How the West Was Won Over

She came. She saw. She put us on TV. And as the cattlemen’s $12 million suit against Oprah Winfrey wore on, more and more Texans found themselves lining up on her side.

AS SHE STEPPED FROM HER GULFSTREAM jet, her two small cocker spaniels, Solomon and Sheba, nestled in her arms, Oprah Winfrey stopped for a moment and stared in silence at the treeless Panhandle horizon. She seemed stunned at what lay before her.

“Oprah!” shouted members of the news media from a roped-off area fifty yards away. From that distance, she looked like a great religious figure, her flowing brown pantsuit billowing in the wind like the robes of a prophet. The three local television stations cut into their regular programming to broadcast her arrival. “Oprah, how do you feel?” one of the reporters called out.

She hesitated for another moment, still staring at the unbroken flatness, and then turned to the cameras and offered her most cheerful wave. Escorted by bodyguards, she slipped into a black Chevrolet Suburban with black tinted windows, which raced her off to a meeting with her attorneys. “She’s here!” an ecstatic Amarillo television reporter shouted into his microphone. “Oprah is here in Amarillo, and she has just waved right at us!”

Just when you thought that Texas was no longer Texas, just when you thought that we were finally becoming just like everyone else, something like the Oprah trial comes along. Who could have guessed that one of the most obscure and embarrassingly titled state laws on record—the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act—would set off the most uproarious Texas range war since the fight over barbed wire? And, oh, what a glorious war, waged by a group of rich Texas cattle barons, the classic symbols of old frontier Texas, against an even richer black Chicago talk-show hostess, a classic symbol of modern-day American success. In ways that no one could have expected, the Oprah trial, involving a $12 million disparagement lawsuit over her April 1996 show about mad cow disease, became a battle for the heart and soul of the state. The cattle barons who filed the lawsuit saw themselves as Alamo-like defenders, hoping to save Texas from this contemporary Santa Anna who dared to say that she would never eat another hamburger. Winfrey, in turn, decided to counterattack with her best weapon: her own celebrity. She planned on turning Amarillo, the sagebrush kingdom, into Oprahrillo, broadcasting her daily show from the city during the trial’s duration and even changing the show’s name to Oprah Winfrey in Texas.  “She’s going to do her best to charm our pants off, and we all know she’s good at it,” grumbled Charles Rittenberry, a popular Amarillo trial lawyer, just before the trial began. “I don’t know if our local cowboys are going to come out on top of this damn deal. We’ve already got wives of respectable ranchers sneaking around town, trying to get tickets to Oprah’s show. I’m telling you, Oprah’s about to cause a lot of hell to break loose out here.”

Indeed, the Oprah trial was about to bring together an array of down-home West Texans and East Coast—educated lawyers, solemn New York Times reporters and bubbly Entertainment Tonight correspondents, bombastic vegetarian protesters, courthouse demonstrators wearing cow costumes, and even a marching kazoo band that stood outside the courthouse one bone-chilling winter day to play the Andy Griffith Show theme song, allegedly Winfrey’s favorite tune. “We’re all getting Oprah-itis; I can feel it in my bones,” said Amarillo’s famous millionaire eccentric, Stanley Marsh 3, the owner of a local television station and the creator of the display of half-buried cadillacs known as Cadillac Ranch. “By the time this thing is over, Texas is never going to be the same.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE OPRAH MAD COW EPISODE have been rerun so many times that even people who don’t watch daytime TV know them by heart. Howard Lyman, a failed Montana rancher turned vegetarian and animal rights activist, told Winfrey that American cattle were being fed ground-up meal made from dead livestock—the same practice that might have caused the spread of mad cow disease in Britain. (“Mad cow disease” is a brain-ravaging malady that has devastated cattle herds in Britain; in 1996 the British government announced that some humans may have died from eating beef contaminated by the disease.) Lyman argued that if the remains of one mad cow were fed to other cattle, thousands of cows, and in turn, countless American beefeaters, could be infected. As if on cue, Winfrey inquired, “You said this disease could make AIDS look like the common cold?” “Absolutely,” Lyman replied, leading Winfrey to declare, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!”

Cattle breeders are accustomed to beating back such elements as drought, dust storms, locusts, and twisters to get their cattle to market. But in the words of 71-year-old Bourdon R. Barfield, a descendant of a pioneer family in Amarillo, “Oprah was bigger than any whirlwind.” On April 16, the very day her mad cow show aired, cattle futures prices on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange plunged. “Cattle prices had already been slipping somewhat,” said Teel Bivins, an Amarillo state senator and veteran rancher, “but Oprah’s show created a panic. The cattle market basically went into a free-fall.” One Texas A&M economist said that in the three weeks following the Oprah show the cattle-feeding industry lost $87.6 million,  although other observers blamed the loss on a devastating drought and an already volatile market shaken by Britain’s mad cow scare.

Many of the nation’s cattlemen—who with their vast ranches, cattle drives, and roundups had created some of the most enduring images of American mythology—felt whupped by a talkative “city woman.” It wasn’t, however, the fairest of fights. The show’s producers cut out all but a few statements from a beef industry spokesman and a U.S. Agriculture Department expert on mad cow disease, both of whom insisted that American beef was safe. One of the show’s producers later admitted that Winfrey had told an editor to “cut out the boring beef guy.” Although she argued that she simply wanted to know why some cattle feeders were feeding cattle

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