Jackpot of the Plains

My unsentimental education in the wheeler-dealer ways of the most American of Texas cities.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

“This is a land flip.”

Early in my legal career, these words were spoken to me by an ordained Methodist minister. At the time, this young minister-turned-lawyer and I were associates in the Dallas office of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, that juggernaut of corporate law and per-partner profits co-founded by Texas überlawyer Bob Strauss. Land flip? It didn’t sound right to me, a piece of land changing hands six times in two hours with the price increasing on each sale. But the minister was casual as he explained the deal. Apparently this was how things worked in Dallas.

I’d graduated with honors from Duke Law School, passed the bar exam, and didn’t know squat about law, business, Texas, or the ways of men and money. The years 1983 to 1988 were my education, my diploma conferred at decade’s end in the form of an FBI hip-check.

If the Dallas TV show began as a cartoon version of the real Dallas, by the time I arrived the city seemed fixed on living up to the cartoon. The program had demonstrated that excess and villainy not only were fun but could be extremely lucrative as well. People seemed to be auditioning for the show, at least in their minds, emulating J.R. and all the rest of the gang, whose heroics consisted not of fighting off Comanche, curing disease, or crusading for truth and justice but of doing deals and making money. Ayn Rand’s mythical capitalist hero came to life on our TV screens every Friday night.

At the time, I thought this all might simply be a question of style, of a kid from North Carolina needing to acclimate himself to Dallas’s culture of hedonistic capitalism. “Who’s the richest man in North Carolina?” someone asked me shortly after I arrived in Dallas. Not only did I not know, the question had never occurred to me. In mostly rural N.C., the few people who had any money—the local Coca-Cola bottler, say, or the owner of the oil distributorship in town—took pains not to advertise their wealth. If I instinctively distrusted this wheeling-dealing culture I’d landed in the middle of, I distrusted my distrust even more. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I just didn’t know enough. Imagine Opie from Mayberry stumbling onto the set of Dallas, and you get the idea.

One of my fellow associates, a smirking, nightclubbing libertine, liked to wander into my office intoning his personal mantra, “Money-money-money-money-screw-screw-screw-screw.” Oil had crested at $35 a barrel, and a country song urged us to “drive 75 and freeze a Yankee.” Real estate was booming too, but more pertinent to our story was the passage, in 1982, of the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, which opened the floodgates of easy money and easier profits for the savings and loan industry. Whereas S&L’s had previously been limited to issuing home mortgages at modest fixed rates, they could now, thanks to this landmark act of bipartisan deregulation, take in deposits at whatever rate of interest the market would bear and in turn lend out those deposits for

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