Is There Something Rotten in the Heart of Texas?

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AUSTIN — In Texas, we knew this was fixin' to happen. Sure as God made prickly pear. Fish gotta swim, the Wall Street Journal has to blame Bill Clinton, and Texas was going to take the hit for the whole Enron deal. Like it's our fault.

I thought of the usual exculpatory strategies: Texas is actually just like the rest of America, only more so. We'd be perfectly normal, if weren't for this slightly lunatic quality of exaggeration. Then I figured, Ah, to hell with it, let's take the blame. I don't know why stuff like this never happens in Nebraska. There is something strange about Texas.

Chiefly, the Enron-Texas connection is explained by the motto, "A healthy bidness climate." A healthy bidness climate is the main and indeed the entire goal of the gummint of the state of Texas. That's what we do here. We legislate, regulate and tax in order to maintain the healthy bidness climate. You notice a nervous quality in much of the commentary in the business press: the hesitant warning that actually, somehow, everything Enron did might have been, well, legal.

'No shit' is our quaint Texas way of saying, "Of course."

It's amazing we put as many people in prison as we do, given that practically nothing is illegal here. If a stick-up artist went into the Jiffy Mart, pulled his rod and said, "Put 'em up, this is an aggressive accounting practice!" there'd probably be no way to charge him. One time Bo Pilgrim, the East Texas chicken magnate, walked around the floor of the Texas Senate handing out $10,000 checks, payee blank, to politicians who were about to vote on a bill closely affecting his bidness. Turned out not to be illegal.

The media keep describing Houston as "shell-shocked" by the Enron collapse. According to Robert H. Baker, a banker and native Houstonian, the town is more "pissed off" than in despair. "This is a town of blue-collar workers at the plants down on the Channel, shirt-sleeve engineers in their cubes on the Beltway, and immigrants from everywhere just trying to get along and make a better life for their families. Enron empoyees weren't our types. The aggressive arrogant, investment banker executives with their Yankee MBAs; the snot-nose, brash, twenty-something traders — this was not a loveable crew." One local reporter said firmly, "They are ALL from the Midwest."

Linda Lay's televised defense of her husband ("Something went wrong") was a flop in Houston. For one thing, in Texas it's bad form to send the little woman out to fight your battles for you. Sexism lives. Mrs. Lay's claim that the family had "lost everything" touched off more hoots than sympathy, with various parties offering to start a food drive for the Lays. In Texas it's also bad form to abandon your friends when they get dropped in doo-doo, whether its their fault or not. This is particularly true in Texas politics. The late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, George W. Bush's mentor in Texas politics, was famous for never abandoning old cronies, no matter how embarrassing they were — and many were. It has not escaped notice here that George W. is craw-daddin' away from Ken Lay fast as he can, while Ann Richards, whom Lay dropped in '94 to support Bush, speaks up for him.

Thom Marshall, the metro columnist for the Houston Chronicle, which has not distinguished itself on this story, reported lugubriously that he didn't even know any Enron jokes, except for word plays on the name Lay. Locals have derived wry amusement from visitations by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Tim Fleck of the Houston Press said, "They finally found a Republican crowd of victims." Another source of amusement in all this is the interviews with Enron employees who indignantly report that they have been to the unemployment office and that it is a "demeaning" and "humiliating" experience. They've even been put on Hold. In the state famous for low-taxes and few services, all programs are set up to make it difficult and unpleasant for people to apply for help to which they are entitled, a fact of which our poorer citizens have long been aware.

The fact that Bush himself sold his stock in Harken Energy when it was going under in 1990 — U.S. News & World Report said there was "substantial evidence to suggest that Bush knew Harken was in dire straits" — and then failed to report the sale to the Securities & Exchange Commission until eight months after the legal deadline is not forgotten by some.

Texas has a long history of high-fliers who tanked big time. From the slant-hole drillers to Billie Sol Estes, from Glen McCarthy (played by James Dean in the movie "Giant") to Danny Faulkner, the endearingly white-trash Dallas builder who came to symbolize the wretched excesses of the S&L scandal, they've been great newspaper copy and part of Texas mythology. Because the oil patch has always been a crap shoot, it is universally acknowledged that sooner or later, you crap out. Then you start over. Most of the first generation of Texas oilmen went bust a time or two, and no great disgrace ever attached to it. After former Gov. John Connally declared bankruptcy in the 1980's, he made television ads for a bank urging others to be more careful. The trouble with Ken Lay as a Texas flame-out is that he has no style. That, and a lot more people got hurt.

For many in Houston, this is a genuinely sad chapter, in part because Enron gave a lot back to the community. For the rest of us it is but a particularly gruesome example of the incest between gummint and bidness which has long cast disrepute on both in our state. Corrupt? No shit.