Travels in Texas

Ruth Rogers

They are rich, but they are not dumb: In Houston they like dressing up, big jewels, big houses, big business; and of course, George Bush, fellow Republican, friend and neighbour. But right wing rednecks hijacking the Grand Old Party convention? No sir. Reggie Nadelson reports

The Independent, 1992

IN THE drive of the Waggoners’ house in River Oaks is a topiary elephant. Tonight, on the eve of the Republican Convention, there is a party here in honour of the Arkansas delegation – Arkansas is Mr Waggoner’s home state – and this symbol of the Grand Old Party is out front to greet the guests. Only this being Texas, it is 4ft high and sports a US flag in its trunk.

On the patio a Mexican band is playing. Tex-Mex delicacies served up by the caterer, who drives a Jag, spice up the August night; it is unusually balmy for a Texas August. ‘Isn’t this weather delightful,’ everyone keeps saying at parties all over town, buoyed by the cool breezes as if they were a fine augury for the convention.

Houston is a hospitable sort of town, and moneyed Houston, the country club Republican Houston that is George Bush’s bedrock, home-town A- team, is getting down to what it likes best: doing its duty by having fun and spending big. Unlike most provincial American cities, Houston does not suffer one iota of insecurity; this is a place with civic pride on steroids.

J Virgil Waggoner has a big house on a small piece of land. You see this a lot in River Oaks, where Houston’s rich inhabit ante bellum palazzi, all white columns and sweeping drives, stuck down on itty bitty pieces of land, as often as not because what with four months of potential drought in every year and the servant problem, it’s costly to keep a big piece of land going. It’s one of those anomalies in this city dredged up out of a Texas swamp, the kind of hard- headed pragmatism that made it rich to start with.

Mr and Mrs Waggoner – he made his money in chemicals – are expansive hosts. She is a handsome woman who is everywhere at once, coping with complete strangers from Arkansas in nylon leisure suits and cheap cowboy boots, who wander through her house. He is genial, exuding bonhomie in a sports shirt, but this is a big man who is used to handling big money and would not suffer fools.

The house is as big as a grand hotel and nearly as formal, what with its overstuffed sofas and brocade drapes and the portrait of Mr and Mrs Waggoner over the mantel in the library. Later, when a photographer arranges the couple in a formal parlour, he notes the pose reminds him of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney. Mr Waggoner says: ‘Our daughter has one of his paintings.’ They are rich in River Oaks, but they are not dumb.

In the library are photographs of Ronald Reagan and Senator Phil Gramm, the convention keynote speaker, a Texan who is considered a real comer and is a friend of the Waggoners.

Christene Brownlee looks perfectly at ease on the patio with the other Arkansas delegates. The only black woman in the state legislature, she was raised on a farm and got her political leg-up as mayor of the town of Gilmore. She is a politician on the make. I ask what made her become a Republican. ‘They offered me a chance,’ she says and is soon lost in a complicated explanation of her political triumphs, which include giving names to the streets in Gilmore and numbers to the houses. Standing by is her husband, Billy, a thin, sharp, good-looking man in pressed jeans, lizard boots, and wearing four chunky gold rings. He is drinking beer from a long-necked bottle and does not say a word.

In River Oaks, folk do not put numbers on the front of their houses; crime is up, times are tough. According to Texas Monthly’s latest survey, you only need dollars 120m ( pounds 62m) to make it on to the list of the state’s 100 richest, down from dollars 130m ( pounds 67m). Money does not come from land or minerals any more; Houston’s newest member of the 100 is Jerry J Moore. He owns 200 shopping centres and collects vintage automobiles.

Rich Republicans. All week, as I wander around the habitats of the species, I realise the words were made for each other, especially here in Houston. With a home-town boy in the presidency, money, power and politics service each other with a kind of Texan inevitability. So in River Oaks everyone is doing his or her duty for the party. But for some there is a sense that the party has been hijacked by a gang of anti- abortion right-wing rednecks. Deep down in their hearts at least some big- time Houstonians feel that the dirty little secret of this convention is: they wish it had all ended before it ever began.

Monday

IN River Oaks, Robert and Georgette Mosbacher – he was Bush’s Secretary of State for Commerce – give a convention party; Georgette, it is reported, says she can’t wait for the campaign to end ‘so that she could stop feigning populism and get out the Maserati . . . (and) the jewels’.

In the Mosbacher house, big and white as a museum, are a bottle of red wine in the shape of a rifle and a life- sized oil portrait of Mrs Mosbacher in the nude, although her husband denies it was a picture of her at all.

It’s always startling to come up against so much dough. For instance, you’re at a cocktail party in an ordinary apartment in Houston and they’re not even serving anything great – some nuts or cheese, maybe – and you’re making the kind of dopey conversation you make with some older guy in a suit and he’s talking about the apartment building and suddenly he just says: ‘Oh, I own 14 of them.’

Houston is like that.

Meanwhile, the convention itself is gearing up over at the Astrodome.

Once when Prince Rainier came to Houston, he was asked if he would like an Astrodome of his own for Monaco. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Then we would have the world’s first indoor country.’

Houston’s Astrodome could only be in Houston. It is huge in a huge city – Houston is 600 square miles of city. As you approach the Dome, it looks isolated, monumental, airless, sticking up from endless flat plains of parking lots. Inside, chilled to freezing and hung with iconic banners, it could be a kind of sports palace for dead pharaohs.

Up in the top ring are the sky-boxes. Carpeted in white, they have bars and waitresses. Here, embalmed in air-conditioned comfort, at dollars 12,000 ( pounds 6,200) a box, the privileged can nosh smoked salmon while watching the proceedings. Team 100 members – Republicans who have turned over more than a hundred grand to the party – will be here. So distant are the boxes from the podium, however, that the convention is really visible only on television.

But even on Monday night, when they wheel Reagan out, the enthusiasm at the Astrodome is manufactured. After Reagan misquotes Abraham Lincoln, Nancy appears in a red dress, her hair apparently not having moved for some years now.

In the press seats is Norman Mailer, inspecting the scene for Vanity Fair. He has seen it all. In that patrician half Harvard, half Brooklyn drawl, he says: ‘I only do this once every 12 years.’

Tuesday

IN HOUSTON, within maybe one generation, you can get blue blood with greenbacks. This is what I am made to understand over lunch at the River Oaks Country Club. Among the instant French chateaux and the older houses with a kind of Gatsby grace, is the club.

All week there is controversy: should the Republicans hold a party at a club where there are no blacks and few Jews? River Oaks is nothing like as exclusive as the Houston Club – George’s own – or the Bayou. Of the Bayou over by the polo grounds it is said that ‘even money won’t get you in’.

In a way, George and Barbara are not really Houston, not quite exuberant enough. They live in an area called Tanglewood, where, as someone notes, ‘nothing ever changes’. And everyone suspects that if Bush loses the presidency, the couple will retreat to Maine.

Through the picture window of the club lounge a golf course stretches away; four golfers in white shoes and socks march repeatedly across my line of vision as if they were a Nintendo game.

Myrtle, the amiable black waitress, is serving us with potato chips and Bloody Marys, while Linda McReynolds explains the rules of Houston society. A tiny, black-haired woman in a navy blue summer dress and big pearls, Ms McReynolds is a real steel magnolia, a pretty, rich southern belle from Florida who married a Houston surgeon.

‘Excuse me,’ she says, extracting a portable phone from her Chanel bag. (‘Houston women were wearing Chanel when Coco was alive,’ someone says). Running million-dollar events for charity is business and no one does it more assiduously than Ms McReynolds.

A newcomer with social aspirations in Houston has to work at it, says Ms McReynolds, as Myrtle serves chicken salad and iced tea. A computer mogul gives millions to a local university, say. No one knows him socially. He’s never been in a country club. But, says Ms McReynolds, ‘his children will’.

Leaving the club, I notice cops carefully deployed around Allington, a mansion where a lunch is being given for Senator Bob Dole. It is a sit-down lunch for 150 in an air-conditioned white tent with a specially built floor and specially made grass. The hostess is Lynn Wyatt. Ms Wyatt is the mother of Steve Wyatt, Fergie’s previous flame – the one who left the photographs on the desk in the London flat. Ms Wyatt’s story, however, is almost as good as Steve’s. So far as I can make out, she is suing her brother, Robert Sakowitz, for mismanaging the family money; a mini- series is in the works.

Outside Allington, a few forlorn protesters are hanging around in vegetarian shoes. It appears they are demonstrating over the presence at the lunch of someone whose business involves cutting down redwood trees.

Wednesday

‘WON’T you have a drink of liquor?’ drawls Hal Foster, as I straggle into the Ritz Carlton Hotel after making my way back from the Astrodome. Hal Foster is Houston’s top PR man; he can raise money for the Society for the Performing Arts; he can tell you who’s got what and how much; he can informally advise the parvenu how to get on in society. Like other Houstonians, he has a way with words.

In the foyer, a harpist with two chins plays, as I consume several tasty cucumber sandwiches, and a gaggle of Team 100 women prepare to leave the hotel, tapping over the marble floors in their high-heeled pumps, one in a flesh coloured, skin-tight lace dress, another in a chartreuse shantung harem suit. Houston women like to dress up. They like big jewels.

One evening Hal takes me to a cocktail party given by Lester Routledge, jeweller to Houston society, who reveals that the pearls Barbara Bush wears in public are definitely fake. Listening to the buzz and chatter, Hal, a courteous southerner with impeccable manners, suddenly leans over and says of a particularly irritating man he met earlier in the day: ‘That one was as full of shit as a stuffed Christmas turkey.’

Hal Foster was born in South Carolina. Texas, he insists is the South, its manners, its style, its tastes. Ever since it lost the Civil War, the South has looked at Texas as its frontier.

In the 19th century, Houston made money out of timber and cotton. And then came the oil. In 1901, an hour’s drive from Houston, Spindletop gushed more oil than anyone had ever seen. In the Thirties and Forties, barely taxed, Houston’s first great oil fortunes were made. Today the rich still rue the day proper taxation put ‘a stranglehold’ on them, as they see it. In the Seventies came the energy crisis; oil prices rose and Houston exploded into a major metropolis high on itself. ‘People who didn’t have a pot to pee in on Monday were millionaires on Friday,’ says Hal. ‘Nobody flew commercial. Private 727s were common as bicycles.’

It was a developer’s paradise. Houston doesn’t have zoning laws, so you could wake up and there would be whole neighbourhoods just stuck on to the bare earth overnight. Downtown, underground air-conditioned malls were carved out of the city’s innards, which means hardly anyone ever uses the street, except the very poor. There are demonstrations around Houston all week, in aid of the poor and the homeless and victims of Aids; but the demonstrations are hustled out of sight whenever possible; and anyhow, the Republicans are mostly sealed away in the Astrodome.

Like the Pharaohs, Houston put its money and status into buildings. It sports a Post-Modern skyline of buildings by Cesar Pelli, I M Pei and Philip Johnson. The Galleria, the country’s first upmarket shopping mall, was built with an ice rink smack in the middle, about the same time as the Johnson Space Center. They are still here, monuments to two of America’s greatest endeavours: space exploration and shopping.

Thursday

OVER at Tony’s, near the Galleria, there are backlit oil paintings on the walls, and in the middle of a centrepiece a large tin of caviar. People in glittering outfits are lunching. A disconcerting floral arrangement on top of the sweet trolley careers around the room, the orchids shivering. The menu features dove and boar. We settle for duck, and crane our necks in the hopes of a view of some celebs. Where is Arnie? Where is Bruce? And Charlton? All week the columns have been full of Schwarzenegger, Willis and Heston in Houston, doing their bit for Republicanism and the Family Thing.

I have already been at Tony’s, earlier in the week, to meet Joan Lyons. A gorgeous blonde widow in a black dress, she is liberally decorated with big jewellery – and pro-choice buttons. Ms Lyons, like many Houstonians, is enraged by the Republican stand on abortion and she doesn’t mind speaking her mind. Once upon a time, so the legend goes, Ms Lyons was in New York City, where a friend suggested that the ladies of New York do not wear their diamonds in the daytime. Said Ms Lyons, ‘I didn’t either . . . until I had ’em.’

By Thursday night the convention is winding down. In spite of elephantine organisation, the amazing collection of delegates and reporters, this entire city wired up around the Astrodome and electric with activity all week, it has been a torpid affair and everyone knows it – like having a hangover the evening before.

Still, tonight everyone puts in an appearance. In the parking lot under a humid sky the weather has turned and it is very hot. The rich descend from limos and mingle with delegates who arrive by bus wearing large hats in the shape of elephants. The Dome is packed tonight, the crowd is cranked, speeches are made and the whole hall darkens. On a giant screen a video chronicles the wonders of the American way, like wall paintings in a Pharaoh’s tomb. And there’s music and strobe lights, with a faint touch of the Nurembergs.

Even the most reluctant Republican puts on a show of good faith tonight when the President speaks. Up in the sky-boxes, there’s the sound of rich people munching shrimp. Cue ballons. Cue fireworks. Cue confetti. God bless America.

But even as they are partying and testifying to the qualities of George and Barbara Bush, there is plenty of discontent in Houston with the current Republican agenda. Mainstream Republicans, they will vote for George, of course, because George is their friend and neighbour, and because Republicans, as they see it, are good for business. But the vision of the Grand Old Party hijacked down at the Astrodome, co-opted by the radical right, is making an awful lot of people in River Oaks mad as hell. ‘Next time the hat is passed around,’ says one rich Houston lady, ‘we’re gonna all be a lot more careful.’