Much of Houston cringed March 10 when they saw the front-page story in the Houston Chronicle with the ominous headline "City Aims to Clean Up Campaign-Smudged Image."
Such a story could mean only one thing: Very, very soon, the pages of Houston's only daily newspaper would be filled once again with inane columns telling residents how terrific their city is and how they need to get the word out.
When that story told how the Greater Houston Partnership was launching a "counter-offensive aimed at restoring Houston's image" after those terrible Democrats trashed it in the presidential election, we held our breath.
How many times, we thought, were we going to have to read about our fabulous museums and theaters, our peerless Medical Center, the Johnson Space Center and the sinfully overlooked Port of Houston?
Plenty of times, it turns out.
The headlines from 11 days' worth of columns and op-ed pieces: "Unbreathable Air. Horrible Traffic. Miserable Weather. Houston's Image Has Taken a Beating Lately. How Do We Fight Back? First, Let's STOP WHINING" (April 1). "Houston, We've Got Problems, But " (April 2). "Houston's Image: It Would Help If Houstonians Stopped Selling Our City Short" (April 8). "We All Can Help to Lift Houston's Image" (April 9). "Let's Acknowledge and Celebrate City's Diversity" (April 9). "Effort to Promote City Gets New Teeth" (April 11).
What did we learn from this boosterism blitz? There was the piece by Elyse Lanier, wife of former mayor Bob Lanier.
"I know from personal experience that once we get people here to visit -- whether it's to book a meeting or move a business -- they are pleasantly surprised," she wrote. "They didn't know Houston was so green, had so many restaurants, theaters, museums or parks. They say they don't want to leave or that they will be back."
Really? They said this to the mayor's wife? It must be true!
Elyse Lanier, who referred to our "dazzling" port, also asked (and answered) several piercing questions: "Is Houston perfect? Of course not Is it hot in August? Of course it is. Is it fabulous nine months out of the year here? You bet. Do we need to improve our air quality? We are, and we were even before Al Gore mentioned it."
Is that a lot of questions? Yes, sir!
Other nuggets of information that emerged in the orgy of self-congratulation: "We have an imbalance in leadership that we need to zero in on. We have crackerjack business leadership, exceptional community leaders and spotty, spotty, spotty political leadership," columnist C.P. Houston wrote.
If only we could just hand the whole city over to Ken Lay!
Also: "In many ways, the Democrats' blitzkrieg on George W. Bush was an unfair, political-hack hatchet job of the worst kind .No, Houston does not have the 'dirtiest air in the country,' but we do have a serious ozone problem that needs to be and is being aggressively addressed," columnist Frank Michel wrote.
"Is being aggressively addressed" in court by polluters trying to stop regulations, we're guessing he didn't mean to say.
But our favorite nugget came from an op-ed piece by two of the people behind the annual International Festival.
Not surprisingly, they focused on how "Houston is indeed the international city. This is the image that it already has. This is the image by which we are recognized all over the world .Who says this is so? Well, we've seen the evidence in so many Greater Houston Partnership publications and letters to the editor describing Houston's international image."
That evidence: We get a lot of airline passengers, cargo tonnage and foreign consulates.
And, apropos of not much, "Our city is where Turkish presidents come for our internationally acclaimed medical services."
And still we have to convince the world of our greatness?
Hearing Is Believing
Maybe we were having an auditory hallucination, but we don't think so. Instead, we apparently were present at the birth of a new cutting-edge tool in the take-no-prisoners world of investigative journalism on TV.
It was during KHOU's 6 p.m. newscast April 12. Hard-boiled consumer reporter Eileen Faxas -- she's the "11 News Defender" who doesn't do daily Firestone updates -- was grilling an Internal Revenue Service agent on renegade tax preparers.
These vicious accountants prepare fraudulent tax returns in order to get a bigger fee. The unwitting taxpayer may end up paying the price, she said.
One preparer, IRS special agent Jack Harris told Faxas, deducted farm losses for a man Who Had No Farm.
"He didn't have horses. He didn't have livestock. It was just completely made up," Harris said.
"A phony farm?" Faxas said, honing in for the kill.
"A phony farm," Harris agreed.
And then it came, out of nowhere: the sound of a cow mooing. Or maybe it was a sheep baa-ing. Whatever it was, we doubt it came from an animal that happened to be off-screen in the IRS office, where the interview was taking place.
Next up: Rim shots, for when some rip-off air-conditioning firm leaves a consumer "hot under the collar."
Both Sides Now
Friday, April 6, in the Chronicle: "Best Foot Forward," read the headline on the editorial page.
"While many Houstonians tread various paths to make Houston a 'world class' this or that and get the word out about it, the Houston Ballet company are already on their toes in world-class triumph in London," read the editorial, about the company's production of Cleopatra. "As Molly Glentzer reported in the [April 5] Chronicle, the ballet is getting much high-profile attention and praise .World-class congratulations are in order."
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That same day, page 11D of the paper's Houston section: "Cleopatra Suffers a Fate Worse Than Death at London Premiere," said the headline. The story noted that critics at four of the five major London dailies had panned the performance, "and two of them found it downright laughable."
Glentzer wrote that story, but it was the one she wrote the day before that triggered the editorial. "Wow factor: Houston Ballet's Cleopatra Awes Even Londoners," blared the headline. "[B]y the time Cleopatra was over," she wrote, "I heard several people say simply, 'Wow,' as if they'd just stepped off the gigantic Ferris wheel by the Thames."
Glentzer herself was awed, especially by Lauren Anderson in the title role. "By the time she put that asp to her breast, I was really feeling sad about it," she wrote, in a sentence you don't read every day.
If you're lucky.