Water Under the Bridge

Henry Cisneros became a national political icon by bringing Anglos and Latinos together. But after admitting he lied to the FBI, he’s put his public life behind him. And this time, he really means it.

November 1999By Comments

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 NOT RETURN TO PUBLIC LIFE, then his final contribution will be indirectly but indisputably valuable: His case highlighted the excesses of the independent counsel law and helped bring about its death. All that the critics said was wrong with the law was present in the Cisneros investigation. Independent counsel David Barrett operated as a separate branch of government with a blank check (spending at least $9 million), an undefined mission (investigating potential witnesses for unrelated wrongdoing), no time constraints (taking four years to get to trial), and no accountability. Ordinary people had their lives turned upside down as he sought leverage to get them to testify—including Medlar, who went to prison for lying to the FBI (she now goes by her maiden name of Jones), her sister and brother-in-law, and two Cisneros aides. One critic of the law, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post, “The first victim of every independent counsel investigation is perspective.”

The perspective that was lost here is that Cisneros’ conduct in understating the payments he made to Medlar, while morally wrong, was criminally trivial. The main reason is that a lie, to be prosecuted, ought to be material. This is no mere technicality. A free society must maintain an unbreachable line between conduct that is illegal and that which is merely undesirable or unadmirable. To lose sight of the distinction is to invite selective prosecution, and the independent counsel statute invited political leaders to be called to account for minor offenses. In Cisneros’ case, he had owned up to the material facts: the affair and the payments. The exact amount, while four times the sum Cisneros had acknowledged, was just a juicy tidbit that was irrelevant to his confirmation as HUD Secretary. Indeed, the Democratic chair of the Senate committee that held hearings on his nomination, joined by the committee’s ranking Republican, subsequently wrote Attorney General Janet Reno that knowledge of the true amount would not have affected the Senate’s decision to confirm Cisneros.

The prosecutor was not the only one who lost perspective. So did federal district judge Stanley Sporkin, who ruled that Barrett could buttress his case with numerous taped conversations between Medlar and Cisneros that she had secretly recorded and later doctored. The independent counsel’s legal team acknowledged that she had copied the original tapes—deleting portions that were irrelevant or unfavorable to her contention that Cisneros had promised to continue the payments to her—and destroyed the originals, but Sporkin allowed use of the tainted evidence, the fruit of the poisonous tree. He noted that Cisneros could argue the credibility of Medlar and the tapes before the jury. Sure—at the cost of $1 million in legal fees, and he still could have been convicted on the basis of doctored tapes.

On the day of the plea bargain, Sporkin indicated some misgivings about the process. “The problem with this case is that it took too long to develop and much too long to bring to judgment day,” he said from the bench, adding that it should have been resolved “a long time ago, perhaps even years ago.” Exactly. And Sporkin could have resolved it; had he thrown out the tapes, Barrett’s case would likely have evaporated. But he believed that the prosecution was necessary, because, he said, “We cannot permit an individual to lie his way into high public office.” Lost in this description of the case is the distinction between a material lie and an immaterial one. And so newspapers across America, on Wednesday, September 8, carried headlines like the one in the Washington Post: “Cisneros Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI Agents.” He lied, all right— but he wasn’t guilty.

FOR A PERSON WHO WANTS TO BE AWAY from the limelight while he puts his life back together, Univision is a comfortable place to be. Chairman and CEO A. Jerrold Perenchio has been described as having a “long-standing aversion to publicity” and expects other executives to follow his lead. The company has a San Antonio connection too, having gotten its start there 38 years ago as SIN, Spanish International Network—a grandiose name for what was then a single television outlet, Channel 41, the first station in America devoted entirely to Spanish-language programming. During Cisneros’ presidency, which began after he left HUD in January 1997, Univision has thrived—its 1998 operating profit, $131.2 million on revenues of $577.1 million, was up 25.6 percent over 1997—and so has Cisneros, who had a piece of $42.6 million in stock options last year. Since Perenchio took the company public in 1996, Univision’s stock has more than quadrupled.

Still, Cisneros’ position as head of a Spanish-language network suggests that a lot of water has gone under the bridge—and the bridge builder—since the days when he was America’s foremost example of assimilation. Today one of the main issues in Spanish-language TV is whether to try to attract assimilated, upscale young Latino viewers, a prized demographic catch for advertisers, by incorporating more English-language programming; Univision has answered in the negative (with certain exceptions, such as brand names for advertised products). “We believe that we should defend the Spanish language like Tiffany defends its jewels,” Cisneros told the Los Angeles Times last July. Could this be the politician who was once preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues like jobs instead of cultural issues like bilingual education?

Cisneros gives Univision a familiar Latino face—Perenchio is Anglo, with his roots in Hollywood—as well as an executive who is credible with the advertisers the company must attract. Since his tenure began, ad rates are up by about one third (though still well below those of the four big American networks), and the network enjoys 92 percent of the prime-time Spanish-language viewership. And what does Univision give Cisneros? Money, of course, which he desperately needs. And peace. He is free from the pressure of bridge building, free from being the connection between the haves and have-nots, free from the expectations of everyone else. His sole responsibility lies with the Latino world now. Maybe some time in the future he will emerge to head a major national foundation or to be chancellor of his alma mater, Texas A&M University, or even of the University of California system. But for the moment, he couldn’t be happier than where he is. According to a state lawmaker who attended a conference in Corpus Christi, Cisneros told a group of Hispanic legislators, “All my life I’ve had to work with Anglos, get their approval, and explain us to them. Now I don’t have to give a crap what any Anglo thinks.”

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