Meaner Than a Junkyard Dog
Oilman Oscar Wyatt reveals how his world really works—from freeing the hostages in Iraq to doing deals with China and keeping up with his jet-set marriage.
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On a black January night just six days after American jets began bombing Iraq, Oscar S. Wyatt, Jr., the 66-year-old bad boy of the Texas oil and gas industry, faced more than 1,100 well-heeled civic leaders in Corpus Christi and dropped a bomb of his own. “As many of you know, Governor Connally and I went to Baghdad last month to talk Saddam Hussein into releasing the hostages,” a grim-faced Wyatt told his audience. “We became convinced that Saddam did not want war. He knows he can’t win. He stated he knew he couldn’t win. In the end, nobody can win.”
That was not a prediction anyone in the audience at the annual chamber of commerce dinner wanted to hear. The enormous banquet hall in the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center was a vision of patriotic splendor. Guests at the head table, including Corpus Christi mayor Betty Turner and the officers of the chamber board, sat in front of a huge American flag. Above the audience, clusters of red, white, and blue balloons flew from the ceiling. The crowd was unusually large. Many were drawn there to hear Wyatt, who in early December had pulled off an extraordinary act of personal diplomacy. He and John Connally had flown to Baghdad, met with Saddam Hussein, and negotiated the freedom of all foreign hostages held in Iraq.
At the podium Wyatt pulsed in the glow of the spotlight and seemed oblivious to the nervous murmur of the crowd. He looked every inch the personification of the boorish, wealthy Texan. There he stood in the power center of the city where he first got rich 35 years ago. He wore a rumpled black suit and spoke in a brutish, unapologetic cadence, longing for his audience to like him but perfectly prepared to make them madder than hell. He peered over his black-rimmed reading glasses and said, “A senior government official of a Persian Gulf sheikdom was quoted recently as saying, ‘You think I want to send my eighteen-year-old son to die for Kuwait? That would be crazy when we have our white slaves from America to do that.’” Shock washed over the crowd. At the mention of “white slaves,” a Mexican American businessman who was seated near the edge of the crowd stiffened. He elbowed his wife in the ribs and ordered, “Let’s go.” Others at his table sat motionless and bug-eyed. Wyatt pressed on. “I have five sons,” he told them, choking back tears, “and I damned sure don’t want any of them—or any of your sons—to be the white slaves of an Arab monarch.”
That did it. The businessman bolted from his chair and dragged his wife out of the room. All over the banquet hall I could hear the clicking of high heels as other women, some of them the wives of military officers from the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, were led from the room. Undeterred, Wyatt went on with more dark predictions. The war in the Middle East will turn out to be a “meat grinder,” he said. The U.S. will win the war but lose the peace. We are protecting the interests of politically bankrupt Arab monarchies. “The fact is, the administration hasn’t come up with a reasonable explanation of why we should spill one drop of American blood in the sands of the Middle East for the emir of Kuwait,” he said. By now his voice was at a full emotional bellow.
At the head table, Mayor Turner ducked her head in embarrassment. Every drop of color drained from the face of S. Loyd Neal, Jr., the newly elected chairman of the chamber board who earlier in the evening had rallied everyone in the room around the substantially less controversial cause of providing public rest rooms on North Padre Island so that the beach will become “public friendly.” The outgoing chamber chairman, Tony Bonilla, Jr., a plaintiff’s attorney and Mexican American activist who is no stranger to controversy, beamed up at Wyatt approvingly. A small delegation of Russian tourists sat at one table, looking confused. The language and cultural barrier was too much for them. They alternated between staring at Wyatt and shrugging to themselves.
Wyatt did go on to wave the flag. Although he was opposed to the war, he told the crowd, “Now, my feelings are like everyone else’s—I am in full support of our American troops, and I hope the war will end before too much blood is spilled.” Finally he arrived at the main subject of his speech. For a solid twenty minutes he described in detail what he called a decade of domestic mismanagement under presidents Reagan and Bush. “If we stay on this trend,” warned Wyatt, “we’ll find we are the first country that ever went broke on prosperity.” But it was too late. All anyone would remember of Wyatt’s speech was that he spoke out against the frenetically popular war in the Persian Gulf.
CHAMBER DECRIES SPEECH was the headline in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times two days after the speech. Most of the newspapers in Texas carried stories about Wyatt’s strident anti-war remarks and the walkout. In his former hometown of Corpus Christi, Wyatt was about as popular as Saddam Hussein. Even though some people in the audience congratulated him—a few even gave him a standing ovation when he was finished, and much later he received dozens of letters of support—Wyatt knew a disaster when he saw one. Immediately after delivering the speech, he offered his own assessment of the evening. “You’d have thought I had AIDS, wouldn’t you?” he told me, cackling like a juvenile delinquent. “Oh, well, I don’t give a rat’s ass. If they wanted to be entertained, they should have hired a comedian.”
THE X FACTOR
To spend time with Oscar Wyatt is to witness how a businessman efficiently wields world power with none of the posturing of a politician or the polite rules of ordinary commerce. Wyatt is an X factor in foreign relations, the unknown and unseen variable. Money and contacts give Wyatt and powerful international businessmen like him the freedom to roam, exerting influence in private. They aren’t elected, and they have no constituency to hold them accountable. Often their efforts at diplomacy are motivated not by ideology or politics but by their own businesses. As their economic interests shift, so does their foreign policy; that’s why they are X factors.
In the latter days of the air war, Wyatt was relentless in his behind-the-scenes efforts to stop the fighting in the Persian Gulf before it became a ground war. The Coastal Corporation, the $8 billion energy company that he started in South Texas in 1955, requires between 18 and 24 million barrels of oil a month to supply its customers around the world. Political stability in the Middle East is in Wyatt’s best business interest.
International intrigue is what occupies Wyatt’s attention. He has already named James R. Paul as his successor at Coastal, and the day-to-day running of the company is in Paul’s hands, not his. Wyatt operates as a head of state, without portfolio. He lives in a mansion on River Oaks Boulevard that is grander than the White House, can call on a fleet of corporate airplanes, and is in daily contact with his own ad hoc intelligence community.
Wyatt looks more like a peasant than a nobleman. He is paunchy, with skin the color of biscuits and jowls the shape of hams, and his language is foul and his sense of humor is darkly outrageous. When I asked about the old story that he once had cancer, he became expressionless and silent and then replied, “Cancer. Hmmm. Maybe I have. What was her last name?”
For all his bluster, there is something mesmerizing about Wyatt. He didn’t waste a single breath struggling to find the right media pitch. “I’m a male chauvinist,” he told me, with the self-confidence of a man unworried about how his words will sound in print. “If you don’t like it, sorry.” Still, he is fraught with contradictions. He has a strong streak of sentimentality. On the flight from Houston to Corpus Christi in his own four-seater Piper Cheyenne airplane, Wyatt had practiced his speech for the chamber; he broke down and cried when he reached the part that said: “In times like these, we have to stand together as Americans.” Whenever he contemplated the loss of American lives in the Persian Gulf, he would burst into tears, cover his face with his hands, and sob.
In the private memory of Texans, Wyatt occupies an equally contradictory corner. Rough-hewn and self-made, Wyatt would rather spend the weekend hunting on his South Texas ranch than dining with royalty. Yet he is married to one of the most beautiful women in Texas, Lynn Sakowitz, an international socialite who summers in the South of France. (Jordan’s King Hussein is said to be wild for her zucchini bread.) In Houston society circles, Lynn and Oscar are known as Beauty and the Beast. They live adjacent to the River Oaks Country Club in the mansion formerly owned by Houston oilman Hugh Roy Cullen, Jr. There they entertain royalty, movie stars, politicians, and barons of industry in one of three ways—dinner for 50 with dancing, dinner for 22 with piano music, or Oscar’s favorite, dinner for 8 in the wine cellar with controversial conversation.
“I hate to see my name in the society pages,” barked Wyatt during an interview at his office in Houston’s Greenway Plaza. “I do all that jet-setting horseshit because it gives my wife pleasure. I don’t want to know who’s sleeping with whom or what jewels Mister So-and-So gave his wife for her birthday. I just don’t give a damn.” Yet he benefits from Lynn’s preoccupation with social detail. She brings to the marriage something he couldn’t provide on his own: prestige, good breeding, a place at all the right dinner parties, all of which come in handy for an X factor. She travels in Europe with the same ease that he roams the Middle East and South America. Clearly, Wyatt’s lack of pretense is one of the things that drew Lynn to him. “Once, after I’d made the international best-dressed list, I came home and told Oscar,” Lynn said. “His only comment was: ‘Good. Does this mean you don’t have to buy any more clothes?’”
Lynn and Oscar have been the subject of constant gossip. In the eighties Lynn was said to be having an affair with Prince Ranier of Monaco. She laughed off the suggestion, telling the press that the rumor was preposterous—the prince was far fonder of his yacht than of her. When I asked Oscar to identify his favorite rumor about himself, he didn’t hesitate. “Years ago, there was a story making the rounds that I threw Lynn down the stairs when she was seven months pregnant,” he replied. “Can you imagine anything more ridiculous? For one thing, just think how expensive that would have been.”
Lynn Wyatt has a strong husky voice, smooth, white skin, and a firm handshake. As she poured English breakfast tea in her living room, I asked her why she, a Sakowitz, born to a life of polish and privilege, is attracted to a man like Oscar Wyatt. “Oscar is a genius,” she said. “I would be bored to death married to a man who likes to go to all of the parties I go to. Oscar is alive and always thinking. That’s what keeps me interested.” When she talks about Wyatt, her voice is filled with genuine affection. “He’s extremely protective of me,” she said, adding that when she is in Europe he always telephones her hotel to make sure she has arrived safely and that he has forbidden her to travel to the Middle East because he doesn’t think the region is safe for a Jewish woman. They have been married for 28 years; yet there is persistent talk around Houston that theirs is more of a business arrangement than a real marriage, which really infuriates Lynn. She is rarely seen in public with Oscar. One of her sons usually escorts her to society functions. She went alone to California to attend Ronald Reagan’s eightieth birthday party. “I arrange my schedule to be in Houston when my husband is here,” she said. “When he’s traveling on business, I do my own traveling.”
Both Oscar and Lynn have stormy marriage histories. Oscar had been married to three other women before he married Lynn in 1963. He and his first wife, Yvonne, were married for nine years and had a son, Carl, now a businessman in Houston who has little to do with his father. After Yvonne and Wyatt divorced, she told one of his oldest friends, “Oscar is the only man I know who has a mattress strapped to his back for convenience.” Of his second wife, Mary Margaret, who is now deceased, Wyatt says: “She was a real sweetie. I cared for her a lot.” His third marriage only lasted six weeks, and this former wife, Bonnie, married John Swearingen, the former chairman of the board of Standard Oil of Indiana.
Oscar and Lynn have two sons: Oscar S. Wyatt III, nicknamed Trey, is a banker in Corpus Christi, and Brad, who is called Little Oscar by the family because he looks and acts so much like his father, is a traffic-safety deputy for a Harris County constable and a student at Texas A&M. He still lives at his parent’s mansion.
Before she married Oscar, Lynn had been married to Robert Lipman, a New York property developer. She and Lipman had two sons, Steven and Douglas. After they divorced, Lipman was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of a young French girl in London. He told the court that he had been on LSD and had no memory of the killing.
Lipman’s murder trial was apparently never discussed in the Wyatt household. “I always heard that my mom’s first husband was run over by a streetcar in Vienna,” said Trey. “Neither of my parents ever talked about their former marriages.” After Lynn and Oscar married, Oscar adopted her two sons. Steve, who lives in London, has been linked with the Duchess of York by the London tabloids. Fergie visited the Wyatts on her swing through Texas in 1989, and her photograph, signed, “To my dearest and most special friend, Lynn,” adorns the desk in the Wyatt’s living room. “I just hate all this gossip about Fergie and Steve,” Lynn said. “Of course it’s not true, but it’s very embarrassing. Prince Andrew is so nice. He even called Steve to tell him how sorry he was about it all.” Her son Douglas is a Houston lawyer who has attracted his own share of publicity. Douglas was once under the spell of the late New Age guru Frederick von Mierers, who, according to Vanity Fair, believed that he was from the star Arcturus and that the vibrations from precious gems protected the wearer from “falling into delusions.”
The most publicly painful part of Lynn and Oscar Wyatt’s marriage occurred in 1986, when Oscar sued her brother, Robert Sakowitz, claiming that Sakowitz had driven the upscale chain of specialty stores founded by his grandfather into bankruptcy. “It was and still is a very painful subject for me,” said Lynn. “The only way I get through it is to keep telling myself that there is nothing I could do about it.” To this day, she and her brother do not speak, and her mother has sided with Robert in the family feud. Sakowitz settled the suit with Wyatt out of court by, among other things, giving him a promissory note for $412,000. Now Sakowitz’s primary legal fight is with Douglas Wyatt, who along with Lynn’s other sons, is seeking to have him removed as executor of the Sakowitz estate. “Prior to being in banking, I was in law enforcement for seven years,” Trey said, “and I have more respect for some of the common criminals I arrested than for Robert Sakowitz.” Oscar has no regrets about his celebrated battle with Sakowitz. The fact that his wife asked him not to sue her brother makes little difference to him. “My wife,” he said, “doesn’t run that part of our marriage.”
“GUYS LIKE ME LIKE IRAQ”
The first thing I saw upon entering Wyatt’s office, just beyond the two matronly secretaries who busily arrange his workday life, was a giant German shepherd named Tasa curled up on a smelly piece of carpet next to Wyatt’s enormous desk. Tasa’s full name is Lady of Tasajillo. Tasajillo is Wyatt’s ranch in Duval County, which is his legal residence and where he votes. He named his dog for his ranch. “She’s the only woman in the world I truly trust,” said Wyatt, as he plunged into the pile of newspaper clippings on his desk. “Here,” he said, shoving a Wall Street Journal article at me. “Read this. It says we have hit eighty percent of our Iraqi targets from the air. That’s bullshit. The Russians say it’s more like twenty percent, and my sources in the Middle East tell me the Russians are—for once—telling the truth.”
Wyatt, always a tense and moody man, was in a frenzy over the war in the Middle East. To his right sat a television tuned to the Cable News Network, and he provided his own running commentary on the coverage of the war. When anchor Bernard Shaw reported that Saddam Hussein wasn’t fighting back, Wyatt offered, “That’s right, Bernie. Saddam is a mean old bear, hiding behind a log, trying to draw Bush into a ground war so he can kill as many of our boys as he can.” Behind him was a bank of telephones, which rang constantly. One of Wyatt’s contacts called from Amman, Jordan, and told him that after only seven days into the Gulf War, there were already anti-American demonstrators in the streets clamoring for a holy war. King Hussein wouldn’t survive if he continued to support the Allied coalition, the caller predicted. A shadow crossed Wyatt’s face. He held his head in his hands. “In nineteen years of trading with the Arabs, the one and only thing I’ve learned,” he whispered, “is to stay out of their chickenshit conflicts. Let Arabs fight Arabs.”
Just as suddenly, the shadow disappeared. Wyatt looked up and rummaged around his desk, looking for his Zantac. He suffered from a herniated esophagus, and the thought of Jordan siding with Iraq against the U.S. had aggravated his pain. He pawed his desk like an angry lion, pushing aside the bottle of Listerine, the jar of Vicks, the can of dog deodorant, Tylenol, and several prescription drugs. Finally he located the Zantac, but before he could take it, nature called. “Excuse me,” he said, dashing off to his executive toilet. “I took a diuretic this morning, and I’ve been pissin’ all day.”
Wyatt’s friends and enemies had at least three theories on why he was so opposed to the war in the Gulf: his own economic self-interest, his self-image as an underdog, and his long-standing personal dislike for President Bush. Wyatt thought that Bush had made a fundamental mistake in drawing a line in the sand not in Saudi Arabia, which Wyatt believed was worth fighting for, but in Kuwait, a country he held in contempt for its cowardice. “Almost all of the Kuwaiti casualties thus far have come from auto accidents of people fleeing the country,” growled Wyatt, disregarding reports of Iraqi atrocities. “What a bunch of cowards.”
Certainly he wanted this war over with so he could get back to business as usual in the Middle East. Before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait last August, Wyatt had been negotiating with Iraq and other countries to sell 50 percent of Coastal’s oil-refining and marketing business. The idea was that Iraq would provide low-cost crude in exchange for equity interest in the refineries. Wyatt had been looking for such a linkup with an oil-producing country since 1988. Even more to the point, Coastal had been buying 250,000 barrels of oil a day from Iraq. But Wyatt was enraged at the suggestion that his opposition to the war was motivated by Coastal’s need for Iraqi oil and money. “Baby, don’t be so stupid!” he screamed, jumping to his feet and leaning over the desk. “The world is awash in oil. We’ve got more oil than we know what to do with.”
The day after Bush ordered the embargo on trade with Iraq, Coastal’s top executives met to discuss where they could buy the oil that they were previously getting from Iraq. But Wyatt wasn’t present at the meeting—the moment he heard about the embargo, he flew to Mexico and negotiated a deal to replace the lost Iraqi crude. “I’m going to make money on this war, not lose it,” he said. In fact, Wyatt did make a killing on the low-priced Iraqi crude oil that was at sea en route to the United States when Bush halted all trade with Iraq.
Still, Wyatt admitted that he liked doing business with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “It’s a straight business deal,” he said. “You don’t have to go through any member of the royal family. You don’t have to pay any princes. They operate like an independent oil company. It’s just one price—take it or leave it.” Unlike Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other monarchies, which have historically preferred to deal with large American oil companies, the nonmonarchical countries of the Middle East—Iran, Iraq, Algeria—have always sold some of their production to independents like Wyatt. “Nothing has changed in the oil business in the last one hundred years,” Wyatt said. “It’s still the big guy versus the little guy, the Seven Sisters versus the independent oil company. The Seven Sisters like the Saudis. Guys like me like Iraq.”
Wyatt insisted that it was primarily the emir of Kuwait who was responsible for the oil recession in Texas because it was Kuwait that had defied OPEC oil quotas in the early eighties and overproduced until the price of oil dropped so low that Texans went broke. “Now we’re pulling his chestnuts out of the fire with the lives of our own troops, while the rich young Kuwaitis ride out the war dancing in the discos of London,” said Wyatt. “It makes me positively ill.”
Part of his opposition to the war is based on his animosity toward President Bush. Like rich people everywhere, the Texas rich have always split into two camps: those who made their money and those who inherited it. Nowhere is the distinction between the two any sharper than in the lives of Bush and Wyatt. Bush grew up rich and classy in Connecticut and came to Texas to seek his fortune in the oil fields of West Texas as an adventure. He started at the top. Wyatt grew up poor and rough-edged in Navasota and went to the oil fields in South Texas as a matter of survival. He started at the bottom. “I knew from the beginning George Bush came to Texas only because he was politically ambitious,” said Wyatt. “He flew out here on an airplane owned by Dresser Industries [an oil-field services company based in Dallas]. His daddy was a member of the board of Dresser. That told me all I needed to know to hate him.” Wyatt was one of the few oilmen in Texas who opposed Bush in 1964, when he ran against Ralph Yarborough for the U.S. Senate, and he opposed Bush again in 1970, when he ran against Lloyd Bentsen. Wyatt doesn’t have any more fondness for Bush’s cultural roots than Saddam Hussein has for the monarchs of the Middle East.
Nonetheless, as the air war gave way to the ground war, even Wyatt was impressed by Bush’s handling of the campaign. “The fact that we bombed them for so long saved our lives,” Wyatt told me during a telephone call from Venezuela after the war was over. “Thank God Bush hit ‘em as hard as he hit ‘em.” His statements after the war were consistent with what he had told me before. During an earlier interview, Wyatt had said that having made the bad decision to wage war against Iraq, Bush owed it to the ground forces to use everything in the U.S. arsenal—including nuclear weapons—to protect them.
On the day Wyatt was scheduled to give his speech to the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce, he got a call in the early afternoon from John C. White, the former Texas agriculture commissioner who is now Coastal’s lobbyist in Washington. White had read an early draft of Wyatt’s speech and had only one small request. “Do you think,” White asked Wyatt, “that you could tone down your criticism of the president?” After all, the president enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating in most polls. Wyatt’s face reddened in anger. “No, John, I just can’t,” wailed Wyatt, throwing his pencil down on his desk like a spear. “I’ve been as gentle as I could, considering how pissed off I am at him.”
In 1974, when coastal lawyer Tracy DuBose was stuck for weeks in a district courtroom in Bryan defending Wyatt and Coastal’s business practice, DuBose noticed an old man sitting in the last row of the courtroom. Day after day the old gentleman showed up in court. Finally, the man introduced himself. “I was Oscar Wyatt’s football coach at Navasota High School,” he told DuBose, “and I was hoping that he’d show up in court to testify, because I haven’t seen him in years.”
After assuring the coach to sit tight because Wyatt would show up soon, DuBose asked, “By the way, what kind of football player was Wyatt?” The coach broke into a smile and said, “He was the strongest player I’ve ever coached. He could block like nobody else. The only problem with Oscar was I never could get him to quit holding.”
Everyone who has ever known or done business with Wyatt tells a similar story. His tenacity is legendary, and so is his disregard for the rules of whatever game he’s playing. Thirty years ago, when Wyatt first joined the Corpus Christi Yacht Club, he attended a planning meeting for the annual sailboat competition. “Now, tell me,” he asked, always wary of others, “how would anyone know if one of these guys started their motor during the race?”
His ruthless business tactics—one of his early mottoes was “Leave nothing on the table”—have won him many enemies in the oil industry. In the early years some gas producers were convinced that Wyatt shortchanged them on meter readings; some even resorted to double-metering when doing business with him. In 1980 Wyatt pleaded guilty to federal charges that Coastal had violated oil-pricing regulations. The charge was that Coastal had sold domestic oil at a higher level than that allowed for foreign oil. Wyatt maintains that he pleaded guilty only to stop lengthy court proceedings, but the plea cost him a personal $40,000 fine. However, it was his willingness to fight that allowed him to survive both the seventies, when his business gambles almost caused Coastal to go bust, and the eighties, when he emerged from the worst decade in the history of Texas oil as one of the richest and most influential oilmen left in the state.
I asked Wyatt what motivates him, and he wasted no time in idle introspection. “Fear of failure,” he stated flatly. “Failure is the only thing I’m terrified of.” Others say that it’s not exactly fear of failure that drives him but fear of scarcity. No matter how many airplanes, companies, houses, or wives he acquires, Wyatt always seems to be battling his way out of his internal poorhouse. One of his best friends put it this way: “In his life, he’s been really poor and really rich. He’s scared to death of being poor again.”
His father was a utility-company trucking supervisor who had a drinking problem. When Wyatt was a young boy, his father left his mother, a somber, purposeful woman, and later the two divorced. Wyatt was on his own financially from the age of thirteen. A physician in Navasota gave young Wyatt a job as his driver and assistant. To this day, Wyatt is a frustrated doctor. Those close to him keep their various illnesses a secret for fear that Wyatt will either diagnose them himself or telephone his good friend Houston doctor Michael DeBakey and recommend them for a heart bypass operation.
On December 7, 1941, Wyatt was studying for a trigonometry exam when two of his friends told him that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. “I just felt this jolt of electricity inside myself,” recalled Wyatt. “My country had been attacked, and I wanted to get up in an airplane and do some damage.” He had gotten his pilot’s license at age sixteen, when he worked as a crop duster for cotton farmers. So when the war began, he joined the Army Air Corps. In 1945, while delivering supplies to an air base in the Pacific, Wyatt’s plane crashed. Both of his legs were crushed, his jaw was broken, and he had seven fractures to his head.
“When we first got married,” Lynn Wyatt said, “every bad dream Oscar had was about the war. He would relive the crash night after night and wake up in a sweat.” Part of the reason Wyatt was taking the war in the Persian Gulf to heart, Lynn theorized, was that he was still preoccupied with his own World War II experience. “The night they announced on television that twelve American Marines were lost, Oscar just sat in front of the TV and grieved,” she said. “He knows this area of the world like the back of his hand, and he takes each event in the war very personally.”
After World War II, Wyatt attended classes at Lamar Junior College in Beaumont. He saved enough to lease a 640-acre rice farm near Beaumont and used the proceeds from his crop to transfer to Texas A&M, where he graduated in 1949 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Then he headed to South Texas, where he went to work as a salesman for the Reed Roller Bit Company and learned the history of every gas field in the region.
In the oil and gas business, Wyatt has always operated like Jett Rink. He mortgaged his 1949 Ford to raise $800 to form his first producing company, which he named the Hardly Able Oil Company. By 1955, he had founded Coastal States Gas Producing Company, and soon he went into the gas-pipeline business as well. Big companies such as United Gas dominated South Texas, but Wyatt, starting with 68 miles of pipe to reach fields that were too small for the big companies to worry about, eventually took away business from the big companies by paying producers higher prices.
In 1960 Wyatt formed Lo-Vaca Gas Gathering (named for two South Texas counties, Live Oak and Lavaca) as a wholly owned Coastal subsidiary that would be the intrastate supplier of natural gas to public utilities. In 1962 Lo-Vaca began supplying gas to San Antonio. By 1967 it was also supplying Austin, Corpus Christi, Laredo, and Brownsville. Wyatt was the head of a corporation with a split personality—Coastal was a high-growth gas-gathering company that became the darling of Wall Street as its stock tripled in value from 1966 to 1972, and Lo-Vaca was a small public-utility-oriented company that supplied five Texas cities with natural gas. All was going well until the energy crisis of 1973 escalated the price of natural gas. Wyatt was trapped by long-term, low-priced contracts and higher gas prices at the same time that supplies were diminishing, and soon Coastal found itself embroiled in six years of legal battles. In San Antonio, which suffered brownouts because Lo-Vaca couldn’t deliver enough gas, Wyatt became the most hated oilman in Texas.
Feuding is endemic to the politics and business of South Texas. Earlier, while building Lo-Vaca, Wyatt conducted a celebrated feud with former ally Lyndon Johnson, who, first as vice president and then as president, failed to give Wyatt the help he thought he deserved. Over the course of the past thirty years, he has befriended, feuded, sued, and countersued Clinton Manges, the South Texas rancher and anti-establishment power-broker. His best friends have been independent oilmen like John Mecom, who drilled wildcat wells all over South Texas. When Mecom was near bankruptcy in the early eighties, Wyatt was so distraught that he devised a plan to pay off all of Mecom’s debts. One night Wyatt went to Mecom’s mansion in Houston and presented his idea. “I think this will get you out of debt and give you about $2 million a year to live on,” Wyatt said. Mecom looked up at him and shook his head no. “If all I had to live on was $2 million a year,” Mecom told him, “I’d rather go broke.” Wyatt admired Mecom’s attitude. “Just think of it,” Wyatt said. “Old Man Mecom was looking at bankruptcy and still thinking like a wildcatter.”
By 1974 it was clear even to Wyatt that he couldn’t save Lo-Vaca. During a meeting with his lawyers and top company officials, Wyatt looked around the room and announced in disgust, “This thing is out of my hands. It’s up to the lawyers now.” Eventually they settled $1.6 billion worth of lawsuits with Lo-Vaca’s customers to keep Coastal from going bankrupt. Meanwhile, Wyatt shifted his emphasis away from Texas to the entire world of oil. Coastal had already made its first major out-of-state purchase when it acquired Colorado Interstate Gas in 1973. With the Arab sheiks controlling the world price of oil, Wyatt realized that securing a steady supply of oil was far more important than producing it. It was then that he began to roam the world, buying oil from foreign sources and either transporting it to his own refineries or reselling it to others. In 1976 he bought a refinery in San Francisco and, the next year, an oil company in Florida. Coastal prospered in the eighties by concentrating on refining and brokering oil, rather than on production and pipelines. He had become a trader.
Some of the countries that Wyatt chose to buy crude from, such as Libya and China, had shaky relations with the United States. In order to reduce the risk of doing business in the Middle East and elsewhere, Wyatt acquired an Austrian passport but never renounced his U.S. citizenship, as was widely rumored in international circles. “I did it for protection,” Wyatt told me. “In a raid in the Middle East the first thing they look for is a U.S. passport. I did it as a matter of survival.”
In 1979, when the U.S. established diplomatic relations with China, Coastal became the first U.S. company to import crude oil from mainland China. Wyatt dealt with the Chinese exactly as he had dealt with producers in South Texas—by educating himself in the history of their fields and establishing direct contact with the principals who had the authority to make the deal. “There was no sitting by the telephone, waiting for the officials to call you back, because there were no telephones,” Wyatt recalled. “We just stood around in offices and waited until someone got around to talking to us.” His biggest problem was not in making the deal—that was easy, since he was buying only one thousand barrels a day—but in shipping the crude out of the country. At the time, the U.S. government was still leery of encouraging commerce with China, for fear of alienating Taiwan, our ally in the region. Naturally, Wyatt had no such worries: “I didn’t give a damn what the Taiwanese thought of the deal.”
The same year that he was negotiating with the Chinese, he also purchased oil from Libya. In return for a steady supply of oil, Coastal agreed to explore in Libya, but the exploration was stopped in 1986 because of U.S. sanctions against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government. But Coastal still has contacts, albeit distant ones, with Libya. A foreign subsidiary of Coastal’s is the holding company of another company that, along with a Libyan oil company, is a shareholder of a German refinery that refines oil supplied by the Libyan company. Wyatt insists that this transaction is legal because it’s all done through foreign subsidiaries.
Meanwhile, agencies in the U.S. government were benefiting from Wyatt’s relationship with Libya. When an American pilot was shot down in that country in 1986, Wyatt was asked by an intelligence officer to find out if the body had been recovered by Libya. Using his network of sources, Wyatt provided the U.S. government with a confidential report within 48 hours: The body was in Libyan hands. “I won’t talk about that,” Wyatt snapped when I asked him about the incident. “All I will tell you is that I am a patriot and have always been willing to use my commercial relationships around the world to benefit my country.”
His own personal financial portfolio reflects his stature as an X factor international businessman. About 60 percent of Wyatt’s cash holdings are in foreign currency. “Don’t leave your money in the Reagan-Bush dollar,” I overheard him tell a longtime friend on the telephone. “By the time this president is finished with us, you won’t be able to buy a bag of lemon drops with a dollar.”
AN AMERICAN WHO TELLS THE TRUTH
One afternoon in late September, Wyatt was sitting at his desk when he got a telephone call from his friend Congressman Charlie Wilson of Lufkin. Wilson wanted help for six of his East Texas constituents who were being held hostage in Iraq as Saddam Hussein’s so-called human shields. “Is there any way you can use your contacts inside Iraq to free those Texans?” Wilson asked. Wyatt promised that he would try.
Wyatt first met Saddam Hussein nineteen years ago, when the oilman was in Baghdad buying oil to run Coastal’s refineries in 1972 and Saddam was Iraq’s second in command. They bumped into each other during a meeting at the national oil company building. “I was there negotiating with the oil officials when suddenly Saddam Hussein walked into the meeting,” said Wyatt. “My first impression of him was that he was tough, efficient, rigid—the kind of guy who was willing to go to the wall for what he believed in.” In short, someone a lot like Oscar Wyatt.
Even then the oil officials seemed to have a mixture of fear and respect for Saddam. Wyatt watched carefully as Saddam greeted everyone in the room and then told the Iraqis, “The future of our country is in your hands. We can’t build our country without money, and oil is all we have to sell.”
Wyatt continued to make trips to Baghdad, cementing his relationships with many of the oil ministers as well as a number of physicians, engineers, and professors. He never again ran into Saddam Hussein—until the events set in motion by the call from Wilson.
Wyatt began telephoning sources in Washington and the Middle East. One who became instrumental was Samir A. Vincent, an Iraqi-American geophysicist who has been marketing Iraq to U.S. companies since 1986. Vincent’s contacts inside Iraq are as varied as Wyatt’s. Vincent is solidly built and chooses his words with extreme caution. Dark and handsome, he looks like a bedouin tribesman who lifts weights. He attended Jesuit High School in Baghdad with Nizar Hamdoon, the foreign minister of Iraq, and also had met Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam’s son-in-lawn who is the acting oil minister of Iraq. Vincent placed an overseas telephone call to Hamdoon and asked if there was any chance of getting American hostages out of Baghdad. “You want them,” Hamdoon told Vincent, “come on over and get them.”
At the same time, Wyatt’s own contacts inside Iraq told him that Saddam might free some of the hostages. He and Wilson began to make plans for a trip to Baghdad in early December. Then Wilson received a telephone call from assistant secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, asking him not to go to Baghdad. Eagleburger told him that the request came directly from President Bush. “When you get a request from the commander in chief during wartime, you honor it,” Wilson said.
So Wilson told Wyatt that as far as he was concerned, the trip was off. Wyatt replied that he was disappointed, but privately he was infuriated—as usual, with the Bush administration. “People in top positions of the Iraqi government had stuck their neck out to help me get the hostages out,” said Wyatt, still fuming five months later. “I decided, to hell with it, I’m going anyway.”
Wyatt needed a human shield of his own—someone who could handle the media while Wyatt did the negotiating. Immediately he thought of his old friend former governor John Connally, a member of the board of Coastal. “I know of no one more persuasive than Governor Connally,” Wyatt told me. “I knew he was the man for the job.”
On December 1, Wyatt and Connally flew to Amman, Jordan, in Coastal’s Boeing 707 loaded with medical supplies. They left the plane there, flew to Baghdad on Iraqi Airways, and checked into the Al Rasheed Hotel as guests of the Iraqi government. Since they had no contact with the U.S. embassy and were there at the displeasure of the president, Connally and Wyatt were careful not to violate U.S. sanctions. “We didn’t spend a penny in Baghdad,” Connally told me. “The Iraqi government paid for everything.” Or, as Wyatt put it: “We didn’t furnish anything but our hat and our ass.”
Wyatt and Connally both had their own suites at the hotel, but they set up their base of operations in Wyatt’s three-room suite. Samir Vincent, who had accompanied them on the trip, kept updating his list of American hostages. The list, which at one point grew to one hundred, included names from American senators and congressman, various corporations, and the Kuwaiti underground. Not one was an employee of Coastal.
On Monday, December 3, Wyatt and Connally met with Hussein Kamel Hassan, Saddam’s son-in-law, but got no commitment that he would press for the release of the hostages. Despite the foreign minister’s earlier invitation to simply come and get the hostages, Wyatt and Connally were under no illusions that it would be easy. Everyone in Saddam Hussein’s inner circle was fearful of doing anything to anger him. “It was a very ticklish situation,” Vincent told me. “Saddam is an imposing, even paranoid, man. We had to build support for releasing the hostages among those around him, without placing them in danger of appearing to be disloyal.”
Wednesday morning, Wyatt and Connally got a call asking them to stay in their hotel rooms. Within minutes, they were picked up and driven to the presidential palace. It was a chilly but sunny morning. Once inside the presidential compound, they saw as many as five soldiers posted on every corner, but when they approached the palace—a modern sand-colored building—no military guards were present. Wyatt and Connally were met by members of Saddam’s staff, including his interpreter, a Shakespearean scholar who teaches English literature at the University of Baghdad. They were led into a small meeting room, furnished in French décor, where Saddam Hussein was seated on a couch, dressed in military uniform, including a webbed belt with a pistol and holster. Three members of his cabinet were also present.
Saddam stood and reached to shake hands with Connally and Wyatt. Wyatt reminded him of their meeting nineteen years before. Throughout the conversation, Saddam was calm and deliberate, sometimes speaking in such a soft voice that Connally and Wyatt strained to hear him. After the initial introductions, they launched into their carefully rehearsed speeches.
“Mr. President, the average person in the U.S. or elsewhere knows little of Kuwait and even less about the emir,” Connally told him, “but they are outraged when they know Americans are being held here as hostages. You call them guests, but nonetheless they are people held against their will. If you free these people, you will gain a tremendous advantage in world opinion.”
Saddam nodded again but said nothing. Connally continued to describe the effect Saddam’s human-shield strategy was having on the general public in the United States. “In the minds of most people, this is an emotional revulsion,” argued Connally, “to the point that you are being called a modern-day Hitler at home.”
This time Saddam ducked his head, and his mouth formed into a small, amused smile. Still he didn’t say a word.
Wyatt took the pragmatic approach. “Mr. President,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, “think about how difficult it will be to handle all these detainees if war breaks out. For every two of them you’ve got, you’re going to have to have at least one soldier guarding them. You’ll have to feed them, clothe them, and house them, and all the time, you’ve got a war to fight.”
Through his interpreter, Saddam asked Wyatt: “Will the detainees discourage President Bush from attacking Iraq?”
“Absolutely not,” Wyatt shot back. “If the president reaches the point that he believes an attack is necessary to protect U.S. interests, a few hundred hostages won’t deter him for one minute.”
“We have no argument with the American people,” Saddam said. “Our argument is with President Bush.” Again Wyatt assured him that the hostages would gain him no advantage with Bush.
Then Saddam’s minister of information spoke up and said that he understood a majority of the members of the U.S. Congress were opposed to the use of force in the Middle East.
Connally and Wyatt were taken aback. “Don’t be deceived,” said Connally. “If the president launches an attack or asks for support, he will undoubtedly get it.”
Saddam indicated that Connally was correct. Wyatt told Saddam that he had been trading with the Iraqis for nineteen years and “deeply regretted” that Iraq and America were on the brink of war. “I have brought my plane to Amman, and it is my hope that we can take as many Americans home with us as we can,” Wyatt said. Then he mentioned that fifteen tons of medical supplies had been uploaded and given to an Arab relief organization.
“Thank you for your generosity to our needy people,” said Saddam, who then removed his pistol from his waist and laid it on the table. Connally took that as a hopeful sign. “We have here two lists of people,” said Connally, “but we can take home between one hundred and one hundred and fifty people.”
A few moments later Connally and Wyatt stood to leave. Connally was the first to shake hands with Saddam, who said, “Your plane will not go home empty.” Then Connally stepped back, and Saddam broke into a broad smile as he reached for Wyatt’s hand. He placed both of his hands on Wyatt’s right hand and told his cabinet officers, “You see there are Americans who tell the truth. They are not diplomats.” Utterly speechless, Wyatt turned and left the room, wondering when he had ever felt so exhilarated and so worried.
Then the scramble began. Five hours after the meeting, Wyatt got word in his hotel room that Saddam had decided to not just free Wyatt’s hostages but all of them. The X factor had been more successful than even he had dreamed. Samir Vincent assumed the job of trying to get exit visas for the hostages. One of the hostages, Jack Stewart, a 68-year-old engineer who works for Houston-based M. W. Kellog, was being held in a small village about three hours north of Baghdad. Wyatt told Vincent, “We don’t leave until we get Jack Stewart out. Tell all the bureaucrats to get a move on.”
Around noon on Saturday, December 8, Wyatt got a telephone call in his hotel suite from an Iraqi government official. “We think you should get your people on the airplane and leave immediately,” the caller said, and he added that Coastal’s 707 would be filled with Iraqi fuel. “Just hurry,” he said. Five minutes later, one of Wyatt’s Iraqi friends telephoned with the same message. “Get your people and depart,” the caller advised. While Wyatt never knew exactly why he was being rushed, Vincent was told that there were rumors of some kind of military activity on one of the borders, and the Iraqis wanted to be rid of the Americans. Within thirty minutes Wyatt and Connally had left the hotel and scrambled to the airport, where they waited until seven that evening before Vincent rounded up 24 hostages and loaded them on the airplane.
Wyatt paced up and down the tarmac at Baghdad airport. Allen Lawson, a mud engineer from Huntsville who was held 128 days by the Iraqis, told me that he heard Wyatt arguing with Vincent. “We’ve got to go,” Vincent said. “Let’s wait for some of the others,” Wyatt told him. The American embassy, which has ignored Wyatt and his group, had asked on Thursday to put three of its employees on the Coastal airplane. “Okay,” ordered Wyatt, “but only if you get your ass moving and clear some of these other civilians for release.” One civilian got on the airplane at the last minute without a passport or any papers. He was dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans and didn’t have a dime in his pocket.
Finally, at eight o’clock, the plane lifted off the ground in Baghdad. Inside, the cabin shook with the cheers of hostages. Some of the crew began to make chili in a crockpot. Soon Wyatt told the hostages over the loudspeaker, “Welcome home, but don’t cheer too loud until we get over the Mediterranean Sea. Then we’ll be safe.” About twenty hours later, the airplane arrived in Houston. After years of public displeasure, Wyatt found himself basking in public adoration. Hundreds of people hugged him, but it was Ryan Parker, the 23-year-old son of hostage Bobby Gene Parker, who brought Wyatt to tears when he handed him a single red rose and said, “Thank you, sir, for bringing my daddy home.”
THE WAY THE REAL WORLD WORKS
At seven-thirty on the morning after Wyatt’s speech to the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce, he walked into the lobby of the Stouffer’s Hotel in Houston with Tasa on a leash. None of the staff in the hotel lobby looked twice as the stout man in the white shirt and dark pants—his hair still slick from his morning shower—led the German shepherd to the bank of elevators. Wyatt routinely brings his dog to breakfast meetings in a private room at the hotel, which is adjacent to his corporate headquarters.
“I feel great,” said Wyatt, pouring himself a cup of black coffee. “I ran two miles this morning, and from what I hear, the speech got mixed reviews. Some people hated it. Others loved it. Oh, well. They asked for my opinion, and I gave it to them.”
I asked Wyatt what alternative Bush had after Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2. Could the U.S. afford to sit idly by and allow Saddam Hussein to capture control of the world price of oil? “Baby”—Wyatt calls everybody baby or lover—“you don’t know enough about the question to even ask it.” Then he proceeded to answer it for the next thirty minutes. To begin with, he said, Saddam couldn’t control the price of oil without expanding into Saudi Arabia. “The president was correct in moving those first one hundred thousand troops into Saudi,” Wyatt said. “That told Saddam, ‘See here, you bastard, step one foot onto Saudi soil, and we’ll blow you away.’” The trouble, in Wyatt’s view, was that the U.S. had sent Saddam mixed messages about invading Kuwait—indeed, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq told Saddam last July that the U.S. had no opinion on his “border disagreement” with Kuwait—and then when Kuwait was overrun, Bush hit the roof. “The absolutely worst thing you can do in the Arab world is overreact to aggression,” said Wyatt. “That just tells the other guy you’re afraid of him, and you wind up suffering more than he does.”
During breakfast the telephone rang, and his secretary told him that he had a call from Amman, Jordan. “Put him through,” Wyatt said. There was no direct communication inside Iraq, so all messages had to be sent by courier from Jordan. The man on the telephone was one of Wyatt’s couriers. Wyatt listened for a long time, but said nothing. After about five minutes the caller must have expressed some concern for his personal safety. “What are you afraid of?” Wyatt screeched. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll talk to you in a few days.”
Several minutes later he got another telephone call, this time from someone in Washington. Wyatt did most of the talking. “Please tell the president to use my commercial relationship with Iraq to his advantage,” Wyatt told the caller. “We’ve got to stop this war before it goes to the ground. Saddam wants a ground war. He wants a bloodbath.”
Then he outlined for the mysterious caller what it would take—from Saddam Hussein’s point of view—to bring about a cease-fire. “He wants his pre-Iranian border back,” said Wyatt. “He wants safe access to the sea. And he wants the Kuwaitis to behave in OPEC. He’s got eighteen million people to feed, and he’s tired of the Kuwaitis ripping him off.”
In the end, Bush didn’t use Wyatt’s connections in Iraq. Wyatt did everything he could—including writing a letter to the Iraqi ambassador to the United States that was hand-delivered on January 8, begging Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait—but nothing within his power could stop the war. Yet the X factor had enjoyed his own measure of success. If Wyatt had not negotiated the release of the hostages, Saddam might have killed them or used them to some tactical advantage. Wyatt clings to his prediction that Bush will win the war but lose the peace in the Persian Gulf. “We’ve still got huge numbers of the Arab masses mad as hell at us,” Wyatt told me after the cease-fire, “and the only people who are really happy with us are these monarchs who are going to prove to be very difficult to keep propped up politically.”
Still, I felt the back of my neck tingle as Wyatt conducted foreign policy on the telephone. When he finished the conversation, I asked him, “Who the hell elected you to anything?” Wyatt looked at me pityingly, as though I were as naïve as a baby chicken just hatching from an egg. “I’m not negotiating anything,” Wyatt said. “I’m just trying to save the lives of four hundred and fifty thousand Americans. Surely there’s nothing immoral about that.” Then he stood up to leave, and Tasa was instantly as his heels. “Besides, baby” he said in a resolute voice of a man certain of his own authority, “this is the way the real world works.”