The Time of His Life

The moment has come for Henry Cisneros to make the hardest decision of all—what does he really want?

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,


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