THE VOICE ON THE PHONE IDENTIFIED ITSELF as belonging to Henry Cisneros, but it didn’t have the old snap. Flat and lifeless, it was but one casualty of the ordeal that had ended barely a week before, on September 8, with Cisneros’ admission that he had lied to the FBI, his plea of guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and his payment of a $10,000 fine. For four years leading up to that day, he had lived under the strain of knowing that an independent counsel for the United States government had been given unlimited time and resources for the single purpose of sending him to prison. His finances were another casualty. And inside—well, that was different too. Never in the 22 years I had known him had he been less than forthcoming, open, and for that matter, loquacious. Not now. He had returned my call, he said, but he didn’t want to talk, much less be interviewed. He just wanted to put his life back together.
He touched on a few things. He thought he would have been exonerated in court, either by a jury or in an appeal. (The main charge against him was that he had lowballed the amount of money he had paid to a former lover, Linda Medlar, during an FBI background check of his fitness to serve as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.) But the decision to plead guilty to a misdemeanor was a no-brainer: It allowed him to avoid the prohibitive cost of a trial—at least $1 million in new legal fees—and also to spare his family the anguish of seeing his affair with Medlar, which ended more than ten years ago, dragged through the media yet again. He is entrenched in California now, as president and chief operating officer of the Spanish-language TV network Univision, and his older daughter practices law across the street from the company’s Los Angeles headquarters. Now 52, he still believes he can make a contribution—the one flash of the old Henry came when he pronounced that word in his characteristic way, each syllable enunciated separately, slowly, and with equal emphasis—but it won’t involve running for office. And that was all. He said that he would try to call back, but we both knew that he wouldn’t.
WHAT ENDED IN A WASHINGTON, D.C., COURTROOM was not just a legal case but a political dream. Henry Cisneros was the right man at the right moment, a Mexican American with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard who was elected to the San Antonio city council in the mid-seventies—precisely the time when the Anglo business establishment that had controlled local politics for decades was crumbling and ethnic minorities were on the verge of becoming the majority. He became the bridge between the city’s two worlds and, in 1981, its first Mexican American mayor. He proved that inclusive politics could produce great benefits for his community; that message was as popular statewide as it was at home, and as welcome to business as it was to Latinos. In 1984 he was one of three names on the Democrats’ short list for vice president. It seemed inevitable that he would be elected governor or U.S. senator.
And then he stared destiny in the eye—and flinched. Perhaps the fact that his son, John Paul, was born with a severe heart defect was a factor in his decision to leave public life. Perhaps the affair with Medlar also was a cause, though more likely it was a symptom of his impulse to run from high office rather than for it. Perhaps—most likely of all—he didn’t have the necessary appetite for electoral politics. His uncle Ruben Munguia recalls that on the night he decided to run for mayor in 1981, Henry went to a meeting of around 25 backers who represented the city’s rich mix of humanity. All favored his making the race except three who were undecided. Among the uncertain trio was Henry Cisneros.
Though a dozen years have passed since his name last appeared on a ballot, Cisneros still represents the best hope of Latino America for high public office. Six days after his guilty plea, Los Angeles Times columnist Frank del Olmo wrote, “[T]he future looks as bright as ever for him—and not just in the private sector… . If Henry Cisneros were to express an interest in being mayor of L.A., our 2001 campaign would be over before it even begins.” The columnist described a situation that sounded eerily familiar: Latinos eager for “fresh, smart leadership”; well-intentioned Anglos seeking to identify Latino leaders “who can help build bridges.”
Back in San Antonio, where Cisneros still owns the house that was once his grandfather’s, his plea bargain gave new life to old hopes—and old enmities, for he has always attracted outspoken critics on the left and right. (In the old days Cisneros and his city manager, Lou Fox, labeled them CAVE people, for Citizens Against Virtually Everything.) Now the battle raged on the editorial pages of the San Antonio Express-News. When a columnist for the paper pronounced him fit to seek public office again, reader reaction was so virulent that she wrote about the ugly mail she had received. That piece drew more negative reaction. “We put our hearts and soul into this man,” wrote one correspondent in a letter to the editor. “Then we find out he’s just like the jerk down the street who can’t keep his zipper up.” When another writer began a column, “Henry, come home,” and urged him to take on the cause of San Antonio’s children, a letter writer responded, “Our young people do not need leaders who lie, cheat, defraud, and cover up.” The columnist who came closest to capturing the real significance of the Cisneros saga was Victor Landa, the news director for KVDA-TV, part of the Telemundo network: “[T]his story will be long remembered not so much for what happened but for what remained undone.”
IF CISNEROS DOES