Turkeys of the Year
The onset of the holiday season always brings a rush of warm feelings, of giving thanks for the blessings that have been bestowed on us all year.
For some people, at least. For us it brings on an end-of-the-year accounting of all the things that have tripped our trigger, made our eyes roll or just annoyed the living hell out of us. Thanksgiving is a time for turkeys, so here are the Turkeys who have been gobbling madly around us in Houston this year.
Top Turkey of the Year - Tom DeLay
Texas has had six flags flying over it, as every amusement-park attendee knows. The flags include those of France, Spain, the Confederate States of America and our very own Republic of Texas.
Now it flies under a seventh. As 2003 has proved, we are now living in a country named -- like Afghanistan or Uzbekistan -- after the most influential part of the population. Like Turkmenistan, this new country is ruled by a powerful warlord. (The CIA World Factbook says Turkmenistan's president "retains absolute control over the country and opposition is not tolerated.")
Welcome, then, to DeLayistan -- where absolute control is retained and opposition is not tolerated.
DeLayistan's flag honors both the hardball nickname and former bug-exterminating career of its potentate, Tom DeLay: It features a hammer smashing a roach. In a nod to the wacky religious extremism that led DeLay to denounce Baylor University as unacceptably liberal because it didn't dismiss out-of-hand the whole evolution thing, the flag's hammer resembles a cross. (Oh, and the roach is wearing a Democratic National Committee T-shirt. Sure, it's kind of a busy design for a flag, but DeLay's an ayatollah, not a graphic design artist.)
In forming this new country, in ridding Texas of its nasty decades-long habit of democracy, Tom DeLay of Sugar Land has earned the coveted title of the Houston Press Turkey of the Year.
Life in DeLayistan can take some adjusting for those who are used to the free and easy ways of countries like, say, America.
Texans are not alone in coming under the DeLay thumb, of course. Residents of Florida still shudder in horror at the memory of the Semi-Well-Behaved White-Collar Hordes DeLay bused down to county election offices in the wake of the 2000 presidential vote, demonstrating for George W. Bush and the right to think Ann Coulter makes sense. Residents of California have had their own foreign puppet installed.
Here in what used to be known as Texas, DeLay snapped his fingers and his minions obeyed -- holding not one, not two, but three special sessions to push through a redistricting plan that nobody but Tom DeLay wanted. (For what it's worth, the plan previously in place had been supported by the GOP over Democratic objections.)
When even the Republicans couldn't agree, DeLay came in and "mediated" a solution -- while the governor was out of state. Reports that the "negotiations" consisted entirely of legislators asking, "How far would you like me to take it up the ass, Mr. DeLay?" are quite possibly an exaggeration.
"He wielded enormous influence and he was very persistent and stayed with it through to the end," one lobbyist says, wanting anonymity even while stating what was obvious to pretty much everyone in Austin.
So get used to life in DeLayistan. Border checkpoints will ensure each arriving car has a Bible, a concealed weapon and a "Rush Is Right" bumper sticker.
You know, we tried to get someone to say something good about DeLay. When the Young Conservatives of Texas e-mailed to let us know they were opposing the rail referendum, we tried in vain to contact their chairman, just to see what the kids think is "groovy" about Tom. We called the state Republican Party and its new chairwoman. No dice.
So we're left with Harris County Democratic chairman Gerry Birnberg. "No one has done more to inspire Democrats, to bring them together, and with passion, than Tom DeLay," he says. "He gets Democrats charged up."
Charged-up Texas Democrats. Somehow we don't see Tom's disciples shaking in their boots over this development in the great halls of DeLayistan.
Runner-up Turkey of the Year
Union members -- and yes, there are some in Houston -- know what it's like to go out on strike: "It causes dismay and consternation and it is tough to go through," says E. Dale Wortham, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO.
So when 11 Democrats from the state Senate camped out in Oklahoma, and then New Mexico, in order to stop Czar DeLay's redistricting scheme, the unions quickly showed their support.
The steelworkers union gave $25,000 to the state Democratic Party. And at one union meeting, members literally passed the hat and forked over from their own pockets $631 to send to the holdouts in Albuquerque.
So imagine Wortham's surprise when, as he puts it, "All of a sudden I look up and see John Whitmire at the airport on the TV."
State Senator John Whitmire of Houston -- soon to become known as John Quitmire -- incurred the wrath of rank-and-file Democrats across the country when he decided to sneak out of New Mexico on September 2 and give the Republicans the quorum they needed to pass DeLay's bill.
And that's enough to make a man the Runner-up Turkey of the Year.
Quitmire -- sorry, Whitmire -- got the cold shoulder from Democratic colleagues, some of whom muttered darkly that he caved in to pressure from his employer, a large Houston law firm.
And the union guys weren't too happy, either. "The steelworkers were mad as hell," says Chairman Birnberg.
"We told our members to dig deep into their pockets to fund this thing, and all of a sudden he's gone," Wortham says. "I told Whitmire, 'You have to understand -- our men think you're a strikebreaker.' "
A tense meeting in September went a little way toward cooling things off. Whitmire is not up for re-election until 2006, and has been a pretty reliable ally of labor in Austin. "I don't know if the relationship between John Whitmire and labor is severed," Wortham says. "I think most folks eventually will say, 'Okay, you messed up. Let's take a deep breath and get back on track.' But there are still some hard feelings."
Those hard feelings could have been avoided if Democrats had just done a little research into the Whitmire family tree before getting their hopes so high. Documents reveal some pretty interesting things:
December 1776 -- Lieutenant Jonathan Whitmire of Pennsylvania is handpicked by General George Washington to lead troops across the Delaware and surprise the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, while Washington remains in camp to supervise the reserves. Whitmire enthusiastically leads the troops away, only to return an hour or so later and report to General Washington that the water is "really cold."
Disgusted, Washington leads the troops himself. When Whitmire becomes a pest by insisting to everybody that he did the right thing, Washington has him transferred -- to General Benedict Arnold's unit, where he becomes a key adviser.
December 1944 -- In the frozen ruins of the Belgian town of Bastogne, Lieutenant J.Q. Whitmire of the 101st Airborne huddles with his men, surrounded by three German Panzer divisions at the spearpoint of the Battle of the Bulge. With no artillery or tanks of their own, the besieged Americans hold on grimly for days, hoping in vain for relief.
Knowing he could crush them at any time, the German commander sends in a group, asking the Americans to surrender. "God, yes," Whitmire says. "You got any hot coffee over there?"
Unfortunately for Whitmire, his commanding officer, General Anthony McAuliffe, overhears him and shouts, "Are you nuts?" The Germans hear only the word "nuts," and McAuliffe's one-word reply to the surrender demand goes down in military history.
July 1969 -- Navy Commander Jay Q. Whitmire, an uncle to the future state senator, is in the lunar landing module as Apollo 11 heads for the moon's surface. After the Eagle has landed, Whitmire, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin prepare to set foot on the moon, with Whitmire having the honor of going first.
"I'm kinda bushed right now," he says to his crewmates. "I'm gonna catch some z's -- why don't you take it, Neil?" Profoundly embarrassed, the navy censors the supposed-to-be-a-big-surprise news of the third guy in the capsule, leading eventually to rumors the entire moon landing was faked.
February 1999 -- State Senator Whitmire writes to President Bill Clinton, urging him to resign rather than lose the impending vote on his impeachment. "I know these Republicans," he writes. "There's just no way to beat them."
Judges in Texas are a sober, restrained, reserved collection of public officials. Except when they're barreling six blocks the wrong way down a one-way street, pulling out a nine-millimeter pistol and shooting people, like then-judge Werner Voigt did in 1997; or when they're getting arrested for driving while intoxicated, like Judge Bob Burdette in 2001.
Making a bold bid to enter the judicial pantheon pioneered by those two is Municipal Judge Roxane Martinez, who faces trial on Class A misdemeanor theft and assault charges.
Martinez's adventures began in the wee hours of June 26 at Palmer's Ice House ("The Place 2 Be," according to its sign), an eastside dance hall where it was ladies' night (dollar beer for all the women, not just those with judicial ID).
According to police and media reports, Martinez got into an argument with a woman over whether the "penumbra of privacy" outlined in Griswold v. Connecticut could be applied to Second Amendment cases. Actually, the fight was over a pool game.
Witnesses said Martinez pummeled the other woman's own penumbra of privacy with a whack or two, then grabbed the woman's purse and drove off. The woman said she had $1,000 and a $280 cell phone in the purse.
The police complaint says that in a recorded conversation with an officer, Martinez said she had found the purse in the car with about $200 and the phone. "She spent the money and does not know what happened to the purse and cell phone," the officer's complaint says.
A colleague of Martinez's, who requested anonymity, describes her as "charming and funny," adding, "I would not have expected this to befall her. There are certainly some others on [the municipal court bench] that I would have expected to see do something like this." (Look no further for a stirring endorsement of the state of our municipal court bench.)
What amazes the colleague is that Martinez, 44 years old and a six-year veteran of the bench, apparently confessed on the phone to a cop.
"It strikes me as peculiar that a municipal judge, who's probably given a thousand Miranda warnings, permits a detective to extract a confession from her over the phone," the colleague says. "If you want to slap some chucklehead with a purse, go ahead and do it, but don't confess to it over the phone."
Martinez's lawyer, Sharon Levine, says she can't really comment on the case or the phone conversation. "All the facts are not out yet," she says. "You're going on some limited information from the state's side. We're still kind of in the early stages of it all."
She says, "Obviously, at this point we're looking for a just resolution," whatever that may be. Any conviction for theft would endanger Martinez's bar license.
In the meantime, Martinez is suspended with pay from her job -- presumably giving her some extra time to research Miranda and the right to remain silent.
Not to mention the right to remain silent during a ladies' night ice-house pool game.
Being a Houston Astros supporter has never really been easy -- fans of the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox can whine lyrically about decades of ineptitude, but at least their teams win a post-season series every now and then. The Astros, in 40-plus years of existence, have never managed to achieve such success.
Even so, the semi-successful teams of the 1980s were fun to watch. The current spate of semi-successful teams -- which have been failing in the pennant races and playoffs since 1996 -- is much more of a chore to endure.
Maybe it's the colorless, unemotional, white-bread stars. Maybe it's their tendency to never really get hot for a long, momentum-building, energy-inducing stretch. Perhaps it's the fact that the chances of getting a single frickin' hit with a man in scoring position is as likely as their winning a playoff series. Or possibly it's the fact that their owner is a Southern-preacher, Zig Ziglar version of George Steinbrenner, always meddling and complaining. (Except where Steinbrenner complains about on-field losses, Drayton McLane just complains about payroll.)
Whatever it is, Astros supporters lately have needed a whole lot of patience. And never more than this year, when Sports Turkey of the Year Jimy Williams made sure that fans had an extra-sour taste in their mouths after the latest disappointment.
It wasn't just the baffling personnel moves manager Williams made during the season -- or his refusal to offer cogent reasons for them -- that annoyed followers. After all, Red Sox fans often bitched about his managerial decisions when he was in Boston, and the media there grew so frustrated at his content-free post-game sessions that they invented a new term to describe his meaningless language: "Jimywocky."
But Williams outdid himself in 2003. It began in the last days of the season, when the 'Stros were still battling the Cubs for the division lead. One night some idiot at Minute Maid Park thought the fans might like to know that the Cubs were getting shellacked and so the outfield scoreboard was updated. The fans had the temerity to cheer such a heinous development, apparently disturbing the tender psyches of the Astros.
Pitcher Tim Redding said the cheering upset his "rhythm." Williams said he was going to complain to McLane. (Strangely, no comment was made by then-closer Billy Wagner, who'd already done his part in alienating Astros fans by telling Sports Illustrated that Houstonians didn't know when to cheer during a baseball game.)
In the following days, Williams went into full Jimywocky mode.
He criticized KTRH's Ted DeLuca for asking a question after one game, saying he hadn't seen him in the locker room all year. (DeLuca does the after-game show every night for KTRH, although not from the locker room.) A follow-up question about the fans from the Houston Chronicle's David Barron got the same reaction: "Maybe you should buy a ticket and come out here more often or maybe see if they'll buy you a ticket so you can come out here," he said. (Barron says he'd been in the locker room just three or four times in 2003, so he wasn't offended.)
"My biggest complaint is that I wish Jimy would understand that we have legitimate baseball questions and we're not just asking things to start controversies," says KILT-AM's David Dalati, a frequent clubhouse visitor. "It became pointless to talk to the manager. There was no insight to be gotten at all. You do it because it's part of your job, but it was worthless...Jimy's biggest problem is he thinks we're all like the Boston media, but not every question we ask is intended to trap him or make him sound bad."
Mishandling a pitching staff, shuffling the lineup for no visible reason except to piss off touchy veterans, criticizing the fans for cheering and snapping petulantly at the media...No wonder McLane awarded Williams with a contract extension after the latest early Astros exit this year.
In the heated campaign debate over whether Metro should build a light rail system, many opponents of the plan argued cogently, logically and calmly why they thought it was a mistake. And then there was John Culberson.
The U.S. representative from the west side vehemently hates rail. Which is his right, of course. But his frothing-at-the-mouth tactics and off-the-charts claims clearly place him as the Campaigner Turkey of 2003.
Culberson has piously maintained that he would abide by whatever the voters wanted in the rail referendum. But he did his best to block any such vote -- challenging the language of the ballot in a sneakily timed way that almost scrapped the whole thing.
He also threatened Metro board members by telling them their personal bank accounts could be attached for misuse of funds.
But all that is the grimly devious and power-drunk John Culberson. We prefer the hypocritical, grasping-at-straws John Culberson. The one who calls for federal investigations at the drop of a hat.
Culberson, you might recall, took issue with Metro's projections for future federal funding for its light rail project. Culberson -- that crazy, wild-eyed, anti-big-business anarchist -- accused the transit agency of using "Enron accounting." (We're sure the folks at Mother Jones and Greenpeace are counting on seeing Culberson at their next flash-mob demonstration against corporate malfeasance.)
Outraged, if not shocked, if not downright flabbergasted at the thought that a governmental agency might be using rosy-scenario numbers, Culberson fired off a letter demanding that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston investigate Metro pronto.
Al Qaeda sleeper cells in Montrose, you are free to operate: The feds have better things to do!
Except that among the grunt workers in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Culberson's incensed call to arms was met with...a shrug of the shoulders.
"Obviously common sense tells you this happens a lot -- we get a request from a lot of people trying to use us to push their little agenda," one prosecutor says. "It sounds like something that would be back-burnered forever."
"Overestimating revenue is not a crime. If it was, every major city project would be under the microscope," says former U.S. attorney Ron Woods.
"The entire Bush administration would be in jail," says Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton.
What disturbed some people was the initial reaction from U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby, who -- instead of laughing outright -- gave reporters boilerplate language about receiving Culberson's letter but being unable to confirm or deny whether an investigation was taking place.
"That's one of the problems with our system: To the victor go the spoils. Clearly we have a Republican U.S. attorney, and he's not going to go against a Republican congressman," says Connaughton, who apparently doesn't worry too much about what Houston-area Republicans think about Metro. (Shelby did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
At any rate, it seems clear we should not be expecting to see Metro chairman Arthur Schechter -- or Ken Connaughton, for that matter -- marched off in chains in a federal courthouse "perp walk" anytime soon. To the dismay, no doubt, of John Culberson, tireless fighter against Enron accounting.
That's the same John Culberson, by the way, who initially announced he would be keeping a $5,000 campaign donation he had received from Enron's PAC, rather than donate it to employees as many politicians did in the wake of the company's collapse.
After a few days of heated reaction from Houston constituents, Culberson announced that he was "so appalled and outraged by the apparent conduct" of Enron executives that he'd changed his mind.
And a revolutionary was born.
For years people have been scoffing at the thought of listening to anything new by a decrepit rock act like the Rolling Stones or KISS. They'll pay money to see the oldies revived in concert but head for the beer lines as soon as the dread "Here's something from our new record" gets uttered.
But Houstonians who sneer at such dinosaurs give a free pass to the bloated, overrated, past-their-prime oldies act moldering publicly in our midst: ZZ Top.
ZZ Top's apogee came during the Nixon administration. Its nadir came not long afterward, when it pioneered the MTV formula of gimmicky visuals and lots of T. (Not to mention A.) They've been cruising downhill ever since, with the emphasis on "cruising." (Not to mention "downhill.")
It wasn't bad enough that they flogged their quickly tiresome formula for all it was worth and more. (Is there much difference between "Legs" and "Sharp-Dressed Man"?) At the height of the '80s, when their maniacal branding efforts turned them into parody, they rereleased their early, gritty albums -- gussied up to sound like the MTV crap they'd been sleepwalking through.
But boy, we (allegedly) love them in Houston. The group has served as celebrity models wearing the newly unveiled Houston Texans uniforms; they have been "entertainment ambassadors" for the doomed effort to land the 2012 Olympics. (Maybe the Olympic site committee members were still pissed over the $17.95 they'd spent six years ago on Rhythmeen.)
On the plus side, the group provided Houston with the most bizarre '70s flashback ever -- at least until Iraq turned into a foreign-conflict quagmire -- when, shortly after then-Enron Field opened, Billy Gibbons took in a game with Farrah Fawcett. Apparently Rerun from What's Happening had other plans that night.
And now the trio is embarking on yet another blitz of Houston-centric publicity. They have a new album out called Mescalero and a four-disc boxed set, and they are scheduled to play the last concert at Compaq Center before the arena gets transformed into a church.
So we should expect to hear a lot about ZZ Top as the year draws to a close. We're betting someone will, when writing about the last concert, juxtapose the words "church" and "roadhouse." Because you can get your rock critic's license revoked if you write about ZZ Top without constantly using the word "roadhouse" or other Texana clichés.
And what about Mescalero? Is it just another rehash of the same tired formula? Not according to our Houston Chronicle.
"Bordering On Their Best," read the headline on last month's review. "The guitar licks were born on the bayou and on the porches of shotgun tracks," Michael D. Clark wrote. (What, no roadhouse reference? You're on probation, Clark.) He also noted that "the slick electric chords of 'Alley-Gator' are a slight tease at past hits, such as 'Legs' and 'Sharp-Dressed Man,' " which he apparently counts as a good thing.
The album didn't fare so well with other big-time papers, though. Here are some pullquotes you're not likely to see in any ads:
The Chicago Tribune: "Theirs is a formula that is now two decades old... 'Mescalero' is a mostly de rigueur affair, with its mechanized rhythms, heavily processed guitars and weak single entendres."
The Boston Herald: "Despite some cool nuggets, 'Mescalero' smacks of stadium rock: big but meaningless."
The New York Times: " 'Mescalero' updates the sound, filtering it though electronic effects. Why not? Taco Bell has a Web site, but the food's the same."
Ouch. Looks like Billy Gibbons will have to stoke the publicity machine by taking some other "hot" star to an Astros game. Is Loretta Swit busy these days?
The Turkey Couple of the Year is easy enough to determine: none other than those giddy go-getters, Andrew and Lea Fastow. They set the world on fire at Enron, but now are facing separate trials for all kinds of nefarious things. Andrew faces 100 counts of fraud-related charges; Lea, who faces a mere six counts, is expected to testify she didn't know what her husband might or might not have been doing at Enron.
THANKSGIVING WITH THE FASTOWS
A One-Act Play
An elegant River Oaks dining room is set with pricey china, some pieces of which still feature the price tags from Jus' Stuff. At either end of the table sit LEA and ANDREW FASTOW, dressed to the nines. Behind each, along the wall, sits a group of expensively dressed men and women.
Andrew: Pass the salt, dear, please.
Lea: (Turns and briefly confers with the group behind her.) I was unaware we had any salt, dear.
A: It's the white stuff in that crystal shaker in front of you.
L: (Again huddles with the group behind her, then turns to face ANDREW.) Oh, that stuff? I had no idea. (She examines the shaker.) Live and learn, I guess.
A: Darling, we've been using salt for years.
L: (Confers again with attorneys.) I knew, of course, that there was indeed some granular substance that we occasionally applied to our food when the cook was having a bad day, but to be honest with you that's about as far as I went in terms of my understanding. I didn't ask a lot of questions.
A: Didn't you wonder whether you were about to put sugar or salt on your Kobe steak?
L:Well, you know, I pretty much assumed that you wouldn't do anything out of line. Like putting sugar in a salt shaker, or setting up fraudulent partnerships to enrich our family. It just didn't sound like something you'd do. That's not the Andy Fastow I know! At least in terms of the salt.
A: At any rate, now that you have learned the truth about the salt, could you pass it?
L: (Confers. Starts to turn back to address ANDREW, then confers again.) Of course, dear. Here is what I have recently -- very recently -- been led to believe is the salt.
A: Thank you.
L: My passing of it does not, however, indicate in any manner that--
A: Yes, yes, yes, dear; I get it. I would ask for the pepper, but frankly I don't think we can afford the legal fees.
L: Whatever you say, dear. (Pauses.) What a dreary year it's been. Whatever happened to that nice place you used to work at, the one that flew me all around the world buying art? Now that was fun.
A: It collapsed, darling. And the government is saying we ripped off investors, who lost their life savings. They say there's no possible way you could not have been aware of it all, having worked at Enron for seven years.
L: Oh, heavens to betsy. I just don't have that kind of mind. Numbers and everything get me all confused, you know.
A: Now come on, darling. After all, you did get an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
L: Lambkins, everyone knows the Kellogg School of Management is a party MBA program. Honestly, between the keggers, the beer bongs and making giant snow statues of penises, it's a wonder I ever learned the first thing about laundering money through off-the-books partnerships. Who worries about laundry in college?
A: Dear, you forget that I got an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management. We went to school together.
L: Really? See -- I don't pay attention to all the boring details.
A: Right. At any rate, could you pass me the stuffing?
L: (Confers with her attorneys.) I was unaware we had any--
A: Oh, Christ.
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