On a black January night just six days after American jets began bombing Iraq, Oscar S. Wyatt, Jr., the 66-year-old bad boy of the Texas oil and gas industry, faced more than 1,100 well-heeled civic leaders in Corpus Christi and dropped a bomb of his own. “As many of you know, Governor Connally and I went to Baghdad last month to talk Saddam Hussein into releasing the hostages,” a grim-faced Wyatt told his audience. “We became convinced that Saddam did not want war. He knows he can’t win. He stated he knew he couldn’t win. In the end, nobody can win.”
That was not a prediction anyone in the audience at the annual chamber of commerce dinner wanted to hear. The enormous banquet hall in the Bayfront Plaza Convention Center was a vision of patriotic splendor. Guests at the head table, including Corpus Christi mayor Betty Turner and the officers of the chamber board, sat in front of a huge American flag. Above the audience, clusters of red, white, and blue balloons flew from the ceiling. The crowd was unusually large. Many were drawn there to hear Wyatt, who in early December had pulled off an extraordinary act of personal diplomacy. He and John Connally had flown to Baghdad, met with Saddam Hussein, and negotiated the freedom of all foreign hostages held in Iraq.
At the podium Wyatt pulsed in the glow of the spotlight and seemed oblivious to the nervous murmur of the crowd. He looked every inch the personification of the boorish, wealthy Texan. There he stood in the power center of the city where he first got rich 35 years ago. He wore a rumpled black suit and spoke in a brutish, unapologetic cadence, longing for his audience to like him but perfectly prepared to make them madder than hell. He peered over his black-rimmed reading glasses and said, “A senior government official of a Persian Gulf sheikdom was quoted recently as saying, ‘You think I want to send my eighteen-year-old son to die for Kuwait? That would be crazy when we have our white slaves from America to do that.’” Shock washed over the crowd. At the mention of “white slaves,” a Mexican American businessman who was seated near the edge of the crowd stiffened. He elbowed his wife in the ribs and ordered, “Let’s go.” Others at his table sat motionless and bug-eyed. Wyatt pressed on. “I have five sons,” he told them, choking back tears, “and I damned sure don’t want any of them—or any of your sons—to be the white slaves of an Arab monarch.”
That did it. The businessman bolted from his chair and dragged his wife out of the room. All over the banquet hall I could hear the clicking of high heels as other women, some of them the wives of military officers from the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, were led from the room. Undeterred, Wyatt went on with more dark predictions. The war in the Middle East will turn out to be a “meat grinder,” he said. The U.S. will win the war but lose the peace. We are protecting the interests of politically bankrupt Arab monarchies. “The fact is, the administration hasn’t come up with a reasonable explanation of why we should spill one drop of American blood in the sands of the Middle East for the emir of Kuwait,” he said. By now his voice was at a full emotional bellow.
At the head table, Mayor Turner ducked her head in embarrassment. Every drop of color drained from the face of S. Loyd Neal, Jr., the newly elected chairman of the chamber board who earlier in the evening had rallied everyone in the room around the substantially less controversial cause of providing public rest rooms on North Padre Island so that the beach will become “public friendly.” The outgoing chamber chairman, Tony Bonilla, Jr., a plaintiff’s attorney and Mexican American activist who is no stranger to controversy, beamed up at Wyatt approvingly. A small delegation of Russian tourists sat at one table, looking confused. The language and cultural barrier was too much for them. They alternated between staring at Wyatt and shrugging to themselves.
Wyatt did go on to wave the flag. Although he was opposed to the war, he told the crowd, “Now, my feelings are like everyone else’s—I am in full support of our American troops, and I hope the war will end before too much blood is spilled.” Finally he arrived at the main subject of his speech. For a solid twenty minutes he described in detail what he called a decade of domestic mismanagement under presidents Reagan and Bush. “If we stay on this trend,” warned Wyatt, “we’ll find we are the first country that ever went broke on prosperity.” But it was too late. All anyone would remember of Wyatt’s speech was that he spoke out against the frenetically popular war in the Persian Gulf.
CHAMBER DECRIES SPEECH was the headline in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times two days after the speech. Most of the newspapers in Texas carried stories about Wyatt’s strident anti-war remarks and the walkout. In his former hometown of Corpus Christi, Wyatt was about as popular as Saddam Hussein. Even though some people in the audience congratulated him—a few even gave him a standing ovation when he was finished, and much later he received dozens of letters of support—Wyatt knew a disaster when he saw one. Immediately after delivering the speech, he offered his own assessment of the evening. “You’d have thought I had AIDS, wouldn’t you?” he told me, cackling like a juvenile delinquent. “Oh, well, I don’t give a rat’s ass. If they wanted to be entertained, they should have hired a comedian.”
THE X FACTOR
To spend time with Oscar Wyatt is to witness how a businessman efficiently wields world power with none of the posturing of a politician or the polite rules of ordinary commerce. Wyatt is an X factor in foreign relations,