The Time of His Life
The moment has come for Henry Cisneros to make the hardest decision of all—what does he really want?
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“I slept like a log,” Henry Cisneros declared. “Like a log! Like a log, log, log, log, log!”
It was seven-thirty on a humid May morning, and the mayor of San Antonio was busy venting his system of excess enthusiasm.
“Let’s hit it!” he said to Charlie Cortina, one of two police officers assigned to driving the mayor around town in a dark blue Lincoln at rates often exceeding the speed limit. Cisneros monkeyed with the radio dial, and every song that issued forth met with his approval.
“Great song!” he said of some mellow oldie. “Who is that? Gerry and the Pacemakers? Man, that was a rich time for music—the sixties. I had a friend at A&M who had every Dionne Warwick album ever made. God, what a voice! She did all those Burt Bacharach things. Good sounds!”
Cisneros drummed his fingers on the back of the seat and gazed out the window at downtown San Antonio, the great municipal antiquity over which he presided. Now approaching its 300th year, the old mission village of San Antonio de Bexar had been led by more alcaldes than mayors, and though it had changed vastly in scale during its existence, San Antonio had not changed in its essential character: It was still a mesoamerican outpost at heart, guided as much by ancient magic as by urban logic. Still, Henry Cisneros’ most cherished ambition was to make San Antonio dynamic, to bring it into conformance with his own personality, and to that end the city was busily being constructed and reconstructed before our eyes.
Not having slept like a log, I was slow to catch Cisneros’ mood that morning. I had been watching him—the only creature on the Texas political scene who appeared to have the blessing of destiny—at a respectful distance for several weeks and had yet to pull him into focus. He projected a constant shimmer of possibility, a sense of having arrived at a momentous crossroads. Not only was he about turn forty, he was also awaiting the birth of his son and plotting the strategy that would deliver him in a timely manner to a suitable high office—say, governor of Texas.
Sometimes, as he presided at a city council meeting, the mayor would sit back in his chair and stare blankly ahead, and in those moments his countenance was as grave and full of mystery as the face of an Aztec lord. But then he would snap out of it and become Henry Cisneros again, the mainstream Hispanic politician and dreamboat, the champion of economic development and consensus building, the mayor who read every “whereas” in every city proclamation with a conviction that was almost studiously corny. It was puzzling to me how a person could be both so ordinary and so radiant, how an immutable square like Henry Cisneros could loom in the public mind as such an evocative and even mythic figure. But the peculiar dualities of his personality and the magic of circumstance had made Cisneros a national presence, the symbol of a rising race and a rising class. As the first Mexican American mayor of a major American city, he was granted from the beginning a certain degree of prominence, and his reputation as the coming thing was further enhanced by his selection as a member of the Kissinger panel on Central America in 1983 and by his high-visibility job interview as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.
None of this was accidental. Cisneros was clearly very smart, always smarter in any given situation than one expected him to be; he had the sort of mind that made me think of a dog straining at a leash. Most of the time his energy was a marvelous thing to behold, but sometimes the spectacle of it filled me with fatigue. I wondered idly what it would be like to be marooned on a desert island with Henry Cisneros. I imagined him standing on the sand in his dark blue suit, slicing the air at a 45-degree angle with his right hand as he issued bursts of policy.
“I propose,” he would say, “that we implement, effective immediately, a tripartite program to include (a) the construction of rafts, (b) the gathering of coconuts, and (c) the building of signal fires. This program will, in effect, constitute a Comprehensive Survival Strategy and will be administered by a special Desert Island Task Force of which I will serve as chairman.”
He does indeed walk like a mayor and talk like a mayor, but no one believes that his vision of himself stops at the city limits sign. “Henry,” goes the joke in San Antonio, “wants to use the presidency as a stepping-stone.”
Cisneros ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner that day at various head tables around the city, rising after each meal to address—without notes—business leaders, political supporters, and a convention of religious publishers. Untouched by exhaustion or anxiety, he moved with elegant tardiness into each new function. He wore his perfectly fitted suit with such assurance that even the cheap digital watch on his wrist seemed to be a kind of sartorial grace note. The citizens he encountered called out greetings to him or tracked him secretly with their eyes or sometimes covered their mouths with their hands and gasped in awe.
“Wow!” a black teenage girl shouted in disbelief. “I’ve never seen the mayor before! He looks neat!”
“Hello, little girls,” Cisneros said to two children in Mexican folk costumes. “Are you going to dance today?”
The two girls looked up at the stranger, as charmed as kittens by this attention that was being paid to them from out of the blue. With the license of a public man Cisneros touched their shoulders and asked their names.
“Girls,” their startled mother whispered in a solemn voice, “this is the mayor.”
Cisneros lingered with the girls for a moment more, chatting with them in the familiar but somehow charged manner of a parish priest. As a mayor, he was unusually relaxed and accessible, though he did seem to savor the brisk formality of city council meetings and protocol in general. Nevertheless, he was universally referred to in San Antonio by his first name, and his home number was right there in the phone book. He worked hard to appear ordinary, which in turn merely added to his mystique.
“Please tell Mary Alice we’re praying for her,” the girls’ mother said to the mayor after a moment of shy deliberation.
“I will. Thank you. She’s doing better.”
Thanks to the San Antonio media, which reports on the mayor with the same fascinated intensity that L’Osservatore romano reports on the pope, Mary Alice Cisneros’ troubled pregnancy was a subject of citywide concern.
“It’s called placenta previa,” the mayor had explained to me with the same assured grasp of knowledge with which he might have explained coal gasification or the intricacies of UDAG funding. “What it is is that the placenta has grown low over the cervix so that the cervix has the sensation it’s time to let the baby out. So Mary Alice has to stay off her feet, flat on her back, or she’ll start delivering.”
According to the amniocentesis report, the baby would be a boy, the couple’s first (they have two daughters, ages sixteen and twelve). If there were no further complications, he would be born by cesarean section sometime in the middle of June.
“A son!” Cisneros, the father of girls, marveled. “Just think—I’ll be coaching a Little League team at fifty years of age. We’re going to have to rework the schedule to include baseball, hunting, fishing—white-water rafting!”
Henry Cisneros had some adjustments to make in his public life as well. He had only just begun his fourth term as mayor, but since he had left the impression that this term would be his last, there was much discussion about what position he would fill in the Great Beyond. A statewide political action committee had recently been formed to give him the resources to “feel the turf,” as he put it, before deciding where to strike next. Roy Spence, Walter Mondale’s primary media adviser in the 1984 presidential race, had recently hosted a fundraiser for Cisneros at his Austin home, and from what I could tell the turf looked pretty solid.
“We tend to think this is God’s country,” Cisneros warned the assembled Democrats who stood on Spence’s hilltop terrace that day. Below them the harsh wooded contours of the Colorado River valley looked as soft as the folds of a blanket in the failing light. “And that everything will sort itself out fine. But let me tell you, the competition out there is stiff! The potential is immense for Texas to slip into a very serious backwater.”
As he went on talking about SAT scores and teachers’ salaries, about international trade and bioscience strategies, the audience found itself strangely not bored. He was not exactly a brilliant speaker, and his entranced belief in every sort of fashionable New Age industry was open to question. But he had a vision for Texas that was an authentic product of his own imagination, and he put that vision forward with such relentless enthusiasm that one could not feel skeptical without feeling peevish. He was a great salesman; time would tell if he was also a great leader. But for now this mostly Anglo audience of politicos and potential backers was motivated and perhaps subtly reassured. It was inevitable, given the shifting demographics of Texas, that they would one day be gathering in support of a big-time Mexican American candidate, and here was one who not only spoke the language but was the perfect advertisement for the harmonious racial comingling that America was supposed to be all about.
The PAC took in more than $30,000 that evening. Even though Cisneros was still a noncandidate for no particular office, his name was very much in the air. What exactly, San Antonians were asking each other over their breakfast tacos, did Henry want to be next?
He was clearly interested in running for governor, but if he took on Bill Hobby he would risk alienating the state Democratic party, to whom his dues were still outstanding. (The prospects for Cisneros improved dramatically in July when Hobby announced he was giving up his own gubernatorial ambitions.) What about lieutenant governor? Would that be read as too cautious a gesture for a politician with a national reputation to support? One obvious next perch for Cisneros was Phil Gramm’s Senate seat, but a fight against Gramm would be hard, expensive, and probably dirty, and it was unclear if Cisneros was up to it. He has never lost a race (in the 1983 mayoral election he received more than 94 percent of the vote), and there exists a perception that he has been almost eerily untested, that a serious political and personal defeat might throw him into despair. This perception has been heightened over the years by occasional uncorkings of the mayor’s temper. When Mayor Lila Cockrell failed to name Councilman Cisneros as mayor pro tem in 1977, he wrote a letter of resignation, which was promptly retracted, but the incident left his affronted ego on public exhibit. Ever since, Henry-watchers have tracked and charted each new cloudburst—the most spectacular being the time in 1983 when he finally had all he could take of Bernardo Eureste, his archnemesis on the city council, and called him “the prince of destruction.”
Of course, the prospect of a state campaign might become moot if Cisneros was considered again in 1988 for the vice presidential slot or was offered a Cabinet post in a new Democratic administration. There was always the possibility, as one Cisnerosologist suggested, that he would “stay in the fetal position forever” and run for another term as mayor. Others believed there was an ascetic, self-punishing side to Henry Cisneros that might just take the glib politician by the hand and lead him away from public life. “What you have to realize about Henry,” says one observer, “is that although he’s not an enigma, he is capable of doing enigmatic things.”
“He’s got an incredible amount of talent,” says Ernie Cortes, the founder of COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), the grass-roots activist organization whose rise to power coincided with Cisneros’ emergence as a mainstream politician. “He’s an effective ally and on occasion a worthy adversary. And he obviously has the ability to look good on a thirty-second TV spot. But what we need now are statesmen who have a capacity for reflection and sadness that indicates a real understanding of the human condition. Henry needs to cultivate those dimensions of his personality and those experiences in his life. He’s going to be flattered by people who have money and power, but he needs to stay close to his roots, to the sorts of values and vision that COPS represents. There’s a war going on for his soul. He’s like Jacob: He needs an angel to wrestle with.”
“The breezes coming out of the Gulf in the evening in San Antonio, the at-times-tropical lushness matched against the old stone walls of the missions. That,” said Henry Cisneros, “is very much the kind of person I am.”
Duly noted, but it was becoming clear that self-analysis was not the most formidable of Cisneros’ talents. He struck me as a man of many facets but not necessarily of many layers.
“Oh, Lordy!” He uttered his standard apropos-of-nothing phrase as he entered his office, put a record on a utilitarian stereo, and sat behind his desk. Soon the room was thrumming with the sounds of the United States Air Force Band.
“‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’” he said. “That’ll wake you up.” He had a wry, self-knowing smile on his face. I wondered if he had a sense of irony or just a fascinating ability to mimic it. His office was filled with a progressive politician’s earnest clutter: busts of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., model airplanes, bookshelves filled with works of history and biography and urban studies.
Cisneros signed papers as he listened to John Philip Sousa. During the record’s next selection, a choral rendition of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” he looked up from his work and grew contemplative.
“That’s a beautiful song,” he said. “It’s on the Statue of Liberty. Listen to the words.” We sat there, attentive, as the airmen sang the statue’s hymn to immigration.
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” Cisneros sang along, perhaps thinking of his own grandfather, a Mexican intellectual and political activist named Romulo Munguia who had passed through the golden door in 1926, one step ahead of a firing squad.
When the song was over, Cisneros settled down once again to his duties. He signed more papers, consulted with his staff, placed calls to legislators and civic leaders, and hummed “Ain’t Misbehavin’” when he was put on hold.
There was much to occupy the mayor’s attention today. His recent vote against a zoning permit that would allow the construction of a mall on the far northwest fringes of San Antonio had thrown various city factions into a state of full alert. Cisneros, with the puzzling abruptness that has proven to be one of his most significant flaws as a leader, had voted against the change because the mall was located in the ecologically sensitive recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which San Antonio depends on for its drinking water. Though the zoning request had passed 8-2, the very fact that Cisneros had been one of the dissenting votes suddenly made protection of the aquifer the city’s highest and most contentious priority. Meanwhile, developers—among them some of the mayor’s leading financial supporters—were furious at what they considered a betrayal of their interests. Cliff Morton, a San Antonio homebuilder, had been openly contemptuous of the mayor at a public hearing on the issue several days before. Cisneros had also infuriated environmentalists by refusing to appoint Maria Berriozabal, the city council member who had been most vocal about the whole issue, to his aquifer task force. Now that both sides were openly hostile, Cisneros announced that he felt liberated, divested of every consideration except what was right. He was ready, he said, to spend a little political capital.
Cisneros had also been busy this week trying to force a bill through the state Legislature in the waning days of its session. The bill would allow San Antonio, in effect, to increase its mass transit tax and use the revenue to finance the fondest of all Henry Cisneros’ dreams: a major league sports stadium. The mayor was passionately—his critics would say peculiarly—convinced that the lack of such a stadium was San Antonio’s chief obstacle to true greatness. Unfortunately the San Antonio legislative delegation was not convinced, and the House was refusing to put the bill on its calendar. Though there was still some support in the Senate, the bill appeared dead, or at least it appeared that way to everybody but Cisneros, who had not yet seen the soul leave the body.
While he was trying to revive the stadium, the mayor was also planning the pitch that he would deliver the next week in Colorado Springs to attract the 1991 United States Olympic Festival to San Antonio and worrying about the future of Sea World, the giant marine theme park scheduled to open in the city next year. Luring Sea World—an attraction that would bring not only trained whales and penguins but also supposedly two thousand jobs and three million tourists per year—was one of Cisneros’ most visible set pieces of economic development. If a British publisher succeeded in taking over Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Sea World’s parent company, the park might suddenly become a neglected stepchild.
“This takeover thing is very serious,” he said, though not unhappily. Each new crisis served only to invigorate him further. An aide came into the office with a poster to be signed for a second-grade class at Oak Hill Elementary School. Tapping his feet to the Air Force band’s rendition of “This Is My Country,” wondering aloud exactly how many second-grade classes there were at Oak Hill Elementary, Henry Cisneros signed his name beneath his image. Wait a minute, I thought: a poster? Was there any other mayor in the country who had his own poster?
Henry Cisneros first ran for the city council in 1975, at a time when the Good Government League—San Antonio’s business-as-usual Anglo ruling party of that era—was starting to lose its political grip on the city and die its dinosaur’s death. Cisneros had recently returned to San Antonio after earning a second master’s degree—in public administration—from Harvard. To the GGL, this energetic and well-mannered young Hispanic, this Aggie who, while a White House Fellow during the Nixon administration, had been coached in how to select a suit by no less a pin-striped eminence than Elliot Richardson, was just the sort of minority candidate that the cautious expansion of its franchise required. He was interviewed and granted a place on the ticket and proceeded to launch a vigorous, high-visibility campaign that promptly—and somewhat rudely, by prevailing standards—eclipsed the other members of the GGL slate. Cisneros won without a runoff, but he drew a higher percentage of votes from Anglos than from Mexican Americans. The endorsement from the mostly Hispanic West Side was a cautious one.
But if Henry Cisneros was an establishment candidate, he had a way of making the establishment over in his own image. In his years on the city council he proved not to be a sellout to Hispanic causes, but at the same time his reasoned, pragmatic presence was a balm to the nervous spirits within the old Anglo power structure. He was, as people kept saying, “the right Mexican at the right time,” the polished man the raw energy of the Hispanic movement required. As a city councilman, Cisneros maintained an effective though not always harmonious alliance with COPS. Working with the organization, he helped lead the fight for single-member districts and capital improvements to the West Side.
When Cisneros was elected mayor in 1981, the national media chose to see him as the symbol of a suddenly powerful minority, but he had been careful to make his constituency in San Antonio as broad as possible. His opponent, John Steen, represented the last gasp of the GGL, but Cisneros was supported by a new sort of oligarchy—the wealthy developers and investors from north of Loop 410 who were eager to take on the downtown elite. Cisneros appealed to the arriviste loop dwellers as much as he appealed to the brash shock troops of COPS. He had a grand vision of San Antonio that was so intense and apparently heartfelt that people were distracted from their factional squabbles. Biotech, high tech, biosciences, the new infrastructure, creative incentive financing, economic development, cutting edge—Henry used all these words and more. When the magic was working he could make the citizens of San Antonio believe that they were all members of one giant task force devoted to creating the dynamic utopia of his dreams.
Most San Antonians have—with various degrees of caution—bought into the dream, though at times Cisneros has appeared to be dragging the city into the future by the scruff of its neck. He is impatient and sometimes heedless. With no close and consistent group of advisers, he tends to hatch ideas in his own head, present them in brilliant bursts of enthusiasm, and then race off after his next inspiration. He seems guileless, but he is a crafty politician who is constantly sniffing the perimeters of his territory, alert to intruders. “He knows,” says one observer, “how to de-nut guys.”
Cisneros’ obsession with retrofitting San Antonio as a high-tech capital is fueled by his nightmare vision of the city as a place where Mexican Americans were kept down by low-paying industry, a backwater resistant to ambition and stagnant with unshared power. Some of his critics, though, contend that he has gotten carried away, that in his quest for research parks and tourist attractions and sports stadiums he has lost touch with the essential rhythms and needs of the city. They wonder why he can’t get as agitated about the need for decent public libraries as he can about a high-risk domed stadium, and they wish he would spend half the time fixing San Antonio that he spends hustling around the nation selling it.
“My fundamental objective has been stated forthrightly since I first ran for city council,” the mayor says in response. “Which was to raise incomes and help reduce the poverty percentage, to help the overall economy grow so that there’ll be enough resources to deal with the ethnic unfairness of the past. It’s a generational change—trying to create a more entrepreneurial climate in a city that’s been civil service and poor.”
It’s a measure of Henry Cisneros’ spectacular presence as mayor that the debate in San Antonio inevitably revolves not around whether he should be in office but around how best to use this splendid piece of human machinery. “People have their problems with Henry,” says one city official, “but if you said you could wave a magic wand and make him go away, nobody would take you up on it.”
“Lordy, lordy, lordy,” the mayor said. “It’s a beautiful evening. This is my favorite time of day.” We passed beneath the freeway overpass, following Commerce Street as it led into the heart of the West Side. To our right, the old Missouri-Pacific train station was in the process of being restored, and I noticed the Indian statue that had been missing from the building’s summit for years was now back, silhouetted against the fiery color bands of the evening sky.
The mayor pointed to construction projects and street improvements as we drove along, interrupting himself to make calls on the car’s cellular phone. He had spent a long afternoon in his office rehearsing for the Olympic presentation he was to make the next week in Colorado Springs and plotting strategy for the stadium bill, which had managed to pass the Senate that morning on a voice vote. Now, if there was only some way to get it through the House …
“A major city needs to be able to host major sporting events,” he explained when I told him I was having trouble understanding his passion for a stadium. “It makes all the difference in the world to think of one’s own city as a competitor in the mainstream. Look at Tampa. The fact that it came on-line as a major city has everything to do with the fact that it got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. San Antonio is the largest city in the country without a stadium. If you go through the top thirty metropolitan areas”—he did—”you find that we’re the only city that can’t host major league sporting events. We’re the tenth-largest city in the country, and people think we’re the size of Tulsa or Charlotte! A couple of years ago, at an economic development conference, someone actually came up to me and asked if San Antonio had an airport!”
It was easy to understand how someone like Henry Cisneros, growing up in this part of San Antonio, could develop a longing to be a part of a big league city. Though the young Cisneros lived in a stable middle-class enclave, he was only blocks away from the open privies, flood-prone caliche streets, and rotting shacks that provided him with perhaps his most instructive lesson in the consequences of powerlessness.
But these streets—lined with icehouses and beauty salons, with taquerias and housing projects—were also the mayor’s emphatic home ground, and he was a proud tour guide as we passed the house where he had taken piano lessons, the junior high school track where he jogs at the rate of 7 minutes and 36 seconds a mile, the home of his boyhood friend Jesse Robledo—later killed in Vietnam—where he had first met Mary Alice at an eighth-grade graduation party.
His parents still live in the house on Monterey Street where Henry and his two sisters and two brothers grew up. George Cisneros, Henry’s father, was an Air Force reserve officer at Randolph Air Force Base until his retirement several years ago after a severe stroke. He’s a quiet, industrious man who, when I met him, was rereading a college textbook on the history of western civilization and following news events on a world map hung on the knotty-pine wall of his den. His wife, Elvira, is slim and graceful, though in clear possession of a formidable maternal will. She established an ambitious and highly structured agenda for her children, enforcing three hours of creative activity a day and color-coding their daily chores on a calendar. From their impeccably kept frame house on the wrong side of town the family sallied forth to hear the symphony and tour the museums; they visited stockyards and train stations, they held loud and lingering political discussions at dinnertime.
Henry was the eldest child. He was named after his mother’s youngest brother—”apparently just a saintly boy”—who developed Hodgkin’s disease at the age of fourteen and asked from his deathbed that his sister give his name to her son. Of the four children, Henry was the most shy, but he had the intensity and industry of a born leader. “He knew from an early age,” his brother George recalls, “that the rest of the family used him as a role model. He was the first grandson of the Munguias.”
George remembers seeing a photograph of his mother and her brothers as children, just after their mother had taken them across the Rio Grande to join Romulo Munguia in the United States. Their heads had been shaved to prove that they did not have lice—otherwise the Immigration and Naturalization Service would have doused them with kerosene—and the humiliating image still enrages George. Henry’s reaction to such perceived incidents of racism is more circumspect. He appears to have taken his father’s advice—”Play by the rules, and beat them at their own game”—and applied it to his own life with such exquisite skill that the scars are barely detectable.
“The worst place I could have selected to go to college as an Hispanic in the sixties,” he recalled, “was A&M. Sometimes I got angry, but I had friends who went to other schools who came away worse than angry—having been put in their place. At A&M there is no place for you except the one you make for yourself.”
The mayor instructed his driver to take us by his own house, a few blocks away on West Houston Street. Known by those with a sarcastic turn of mind as “the log cabin,” the two-bedroom frame house used to belong to Cisneros’ grandfather Romulo Munguia. Young Henry came here to mow the yard and to listen to his grandfather’s insider reminiscences of the Mexican Revolution. He and Mary Alice and their two children had lived here since 1978, though with the new baby coming they had temporarily moved out so that the house could be enlarged.
“What do you think, Mr. Gonzalez?” Cisneros called to a neighbor, one of several who consider it their civic duty to keep a watchful eye on the mayor’s property, as the Lincoln pulled up to the curb. “It’s coming along, isn’t it?”
Cisneros left his jacket in the car and led me through the gutted shell of the house. Little but the walls of the old structure remained, and a big addition on the back doubled the house’s original size.
“This’ll be my study,” Cisneros said as we made our way in the darkness, bumping into sawhorses and stray pieces of lumber. “I made do all these years with just a little study off the living room. Then here’s the kitchen for Mary Alice.
“Wait’ll you see the upstairs.” We climbed a set of bare plywood steps and entered a high-ceilinged rear bedroom with an artful window topped with a semicircle of glass. “The girls have a tremendous, tremendous room. The girls are set. It was originally supposed to be our bedroom, but we wanted to be close to the baby, so we took the one downstairs.”
Cisneros looked up with satisfaction at the fancy window, which let in just barely enough light at this late hour to illuminate the outlines of the room.
“Economically,” he confessed, “I’m just as stupid as hell. This is a poorer neighborhood now than it was when I was growing up—there’s so much out-migration to the North Side. I’m putting a hundred thousand dollars into this house, and I know I’m never going to get my money out of it. But we’ve made this decision, for reasons that transcend logic, economics—or politics, for that matter.”
I was not quite naive enough to believe that Cisneros’ decision to stay in the West Side—here where women were known to carry his picture in their purses, along with their holy cards—transcended politics entirely. Still, his choice of residence was clearly more than a gesture. He was sincerely rooted to this place, by blood ties and by some fundamental character trait that made him wary and hesitant about material success.
It was ten o’clock before Cisneros returned home to the family’s temporary quarters in the King William neighborhood, a sagging, colonnaded house in need of a coat of paint on Adams Street. The house was still furnished with the antiques and kickknacks of the elderly lady from whom they were renting, and portraits of her ancestors looked down sternly from the wall along the stairway. Cisneros led me into a little room behind the kitchen, where Mary Alice lay in a hospital bed, half-watching a TV movie as she made notes on a legal pad about their daughter Mercedes’ upcoming twelfth-birthday party. She was a slight, pretty woman who looked worn out and frustrated by her forced confinement.
“I have shower and bathroom privileges,” she explained. “That’s about it.”
It’s a worker-bee family. Mimi works with the Southland scholarship program, the J.C. Penney volunteer program, the Lutheran General Hospital Board, the PTA at Incarnate Word High School, the Women’s Employment Network, Leadership Texas, the high school dropout prevention program. She’s the chairman of the San Antonio school bond issue to get air conditioning for the schools. She’s pretty busy, I’d say.”
“I’ve lost momentum, though,” Mary Alice said wearily.
“As soon as the baby comes, you’ll be able to get back on track. You’ll have had a good rest, physically and mentally.”
Mary Alice gave him a skeptical look. They watched the news on TV, and when it was over the mayor drove me back to my hotel in his Caprice Classic.
“After the news I usually dillydally around and waste fifteen minutes,” he said, “then I sit down and read. I’m reading a book on trade right now—about how nations can forge peace. It’s called The Emergence of the Trading States.”
Only a few moments earlier, back at his house, Cisneros had seemed as tired as any mortal at the end of a long day, but now as he talked about international trade he grew animated again.
“Onions! Classic case! Texas produces the best onions in the country. Then we send them off to some plant in Illinois to be sliced into onion rings. Then they’re covered with some sort of material and fried in Oklahoma or someplace. Typically colonial.”
Watching him recharge, I remembered something he’d said to me a few days before. “If you take sustenance and energy from what you’re doing,” he’d told me, like some crazed inventor who truly believed he had found the secret of perpetual energy, “you don’t need downtime!”
“I’m going to start being more careful about accepting these honorary degrees,” Cisneros said the next day. He was scheduled to fly to New England that afternoon to be honored by Amherst College, and he hated to leave San Antonio just at the critical point when the stadium bill, against all reasonable hopes, seemed to be gaining momentum and there was a chance it could still get through before the session ended. For that to happen, the members of the Bexar County delegation would need to be “briefed,” i.e., “massaged.” It galled Cisneros that just when his talents as a masseur were most needed he would be two thousand miles away, parading around an eastern campus in a cap and gown.
“There might be some use in canceling out of Amherst,” Cisneros said to his aide Robert Marbut as they rode in the city car to take a big wad of the mayor’s suits and shirts to the dry cleaners. “I’d be willing to miss the Memorial Day celebrations on Monday and go up to Austin instead to brief the delegation. I’d also be willing to call a special council meeting, though I think our chances with the delegation are better than our chances with the council.”
“Who are the council members who’ll be for it?” Marbut asked.
“Webb, Wing, Nelson, Thompson. LaBatt I don’t know. Maria will be against it. Helen might be a surprise; she might bounce for it.”
Cisneros was on the phone all the way to the airport, and up until his flight was called he was busy chunking quarters into the pay phones in the loading lounge. Lugging a drab carry-on bag, he made his way down the aisle of the plane to a window seat in the coach section, nodding hello and talking to the passengers en route, hardly a one of whom failed to recognize him.
When he was seated Cisneros was handed a note from the captain inviting him to upgrade to first class. He politely refused. “People may think the city’s paying for it,” he explained to me. “Plus if it gets back to the gossip columnists, they may write a piece complaining about me riding first class, and I have to spend weeks fixing it.”
When we were airborne Cisneros began sifting through a thick pile of invitations. The mayor was in demand by the Texas Association of Landscape Contractors, a group of young men from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who wanted him to talk about honesty in politics, and a karate school that wanted to award him an honorary black belt. After dealing with his correspondence he began to update his intricate but unrevealing diary.
“Every week,” he explained, sorting through a mass of handwritten notes and neatly typed agendas, “I do two lists. One on the record of The Week That Was and one on The Week Ahead. The Week That Was I keep and use to do an analysis of what I accomplished during the year.
“The Week Ahead I do every weekend. It has a list called Mega Projects to Focus On Daily. This is the list on which I say to myself, ‘You haven’t had a day that’s worth having without focusing on one of these projects.’”
He focused until dinner came, then laid the pile of documentation aside. Later he would work on the speech he planned to give at Amherst, a variant of the speech I had already heard him deliver—quite effectively—several times. It warned against the growing gulf between rich and poor and the consequent loss of the middle class, and it closed by challenging the audience with the concluding lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Cisneros writes his own speeches and charges at least $7,500 for those arranged through his New York agent. Part of the reason for his constant travel is the simple need to make a living, since the job of mayor of San Antonio—conceived long ago as a more or less ceremonial pastime—pays just over $4,000 a year. In addition to lecturing, Cisneros teaches urban affairs and government at Trinity University.
What had it been like, I asked Cisneros as he probed at a cube of airline cake with his fork, to be considered for vice president?
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “Because I wasn’t trying. It wasn’t as if this was something very important to me, and if I failed it would all be over. I was comfortable with the issues that were likely to be talked about—Central America, social policy, cities. I do best in those kinds of situations when I’m relaxed.
“Mondale and I went for a long walk. He never did ask me directly, but I indicated to him that I didn’t think it was my time. I just didn’t want to do it. It’s a question of internal timing. I trust that clock in my own case.
“This year I’m more confident about national issues. I’ve been president of the League of Cities; I’ve learned the financial community. But I would not rule out simply saying that I would not want to be considered for vice president and restrict myself solely to helping other candidates. I’m not anxious and I’m not seeking and I don’t intend to take any overt steps to put myself in that position.”
“Do you think you could do it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I could do it.”
That sort of open-air speculation clearly made him uncomfortable. He had a reticence about his public career that went beyond the sly caution of the average politician.
“I could enjoy leaving politics,” he said wistfully. “Maybe doing something in business on a small, unglamorous scale. I can do a lot of things well. I can wait tables well. I can type eighty words a minute. I was real good at manual labor—picking watermelons, digging ditches.”
He leaned his head back and fantasized about being a Peace Corps volunteer, a junior high school guidance counselor, a priest.
“From the day I was elected mayor and the national press covered it, I was on the track,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily my own choice. Of course, I could have resisted it harder.”
Cisneros was met at the Hartford airport by two Amherst undergraduates who had been entrusted with driving him the fifty miles to the campus. The mayor’s mood was even more upbeat than usual, since he had just discovered that he was not expected to make the commencement address, as he had assumed, but merely to take his place among a procession of notables that included Leontyne Price and Katharine Graham.
“I may get some sleep tonight after all,” he said. The two young men in the front seat stared nervously ahead at first, but Cisneros warmed them up with an unending barrage of questions. He wanted to know their majors and where they were from, what rivers flowed through their hometowns, what highway we were driving on, whether people skied in the nearby mountains, and whether if you proceeded due north from Amhert you would hit Vermont or New Hampshire.
“Name me some of the more famous graduates of Amherst.”
“Uh … Calvin Coolidge.”
“Calvin Coolidge was the governor of Massachusetts,” Cisneros said. “Put down a big strike in Boston as I recall—rode it all the way to the presidency. What’s the history of this area? Colonized early?”
“Yeah, and there was this famous rebellion—”
“That’s right!” Cisneros broke in. “Shays’ rebellion! The rebellion against the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution.”
The commencement took place the next morning on the green in front of the Robert Frost Library, a perfect setting for the “Road Not Taken” speech that Cisneros did not now have to deliver. The Amherst Choral society sang “Gaudeamus Igitur,” and their voices, wafting through the maples, struck primal notes of nostalgia and privilege.
“Henry Cisneros,” intoned the president of Amherst, when it came time to recognize the Mexican American Aggie from the West Side of San Antonio, “you have applied the intellectual skills of study and understanding to public service. Proud of what you have done to fight poverty and shame bigotry, your citizens have three times elected you as mayor. Amherst is proud to honor you today for your visionary and always constructive leadership.”
Cisneros’ visionary leadership was much in demand back in San Antonio. The mayor’s agenda was filled with Mega Projects: the ongoing legislative strategies regarding the stadium, the first meeting of his aquifer task force, and—at week’s end—the trip to Colorado Springs to make the pitch for the Olympic Festival.
He was not optimistic about the city’s chances for landing the festival, even though civic leaders and members of his staff had been preparing for this presentation for two years. They had worked with developers to plan ice rinks and a natatorium; they had produced a slick multimedia presentation that included a video of a local weatherman artfully explaining how, meteorologically speaking, San Antonio’s humidity wasn’t as bad as it seemed; they had lobbied and wined and dined the members of the site-selection committee; they had given them flyers and cascarones imprinted with “Viva Fiesta 1991,” and hung door hangers on their Olympic Village rooms the night before the presentation that said “Shhh! Siesta in progress. I’m dreaming of San Antonio.”
Now, as their ultimate gesture, they had chartered a Southwest Airlines plane and loaded it with business leaders, amateur athletes, and mariachis whose mission was to overwhelm the Colorado Springs committee with civic enthusiasm.
Henry Cisneros’ role was to stand up after the presentation and, as one delegate put it, “close the sale.” It would not be an easy sale to make. San Antonio had made it to the finals, along with four other cities, but it was up against heavyweight contenders like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., cities that were plentifully equipped with just the sort of sports facilities—like the mayor’s longed-for stadium—that San Antonio lacked. But there was no question in Cisneros’ mind that it was worth the effort. He wanted the Olympics, not only because it would ratify his vision of San Antonio as an emerging metropolis but also because he believed that amateur sports could help rescue poor inner-city neighborhoods from “indolence, despair, and self-pity.”
“What we’re shooting for,” he said through the flight attendant’s microphone when the delegation was en route to Colorado Springs, “is a long-term legacy for San Antonio—a legacy of sports facilities, a legacy of athletics, a legacy of … wholesomeness!”
“We’re there to overpower these people with San Antonio—style can-do optimism. If we can do Sea World, if we can do the visit of the pope, then we can do this!”
They gave it their best shot. The San Antonio multimedia presentation (featuring a theme song with the intriguing refrain “Tacos, burgers, and escargots/S.A. is the place for those who know”) far outclassed the visual sales pitches of the other cities, and the zeal of its delegation could not be dismissed.
“What we are presenting is more than just a proposal to bring another Olympic festival to another American city,” Cisneros told the selection committee when it was his turn to speak. “You will have left a physical legacy of enhanced sports activity for all the people of the southwestern United States.
“Ours is a new city, in some sense a city just now coming on-line. You’re catching us on the cusp of our emergence!”
It was an ardent summation, and when the San Antonio delegation boarded the plane for home, it was besotted with civic pride. The city would have its answer from the committee on the next day. For now, the boosters could sit back and congratulate themselves on their efforts and daydream about San Antonio’s impending greatness. At the head of the cabin, the man who had put that vision into their heads and had bent all their disparate and sometimes antagonistic goals into a common focus took up the microphone again.
“I want to talk to you for a moment, if I may, about a different subject. And that,” insisted Henry Cisneros, “is a stadium.”
San Antonio was not chosen for the Olympic Festival. In the end, its lack of preexisting sports venues weighed too heavily against its selection. But the stadium bill—thanks to Cisneros’ constant lobbying—did finally make it through the Legislature before the end of the session. Now the voters of San Antonio would have to approve the stadium-financing scheme in a January referendum. That would be a tough fight, given the large number of citizens who saw the stadium as a risky capital expenditure that was irrelevant to San Antonio’s real problems. The failure of the Olympic bid only gave the mayor more ammunition for his argument that a city without a stadium was viewed with pathetic disregard when it tried to play in the big leagues.
Late in the evening of June 10, just a few hours shy of Henry Cisneros’ own fortieth birthday, his son was born by cesarean section, and suddenly the mayor’s agenda was reduced to one grim and chronic item. The boy’s heart was badly deformed due to a condition called congenital asplenia syndrome; instead of the normal four chambers, the heart functioned as if it had only two. As a result, the blood that cycled through the baby’s system was poorly oxygenated and threatened to flood his lungs as the heart grew. The condition also meant that John Paul Anthony Cisneros—named for the pope who would visit the city in September and for the city itself—was born without a spleen and was therefore fifty times more likely to contract a fatal infectious disease.
There were various palliative surgeries to be performed along the way, but John Paul’s essential problem was uncorrectable by current medical standards. He might die tomorrow, or he might survive to a physically impaired adolescence or adulthood.
Some people speculated that the baby’s illness had left Cisneros so shaken that he would resign his office, while others reported that he was attacking the problem in the classic Cisneros way, studying diagrams of his son’s defective heart and aggressively consulting with the country’s top pediatric cardiologists. It was not long before he was in the newspapers again, stumping with John Connally in support of threatened higher education reforms and speaking at a national League of United Latin American Citizens convention in Corpus Christi. The local television stations covered the baptism of John Paul and the blessing by Archbishop Flores of the Cisneros family’s newly remodeled home on West Houston Street.
I went to see Cisneros on the Fourth of July weekend. A workman was scraping paint off a window when I walked up to the door, and from inside I could hear the mayor playing the piano—a surprisingly fluid and dreamy piece of his own composition.
Though it was a holiday he was wearing a tie. He seemed thinner, and that made him seem taller. As he showed me around the house he apologized for the unpleasant noise the man at the window was making with his scraper.
“I read an article the other day that explained why we don’t like squeaking sounds,” he said. “It’s because they resemble the distress call of our ancestors.”
He opened a door off the kitchen and led me into a small nursery, where John Paul lay sleeping in his crib. He was a small baby, still officially a preemie for a few more days, with thick black hair and a healthy complexion.
“You’d never know anything was wrong with him, would you?” the mayor said. “But of course he’s got a little problem—well, a big problem—right about here.” With his index finger Cisneros drew a circle in the air above the sleeping infant’s heart.
“The birth of this baby is a different kind of experience.” He took a seat on a couch in his new living room. “Most of my life has revolved around doing things that you can know and predict what the outcome will be, and everything’s done on a deadline. With this there’s no solution and no deadline. You just have to keep building him up and hoping that some mildly life-extending procedure will be invented that will buy you time. You can’t engineer a solution.” He made a fist and shook it. “You can’t fix it!
“The first hour after he was born was sheer bliss. It was almost too good to be true. When they pulled him out by cesarean section, the doctor said he looked great. Everything was perfect. And then about nine-thirty the pediatrician said there was a little blueness and that he heard a little heart murmur. Then about midnight all three of them—the obstetrician, the pediatrician, the cardiologist—sat me down and explained it to me. They said, ‘We know of cases where these kids have lived to their teenage years.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, you mean that’s all we can expect—that he’ll live to his teenage years?’ It was quite a … quite a …
“Quite a shock,” he said finally, after a longer pause than I had ever heard sink into his conversation. And when he resumed speaking his voice sounded uncharacteristically soft and private.
“I wanted more family,” he said. “I wanted a son, someone who could jog with you, throw the football around—and maybe that’ll all come true. But I don’t feel burdened or wronged or cheated. There’s a trust that’s been given here—a child who has some difficulties but who has a purpose.”
The baby woke up with barely a fuss from his nap, and Mary Alice brought him into the living room and fed him from a bottle as he grazed up alertly at his mother’s eyes.
“My attitude, frankly, is that life cannot stop,” the mayor said. “Our job is to create for him the most normal circumstance possible for as long as we can. But I’ve set forward a very busy, no-nonsense schedule for the city the next few months. The budget. The aquifer hearings. Preparation for a November streets-and-drainage bond issue. The stadium agenda goes forward. Major community effort in small business …”
But as he talked all our eyes were on the baby. I could not help thinking of what Ernie Cortes had told me—that Henry Cisneros needed an angel to wrestle with.
“We’ll go forward,” the mayor said when Mary Alice had taken the baby back to his room. “It’s a day-by-day thing. If the test here is to see how much I can carry—well, I can carry it.”