Ah, the halcyon days of 2003. George W. Bush still had an approval rating over 50 percent (barely, once the bump he got with the Saddam Hussein arrest vanished), the Texans still looked like they were improving instead of imploding and hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike were still a mere gleam in the eye of a butterfly about to flap its wings.
That year brought forth the first-ever edition of the Houston Press's Turkey of the Year awards, a hotly contested competition to see just who deserved recognition for either amusing, appalling or amazing the general populace over the previous 12 months. (Our inaugural overall winner: Tom DeLay.)
Houstonians with a Panglossian view of the world thought that the shame of being named a winner might put potential nominees on alert against fouling up. Instead, as we looked to put together our seventh annual list, we found the competition to be more intense than ever.
2009 Turkeys of the Year
How badly did some people want to be named a winner this year?Just consider who didn't make the list.
The HISD geniuses who sent a drug-sniffing dog on a rampage, resulting in the highly publicized arrest of a popular teacher from a ritzy elementary who was the poster child for not doing drugs (charges were later dropped as surely as Steve Slaton fumbling on a Texans' run); the law-enforcement officers in Galveston County who ran up a string of arrests for people who happened to curse in public (WTF?); the BARC officials who seemed unable to wash puppies without sending a few down the drain to their wide-eyed puppy deaths; the Bellaire police department and mayor, who refused to apologize when they mistakenly shot a minority kid in his own driveway;
(Take a deep breath here before we continue)
Houston's hilarious string of wildly dressed bank robbers, including one who seemed to be wearing an '80s nightmare of disco splendor (yet who remains uncaught!); the classy, classy kids at Memorial High School, who put out a T-shirt showing their mascot gang-banging a rival's cheerleader, and then took to our comments board to express their indignation at people's indignation via the clever use of homophobia, illogic and third-grade grammar and spelling; the former Brazoswood High baseball star arrested for being the state's all-time deadbeat dad; the — well, we could go on and on.
And remember: These are the folks whodidn't make it.
So who did? Let's stop the suspense and get right to it.
Turkey of the Year:
Last year Rick Perry won the Turkey Politician of the Year award for his prissy response to Mayor Bill White's cursing incident during Ike; this year he takes the whole turkey enchilada for a stunningly entertaining and embarrassing string of events that brought applause from the tea-bag minority of the country and derision from the rest.
Perry is the longest-serving governor in the state's history; the strange thing is that people don't seem to like him much. He won his last re-election with 39 percent of the vote, which is about what George McGovern managed to scare up against Richard Nixon in 1972.
This time around, though, it became obvious that things would be different. He would have an actual challenger from the Republican side. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, another one of those Texas politicians who keep getting re-elected without much effort, pretty much hates Perry's guts, wants to get out of Washington and knows the Texas governorship doesn't require a lot of heavy lifting.
So she announced she would be challenging Perry in the primary.
At the time it probably seemed like a good idea: Hutchison regularly rang up impressive election wins, and, as we said, Perry couldn't get 40 percent of Texans to vote for him last time around.
But Perry saw an opening as the Obama administration began, bringing with it riotous outrage from talk radio, Fox News and a whole bunch of people very, very recently converted to being concerned about deficit spending.
The GOP primary would be no place for a moderate, Perry knew, so his path was clear: Suck up to the tea-baggers. And Jenna Jameson couldn't have done a better job.
Sure, Perry entertained us with episodes such as firing a state board of forensics experts who dared to question whether he had wrongly executed a man, or suddenly setting aside, the moment he had a viable primary opponent, his long-standing, quixotic attempt to build a massive superhighway wanted by absolutely no one who wasn't directly getting a big paycheck from it, but it was his Tea-Bag Tango that set him apart from the other Turkeys of 2009.
Let us examine.
He boldly rejected federal stimulus money, then later quietly took it. "It's nothing out of the ordinary," he said after making his money grab. Perry also — while ranting loudly about federal interference with the states — found no trouble asking for funds to battle swine flu or "protect the borders."
Why it was Perry-licious: He came to what most news reports called "a Houston hardware store" for a media event where he said accepting the federal money would hurt small mom-and-pop businesses.
Why it was Perry-noxious: Besides the whole hypocrisy thing? The "hardware store" was the Bering's near the Galleria. That's like calling Neiman Marcus "a local five-and-dime."
He told a Midland crowd that the Obama administration was taking illegal immigrants arrested in Arizona and dumping them off in Presidio. "This is a city that does not have the social services, does not have the law enforcement, does not have the ability in any form or fashion to handle that type of influx of people," Perry said. "Do the math on that. In a year period of time, we're talking 28,000 people that are going to be turned loose on our border."
Why it was Perry-licious: In the same speech, he said Obama was "hell-bent toward taking America towards a socialist country," which is somewhat close to being in English, but which also got him a nice big red headline on the Drudge Report and lots of face time on Fox, which Perry gleefully Twittered about.
Why it was Perry-noxious: Because, ummmm, it wasn't true? Local officials told reporters that no illegals were being dumped in Presidio. Instead, they were taken from there across the border back to Mexico, where they were given free bus rides back to the interior.
"If somebody from Mexico hires a smuggler to bring them in through Arizona, and they get apprehended and then they are repatriated through Arizona, they go find the smuggler, and they keep doing it until they get past us," a customs official told reporters.
So instead they head to where the buses to the interior are. "We're standing there. They're not going to be able to come back."
Do the math on that, and you come up with a great big zero.
He jumped on the bandwagon about Obama's speech to schoolkids. Remember that run of idiocy? Obama, like presidents before him, was going to give a televised speech to students. Unlike presidents before him, though, he was Obama.
Why it was Perry-licious: Here's the lead from an Associated Press story: "AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry called President Barack Obama's plan to speak to the nation's school children about the importance of education 'disturbing,' but he said he would not advise parents to keep their children home from school that day despite calls to do so from angry critics."
Anytime you can call a "plan to speak to the nation's school children about the importance of education" disturbing, you've accomplished something.
Why it was Perry-noxious: Perry went on to specify just what he thought was so disturbing about the content of Obama's speech: "Nobody seems to know what he's going to be talking about." Hmmm. You have to admit, that meant it was possible that the speech could have included a call to piss on the classroom's American flag. We just couldn't be sure.
Best of all, he threatened to secede from the United States. This, of course, is very, very different from the traitor-ish behavior of Hollywood stars who threaten to leave the country if a Bush gets elected. Perry told a tea-bag crowd, "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."
Why it was Perry-licious: Even after every constitutional expert in the country said Texas couldn't secede — at the remote best, it could break itself up into five states — Perry, according to a spokeswoman, "believes Texas could secede if it wanted," news reports said. Who cares that you're calling the Earth flat when you've got Rush Limbaugh admiring you for doing so?
Why it was Perry-noxious: Try as we might, we just can't get our heads around the whole "Love it or leave it" crowd applauding the concept of someone saying, "I don't love it so I'm leaving it." We're sure there's some subtle political analysis there that is best conveyed using placards invoking Stalin and Dachau, but we're going to have to read a whole lot more all-caps e-mails forwarded from angry people using their grandkid's old AOL accounts to figure it out.
Perry has nicely positioned himself to be forever mentioned in any and every history book written about the Obama administration and politics in the post-Bush era. He'll be the equivalent of the Red Scare-era folks who frothed that fluoridating water was a Commie plot.
It's not exactly a place in history most people would want, but it's likely to get him another term in office.
And that's all that counts, right?
Turkey Sportsman of the Year:
Last year Astros owner Drayton McLane won this distinction, and arguments were strong that he should be a repeat offender. He tried to fool fans with a tired, old, injury-prone, unexciting lineup that had some names from the days when the 'Stros would be bad but then mount a furious late-season rush.
This year the rush never came.
While McLane deserves much of the blame, manager Cecil Cooper gets our award for his innate ability to absolutely embody and epitomize the Astros' futility this year.
Hired as a McLane yes-man (the only way to get a job with the Astros), Cooper quickly proved incapable of basic communication skills that did not involve saying "Yes, sir" to the boss.
To say he lost his clubhouse is like saying Joe Lieberman has left-wingers slightly disenchanted. At various times of the season, Astro players texted criticism of Cooper to reporters during games, outright mocking his managerial moves as they occurred, and it seems just about every pitcher on the staff — including low-key fan favorite Roy Oswalt — accused Cooper of lying to them at one time or another.
"The story from May 2008, where Roy Oswalt told reporters that he asked to be removed from a game after the sixth inning and Coop indicated he thought Roy could still go, was a harbinger of things to come," says Sean Pendergast, co-host of 1560 The Game's afternoon drive show and Houston Press sports blogger. "The next 15 months would contain a litany of stories involving miscommunications or no communications between players and manager, so much so that when Coop actually had a meeting with Russ Ortiz to discuss his removal from a game the previous day, it was news."
Cooper's endless baffling decisions on when to pinch-hit or try to steal a base will be only part of his legacy; Astro fans who endured Phil Garner have gotten used to scratching their heads during games.
The Buddha-like silence from the manager will be what people really remember. On May 20, it reached its peak with what is more or less known as the Line-Up Card Incident.
"He actually happened to do his then-weekly visit on the show that afternoon," says Charlie Pallilo, afternoon host on 790 The Sports Animal, "and I asked him about any lineup tweaking and he said words to the effect of, 'Actually, yes, I'm changing up this and that tonight.' And then [he] wrote out the card wrong."
Cooper submitted a lineup to the umpires that somehow didn't match the lineup he gave his team. So after lead-off hitter Michael Bourn singled, he was called out because he had batted out of order.
That wasn't the worst part, though. The worst part came as Bourn, quite naturally, got upset at the call. Since the official lineup card had Bourn batting second, he had to stay on the field to bat again after being called out.
The crowd watched as Bourn had a mini-meltdown, wondering why he'd been called out after a perfectly fine single. And Cooper remained glued to the bench.
Amazingly, it fell to one of the players — veteran Geoff Blum — to walk out onto the field and calm Bourn down by explaining what had happened.
Leadership takes many forms, none of them being anything like what Cooper did that night. It was an utterly baffling performance, and he lost whatever respect he had in the locker room.
But although no one could have predicted that incident, they pretty much figured Cooper would find some way to mess things up this year.
As Lance Zierlein of 1560 The Game so eloquently puts it: "He was just a fuckup in general."
But at least he knew how to say "Yes" to Drayton.
Turkey Entrepreneur of the Year:
Willie D was, for many, the keystone to Houston's Geto Boys. And as hardcore as the group was, D was known for the positive messages in his music.
So it came as a shock to fans this year when he was arrested at Bush Intercontinental and charged with an eBay-based wireless-phone scam.
It seems after all he was just another blinged-out, Glock-wielding rapper ready to give up his career with a pointless burst of gunplay and viol — Say what now? Wireless phones? eBay?
This might be the whitest court proceeding for a rapper since Vanilla Ice was sued by Queen and Bowie.
Willie, whose real name is William James Dennis, is accused by the feds of ripping off international customers who wanted to buy cell phones from him. He "established his credibility" with them through eBay sales, the feds say, apparently not realizing he, as a rapper, was instead establishing "cred" with them. Through eBay.
And then how did things go down in these mean streets? The official release from the U.S. Attorney's office describing events is a harrowing glimpse into the depths of the reckless, violent world of hardcore rap:
"When the buyers complained about not receiving their purchases, Dennis allegedly claimed he had filed a complaint with the U.S. Postal Service or hired carrier and that he could not refund their money until he knew where his goods were. Eventually, Dennis would cease communication with the victimized parties."
Yo, man: Come strapped or don't come. Don't want no shit, don't start no shit. Oh, and keep your receipts.
People who thought this was possibly the Least Gangsta Crime ever committed by a rapper failed to realize, however, that Willie D had rejected several other diabolical criminal plans.
Bootlegging Stephen Sondheim albums. "Excuse me, Mr. D, but this CD says the title is Into the Woodz. I don't think that's correct."
"Oh man, that's just a misprint, man. Don't worry about that at all. Look — to make it up to you I'll give you 20 percent off Sunday in the Park with G."
His chain of "Pimp My Saab" outlets. D was planning to cut corners on the air-cooled glove compartment, and his windshield wipers would only have 32 different speeds.
The Sur Le Table line of kitchen goods. See? You fell for it, too. It's Sur La Table, bitchaz. By the time you figure out your $265 La Creuset bouillabasse pot should be a $265 Le Creuset bouillabaisse pot, you are out of le luck.
Fake co-ed softball leagues. He'll take your money, he'll set up three-hour meetings so you can talk endlessly about rules and schedules, he'll agree that players must wear baseball pants and socks even though it's a freaking softball league...and then he's far away, spending your fees as you show up at a quadruple-booked field with your $300 bats, $70 gloves and $50 bags.
Hummus 2 Go. "Sir, I called in my order for hummus, pita, cilantro and whole chickpeas over an hour ago!! Mad Men is about to start!!"
"Oh, it's coming, it's coming, ma'am. Definitely. Just keep waiting. Really. In the meantime, can I interest you in some Sur Le Table or cell phones?"
Oh, Willie D. It sure don't look like you're goin' out like a soldier.
Turkey Stereotype of the Year:
As 2009 began, Houston was slowly and finally emerging from its worldwide reputation for being home to some of the biggest financial scammers of all time.
Ken Lay was gone, and a new series of jaw-dropping financial con artists were tied to other cities. As the Bernie Madoffs of the world started to grab all the attention, Houston — and Texas — began to breathe a sigh of relief.
Then came Allen Stanford.
If it takes bizarre flamboyance to attract media ink, Stanford had it in spades: Originally from Mexia and Waco, he had become "Sir Allen," living in Antigua, spending millions on mansions, yachts and cricket.
So what? Trouble was that his company was started, and still based, in Houston. TV crews gleefully aired footage of federal agents gathering up evidence at the Galleria-area headquarters.
Once again, Houston was ground zero for (alleged) financial scamsters.
And boy, did Stanford make it easy to paint Texans as free-spending, tasteless yahoos whose boorishness was exceeded only by their garishness.
Here is the distinguished Telegraph of London, describing the epochal moment when Stanford landed a helicopter (one with his logo on it, which later turned out to have been rented) on the hallowed grounds of the Marylebone Cricket Club to issue a challenge to play his Stanford All-Stars in a match. Just to keep things extra subtle, he carried $20 million in a glass box.
"Indelible now in the sport's memory is the moment last year when Stanford's helicopter was given permission to land at Lord's as no mortal before (for MCC kowtowed as much as anyone), and Stanford was greeted by [England & Wales Cricket Board] chairman Giles Clark as the saviour of English cricket. Louis XIV, the Sun King himself, might have considered the cringing and fawning a touch excessive."
To which Stanford no doubt replied, "Louis XIV?" I got summa his funiture!!!" Or maybe not.
Stanford is living decidedly less high on the hog these days, according to his attorney.
He has complained about the conditions of his federal cell in Conroe, suffered heart ailments and even gotten in a fight that resulted in a mild concussion, a broken nose and two black eyes.
"It wasn't so much of a fight as some guy jumped him from behind and pummeled him," says attorney Kent Schaffer.
What was the dispute over? Some disagreement concerning multimillion international money deals?
"It was a dispute over using the phone,"Schaffer says.
Schaffer says his client is depressed, being cut off from friends and family. He also is confident of an acquittal, by the way, and thinks it's ridiculous that Stanford is not allowed out on bond.
"He was in the city for months when everyone knew there was an indictment coming, and he didn't leave," he says.
There's currently a dispute over who will pay Schaffer's bills that has to be resolved. He doesn't expect to go to trial for at least a year.
An acquittal might remove the stigma of being a con man. But Stanford is never going to get away from the crime of being the guy who once again allowed the world to see us as yokels.
Turkey Mourner of the Year:
Sheila Jackson Lee
Houstonians trembled at the sudden death of Michael Jackson. Not just because he was apparently helped along to the Great Moondance in the Sky by one of our own (Acres Homes doctors represent!), but that the aftermath of his passing would involve two things: a) a funeral; b) lots of cameras.
And everyone around here knows how that equation ends: a + b = c, and c most emphatically equals Sheila Jackson Lee.
Still, even those of us who have watched in awe Jackson Lee's otherworldly ability to thrust herself into camera range wondered how she would be able to pull this one off. Would she claim to be a long-lost relative? Come armed with some bogus committee subpoena and then worm her way onstage?
No. Instead she came carrying a Congressional resolution, framed and doomed to fail in everything but getting her in front of the cameras, which is all that really mattered anyway.
"I'm Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, and I come from Houston, Texas," she announced to the worldwide television audience, and Houston either blanched in horror at being connected to her or sat back to enjoy what was to come.
How did she do? Luckily, this modern age of Web sites fighting for clicks means that there were tons of media outlets and observers out there liveblogging every minute of it.
The results were not pretty. Most major papers, like The New York Times, or papers in England, played it relatively straight while subtly raising an eyebrow about Jackson Lee in her ostentatious white dress and defense of the singer against his odd history with kids. Others found it harder to hold back:
The Chicago Sun-Times: "2:05 Central: Like so many politicians, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) is talking a lot — a whole lot — but she's really not saying anything."
The Hollywood Reporter: "12:05 a.m.: A pissed-off sounding representative from Houston, Sheila Jackson Lee, defensively declares that people are considered innocent until proven otherwise...Then notes that 'we have introduced into the House of Representatives this Resolution 600 that will be debated on the floor of the House that claims Michael Jackson as a legend and a musical icon, a world humanitarian' — and, in a The Shining-like turn of phrase — 'someone who will be honored forever, and forever, and forever, and forever and forever.'"
Macleans magazine, Canada: "2:59 p.m.: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee speaks on behalf of the U.S. House of Representatives, proclaims Jackson's innocence. Glad we've got that settled.
"3:02 p.m.: The congresswoman recalls Jackson lobbying the ambassadors of various African nations. 'He had a twinkle.'
"3:03 p.m.: Apparently Congress is going to debate a resolution that Jackson was 'an American legend and musical icon and world humanitarian.' That should be fun and productive."
Heartless Doll blog: "3:03 p.m.: This is turning into creepy pedo vindication hour. Can we go back to talking about his music, please?
"3:07 p.m.: She seriously just saluted his coffin. Usher's next!"
Starpulse entertainment blog: "3:00 p.m.: Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston, Texas, is now speaking. Sure, why not?
"3:01 p.m.: She just clarified that people are 'innocent until proven otherwise.' Appropriate?
"3:05 p.m.: What is longer: Sheila Jackson Lee's speech or Federer v. Roddick Wimbledon Finals 2009?"
Movieline: "12:03: Texas Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee recalls the time Michael greeted African ambassadors to discuss AIDS prevention, and emanated an unmistakable 'twinkle.'"
What? The Sheila magic didn't translate?
Somewhere in the eight-minute oration, Jackson Lee uttered the following sentence. And we're not taking it out of context: It was preceded by a sentence talking about how the Jackson family had taken their God-given talent and turned it into "a wonderful story for America," and it was followed by a sentence saying, "Michael fought for tolerance."
In between came this:
"I come today for you to recognize that the flag flies and the people who have spoken have spoken to the people's house — they recognize and they speak and those of us who serve in elected office, we respond to the people."
No arguing with that.
Jackson Lee's performance brought forth Houstonians who seemed determined to let the world know, "Hey, don't blame us. Please."
Said one commenter to Salon: "Nonprofits around Houston practically have to bar the doors at charity events from her staff members who arrive, without invitation and without having RSPV'd, bearing a proclamation supporting the event (or the chair, or the honoree or the nonprofit) and expecting to be seated for dinner. Everyone dreads it, but no one dares tell them no."
Oh, Sheila. Once you were ours. Now you are the world's.
Turkey Who Just Won't Go Away:
We really thought we could get away without giving an award to Tom DeLay this year. After all, he was long gone from politics, except for an occasional appearance on whatever Fox shoutfest suddenly had a guest fall through.
But the lack of the spotlight proved unbearable for The Hammer, and he forced his way back into our consciousness in the most dignifed manner possible: By appearing on Dancing with the Stars.
By doing so, he joined such illustrious guests as Drew Lachey, Clyde Drexler and Kelly Osbourne.
We could not, as it turns out, bring ourselves to watch a single episode of this debacle. Luckily, we know someone who did watch, someone uniquely qualified to judge the horror.
Bert Woodall not only tracked the political rise of Tom DeLay from his perch as publisher of the defunct Public News; he has since taken up ballroom dancing in his new home of Arizona.
So we asked him his thoughts.
For a few brief moments that seemed so much longer, TV's Dancing with the Stars allowed Tom "The Hammer" DeLay to remind Texans that a few decades ago, he infested Austin as the leisure-suited libertine legislator and party boy known as Hot Tub Tom.
Maybe it was those Cuban-heeled dancing shoes. Maybe it was that Mr. Attitude dancer's face. Or perhaps it was his clumsily gyrated hips, so strongly suggestive of an in-your-face mooning rather than anything remotely perceptible as dancing,
But whatever image most jarred the sensitive viewer — seeing the indicted ex-Congressman wrestling through a tango, wriggling out a samba, stomping on a cha-cha and air-fellating a microphone to "Wild Thing" — it was well worth the squirm.
So it was oddly disappointing to see DeLay exit the competition early for medical reasons, when X-rays confirmed that he did, in fact as in legend, have cloven hooves.
Sugar Land's own Disgraced Congressman landed in the "bottom two" every week he competed, including the third, when the "pre-stress fractures" in both feet (pre-stress fractures??? I know) compelled him to withdraw prior to his inevitable public humiliation. I say inevitable because, despite brief flashes of incipient agility, there was no way Tom DeLay was going to make it to the finals. After eight weeks of lessons and three weeks of live dancing, The Hammer exhibited no discernible improvement.
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Happily for all concerned, though, his cloven hooves asserted themselves, thus sparing This Great Land of Ours additional weeks of contested elections and a deeply disturbing spectacle. So I'm writing to nominate Dick Armey for next season.
Damn. We thought for sure Bert would have just loved the spritely dervish that was Tom DeLay, and therefore The Hammer could finally be spared Turkey-dom.
But if the Cuban heel fits...