has denied taking cash from Jaffe, but has acknowledged he asked the businessman to help Medlar with business opportunities. Medlar has said she also received a $5,000 loan from Jaffe; Cisneros says he first learned of the loan from Medlar.)
At one point, while they're discussing Cisneros' other apparent past infidelities, he tells Medlar, "there's people who think that we are in a different era where matters in personal life can be said to be personal." As usual in the dialogue, Medlar has all the cutting lines, including one she appropriates from Cisneros' wife, Mary Alice, when predicting how Mrs. Cisneros would respond if the press were to question her about her husband's other indiscretions: "Her quote to me was, 'You're promiscuous because you're a Mexican,' and what she says is it's not her problem, it's your problem...."
"Okay, well, this is a pretty scary picture," replies the man who was soon to become one of the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic officials.
It gets scarier when Medlar tells Cisneros the GOP has contacted her "in the largest form, [Texas Senator] Phil Gramm." Later, Cisneros says he informed Richards of Medlar's claim of having been sought out by Gramm, information that apparently put the kibosh on any chance Cisneros had of being appointed to the Senate seat later filled, albeit briefly, by Krueger. (Gramm spokesman Larry Neal says the large-form senator flatly denies he had any such contact with Medlar.)
After the hearings on his nomination as HUD secretary have been set, Cisneros tells Medlar he doesn't expect U.S. Representative Don Riegle of Michigan, the chairman of the House committee considering his appointment, to give the FBI's report on its background check of Cisneros to other members of the committee. Why? Because Riegle has had his own "bigtime" personal problems and "he's a Democrat," Cisneros tells Medlar. This declaration segues into a dissection of previous high-level presidential nominees who faced allegations of the personal variety. According to Cisneros, "these FBI reports ... just report what people say so you can get burned real bad on some anonymous rumor-originated slander. That's what happened to Clarence Thomas."
When good feminist Medlar protests, "Come on, come on," Cisneros says: "That's what happened to Tower." Medlar snaps, "Tower's wasn't slander. It was all true," and Cisneros replies, "Well, we don't know what was all true and what wasn't." Concludes Medlar: "Well, a lot of it was true, we know. And on Clarence Thomas, I dare say I'm not sure you'd have your new president in there if it hadn't been for Anita Hill."
Cisneros, meanwhile, reveals himself to Medlar as an expert on the workings of the FBI, whose agents he describes as fixated on sexual peccadilloes but lousy when it comes to investigating finances and following paper trails. "They're very heavily Mormon," he tells Medlar, who wonders why that would be. "That's just, they've been, been a tradition, a lot of Mormons go into the FBI and they look after each other."
Occasionally in all the babble, Cisneros appears to come to his senses. "What if you tape record me or something?" he wonders during one of the chats. "My tape recorder? Henry, I don't even have a tape recorder in the house," Medlar says. Later in the conversations, Cisneros declares, "Okay, I'm going to be square with you, and I don't even know if I'm being taped or not. Am I?" Says Medlar: "No, you're not." Then comes the biblical third denial from Medlar, after Cisneros, somewhat pleadingly, says: "Well, again, I don't know whether you're taping me or not."
With Cisneros' suspicions about taping already expressed, conversations like this one, when the two are discussing Cisneros' payments to Medlar, take on a distinct twilight-zone air.
Medlar: "Henry, you're going to be going through confirmation where they're going to be asking you questions."
Cisneros: "The subject [of payments] probably is not even going to come up."
Medlar: "And what if it does?"
Cisneros: "If it does I'll tell them what we agreed and the only person who can upset me at that point -- and I mean serious -- I'm talking contempt of Congress, jail, is you ...." He quickly adds: "I don't know what purpose that would serve -- I intend to do right."
This from a guy who tells Medlar the biggest previous blemish in his FBI file stemmed from a college-era outing when he and some underage buddies were busted for having two cases of beer in their car.
Once Cisneros has won the HUD appointment, he tells Medlar, "I honestly wish I wasn't doing it for a lot of reasons. The department is in a whole lot worse shape than I thought." In another conversation he allows, "I will be pretty well wiped out if this department is as bad as it looks."
After perusing the transcripts, one might draw the conclusion that Cisneros is now indeed pretty well wiped out politically -- but not because of anything that has happened at
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- College and NFL Football: Thanksgiving Weekend's Best Bets
Sat., Nov. 28, 2:30pm
Sat., Nov. 28, 7:00pm
Sun., Nov. 29, 12:00pm
Mon., Nov. 30, 7:00pm
- The 10 Best Things About the Holidays in Houston
- Prosecutors: Paxton's Hollow Outrage at "DEFCON 1"