August 5, 2011

Moralism and the demise of liberty

In the last blog (the one about vibrators) I responded to a comment with mention of the infamous La Grange Chicken Ranch, and how moralism caused the demise of that Texas institution. That would be a long story and strictly and opinion piece, but here is a transcript of the events that actually closed the whorehouse, as told by a man who was there.

Gov. Briscoe and the Chicken Ranch
Published: 5:19 p.m. Friday, July 30, 2010

During the three years I worked for Gov. Dolph Briscoe, I never saw him duck a tough decision. He was a cautious man. But in the end, he followed his favorite dictum from Sam Houston, "Just do right and risk the consequences." I heard him say it dozens of times. I well remember the first time I heard it. And there were a lot of consequences.

It all began on a quiet day in my Capitol office in 1973. I had recently been appointed by the newly elected governor to be his press secretary. My previous experience being limited to speech writing for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had a fixed notion about the responsibilities of a speechwriter, one of the first being keeping his name out of the newspapers. He used to tell us, "You should have a passion for anonymity."

Well, that was about to end. My executive assistant, Mary Nell Carlson, buzzed on the phone. "Bob, Marvin Zindler is on the phone and wants to talk to you immediately."

"And who is Marvin Zindler?"

"Don't you know who Marvin Zindler is?" Her tone of voice sounded as if she wanted to end the question with, "dummy?"

"Never heard of him." I was, as I say, new to this business.

"He's with Station KTRK in Houston. He's about the biggest name on Houston television."

"Well, put him on," I said, totally unaware of what I was getting into.

"Mr. Hardesty, this is Marr-vin Zindler."

I soon learned that that was the way he always spoke, on and off the air. Everything was a pronouncement.

"Yes, Mr. Zindler, what can I do for you?"

"You can get me an appointment with the governor on Monday." (This, as I remember, was Friday.)

"Can I tell the governor why you want to talk to see him?"

"I'm onto the biggest story of my career. There are laws being broken. And I want to know what the governor is doing about it."

"Doing about what?"

"You don't think I'm going to tell you, do you? You'd leak it to every reporter in the Capitol. This is an ex-clu-sive."

"Mr. Zindler, I have no wish to ruin your ‘exclusive.' But I have to know why you want to talk to the governor. I'm not about to let you go in there and blind-side him on a subject he doesn't know anything about."

"Hardesty, I'm going to call you on Monday morning and I'd better have an appointment with the governor or there's going to be in trouble."

"Well, you can call, but I don't promise anything."

I hung up, fuming. I don't respond well to threats. I sat there for a long time, wondering what to do. I knew I had to protect the governor. That's what he would expect me to do. But how? Protect him from an irate reporter? Or protect him from a potentially embarrassing story?

Finally, I called the governor and told him about the Zindler call.

"You did right, Bob. I can't see every reporter who thinks he has a big story but won't tell us what it is. See what he's working on. Someone should know."

That "someone," I decided, was Mack Wallace, the director of the Governor's Criminal Council. If laws were being broken, Mack would know about it. He was the former district attorney of Athens and a wonderful gossip. He knew everything that was going on in the state — at least everything worth knowing.

"You don't know about Marvin Zindler?" he asked. "He's an investigative TV reporter and a self-appointed consumer guardian. He's always snooping around Houston restaurants to see if he can find any rat (droppings) in the kitchen. And if he does, he embarrasses the owners on his TV show. Closes them down if he can. I guess that's important but he's a real jerk. He's had a total makeover of his looks: chin job, nose job, eye job, silver toupe, huge padded shoulders. A showman, not a reporter. ‘Marr--vin Zind--Ier. Eyyye-Witness News.'

Why do you ask?"

"He says he's investigating some illegal activity somewhere and wants to talk to the governor about it. That's all he'll say."

"Let me make some calls."

An hour later he was in my office. "Aw. He's investigating that old whore house down in LaGrange."

"Whore house?"

"Yeah, the Chicken Ranch. Says it's open illegally — which I guess it is. It's been there for as long as I can remember. Probably longer. Kids from UT and A&M go there for their first serious sex. Everybody knows about it. Nobody ever complains about it. The girls are clean. It's respectable."

"Why is it called "The Chicken Ranch."

Mack knew I was new to Texas and he loved to instruct me on the little-known folklore of the state.

"Because back in the Depression nobody had any money and the madam started accepting chickens in exchange for services."

"What's Zindler got to do with it?"

"Well, apparently he's trying to make a name for himself statewide and he's been snooping around the place, interviewing the customers and even taking pictures. Now he says he confronted the local sheriff — Flournoy — with his ‘evidence' but the sheriff wouldn't close it down."

"So now he wants to confront the governor with his ‘evidence,' " I said. "So he can go on the air and say the governor knows all about it but won't close it down."

"That's my guess. Or he wants to be able to say, ‘I shamed the governor into closing it down.' " "Either way, the governor comes off looking bad."

I immediately put in another call to the governor. "Well," he said with a sigh, "we'd better have a meeting first thing Monday morning."

Then I put in another call that I was looking forward to — to Marr-vin Zindler.

"I understand you want to talk to the governor about the Chicken Ranch," I said.

He exploded. "How did you find about that? Who leaked it to you?"

"Oh, I have my sources," I replied casually. "Am I going to see the governor?"

"Call me Monday, as we agreed."

I hung up before he could say anything more.

Later in the day, Attorney General John Hill stuck his head in my office. "What's this Monday meeting all about?" he asked.

I told him it was about the Chicken Ranch and he said, "If Dolph thinks I'm going to touch that tar baby he's sadly mistaken." (His very words. I'll never forget them.)

Early Monday morning we gathered in the governor's office. "We" consisted of the governor, Attorney General John Hill and his First Assistant, Larry York, Department of Public Safety Director Col. Wilson "Pat" Spier, Secretary of State Mark White (one of Briscoe's most trusted advisers), the Governor's Executive Assistant Charles Purnell, Mack Wallace, and myself. And, of course, Janey Briscoe, the governor's wife, who was sitting on the sofa, knitting.

The governor opened the meeting by nodding to me. "All right, Bob, fill us in on this Chicken Ranch business."

I told them everything that had transpired on Friday. Wallace, chewing on the stub of a cigar, filled in some blanks. When we had finished, the governor looked up and said, "You know, I didn't know that place was still open."

I thought Janey was going to choke.

Turning to Speir he said, "I assume it is still open, Colonel."

"Yes, governor, we've had it under surveillance for some time. There were rumors that organized crime was involved, but we couldn't find any evidence of that. It's a very important part of the community. No complaints. And we didn't see any reason to close it down."

"Do you have the authority to close it down?

"Well, we think so."

"It's operating illegally?"

"We assume so."

The governor turned to Hill, the attorney general, who had been strangely quiet during the whole meeting. "John? They're operating illegally?"

"Well, Dolph, they almost certainly are, but I'd want to research it." He obviously wasn't going to commit himself.

Hill's first assistant interjected. I'm not exactly certain of what he said, but the gist was that the entire operation had been operating outside of the law for years and was still operating outside of the law.

The governor took a deep breath. "Well what are we going to do?" he asked.

The room was silent.

"Bob," he asked me, "What are the press ramifications of closing the place down?"

"Not good. They're going to have a field day if you shut it down and they're going to come down on you like a ton of bricks if you don't shut it down. Zindler will see to that."

"Well, Pat," he asked Spier. "What are we going to do?'

"Just give me my marching orders, governor, and I'll obey them."

The governor turned to Hill.

"Just tell me what you want me to do, Dolph," the attorney general replied. My God, I thought, talk about profiles in courage.

The governor turned to Mark White "Mark? What do you think?"

The secretary of state tried to lighten things up a little. "Governor, I didn't go to UT or A&M. I went to Baylor University. I didn't know about places like The Chicken Ranch."

The rest of us roared with laughter. Janey Brisoe, sitting next to Mark, patted him on the knee and said in a low voice, "I'm so proud of you."

Then White added, "Governor, I don't see that you have any choice."

After a long pause, the governor turned to DPS director. "Pat, we need to enforce the law."

"Yes, sir, I'll call Sheriff Flournoy immediately."

That was it. No bluster. No histrionics. The governor had stepped up to the plate and the Chicken Ranch was effectively closed. He didn't take any pleasure in it. I think it saddened him. Certainly he hadn't run for governor of Texas to shut down a whore house. He just followed his favorite dictum: "Just do right and risk the consequences."

I was very proud of him that day. I still am.

There were consequences, as we knew there would be. A lot of the Capitol press corps poked fun at him. Texas Monthly acted as if he had committed a sin. And several years down the road, Larry L. King, in his hilarious Broadway musical, "The Best Little Whore House in Texas," portrayed him as an indecisive buffoon.

If any of it bothered him, he didn't show it. He was a class act and I believe history will remember him as an outstanding governor and a man of character, principle.

In the Burt & Dolly movie based on the play, Gov. Briscoe was played by the brilliant character actor, Charles Durning.



Old NFO said...

I hadn't thought about that place in YEARS... sigh... :-)