TEXAS ON THE POTOMAC
THE TOSTADAS WERE (LET’S BE honest now) kind of stale, and the chile con queso was soggy, but, well what the hell, it sure was good to find some real Tex-Mex food.
Purists could grumble if they wanted to and point out that the frijoles were little more than mushy pinto beans, but you can only expect so much. Given that it all started out at a Dallas El Chico’s in the first place, and then got flown 1500 miles on top of that, it was a borderline miracle to have been edible at all.
As it was, The Washington Post‘s food editor came by to marvel at the whole spread, and some 2000 folks laid out $5.50 to get the best $1.95 Mexican Special Dinner that you could find in just about 1500 miles.
It was just those crazy Texans again, and Washington has learned by now to take them in stride.
There was even “country music”: a crew of failed rock’n’rollers who ranged somewhere in between the Everly Brothers and John Denver, didn’t have a steel guitar and never heard of Willie Nelson, and altogether bore about as much relation to country music as the airlifted El Chico’s did to genuine Mexican food.
And Shiner Beer. They even had Shiner Beer. And Pearl. And Lone Star. The only place you can find Pearl Beer within that same 1500 mile radius of the nation’s capital is at an expensive third-rate Mexican restaurant in Maryland where (are you ready for this?) they sell it for $1.50 a bottle and call it an “import.”
Yet here it all was, cases and cases of Pearl and Lone Star and even good old Shiner, all of it you could drink and absolutely free. It had all been flown in with the El Chico’s, compliments of Dick Cory, king of the Texas beer lobbyists, who came along with it. Which was nicely appropriate. It’s well enough to fly in some Mexican food, and to bring along as well some Pearl and Lone Star, and even to round up some pseudo-country music, but if you really want to have an honest-to-goodness downhome Texas celebration, you naturally ought to import a lobbyist or two to give it that final touch of authenticity. The Texas State Society had really outdone itself.
Every state, you should know, has a state society in Washington. Every one of them, even puny little states like Nebraska and Vermont, or states that are just a stone’s throwaway anyway, like Delaware. But none of them, nary a single one—even any two or three of them put together—can throw a bash like the Texas State Society. Be proud, fellow Texans, Be Proud.
About four times a year the Texas State Society will get it all together to produce a party. There was well-nigh universal agreement, though, that this fall’s ersatz fiesta—organized under the tutelage of Connie Kazen, wife of Laredo Congressman “Chick” Kazen—rated four stars even by Texas State Society standards.
Texans just came pouring out of the Washington woodwork, emptying smoke-filled rooms by the score to pack into the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building. About half of the Congressional delegation showed up, plus the D.C. contingent of the Texas press and bureaucrats and factotums by the hundreds, some of them still hidden away in jobs they’d burrowed into during Lyndon’s Administration. Oh, and lobbyists. Just as Minnesota and Wisconsin are the proving ground for the superstars of ice hockey, Texas has managed to provide far in excess of its fair share of Washington lobbyists, and all of them turned out for the party. As one cynic noted, it would have been a grand blow for democracy and liberty to have poisoned every enchilada in the house.
Nobody realized that sufficiently in advance, though. Between the non-stop tequila bar and El Chico’s unmeditated best efforts, there were quite a few casualties in any case, but none of them appeared either serious or particularly permanent.
One of the noticeable characteristics of all the Lone Star exiles is that none of them looked much like Texans. Cowboy boots and Western-cut suits have been declassé in Washington ever since Lyndon left, and there wasn’t even a single Stetson in evidence. Nor, even more surprising, was there a single pair of white shoes.
Just because they didn’t look like Texans, though, didn’t mean they weren’t. As Houston Congressman Bob Eckhardt observed, “Only someone whose ancestors were inured to hardship at Goliad and the Alamo could put up with all of this.”
Washington’s large and festering colony of Texans, like first-generation immigrants remembering the Old Country, are a surpassingly sentimental lot, possessed of an allegiance to the old home far exceeding the bounds of reason or sober good taste. Notwithstanding the fact that some have been away ten, 15, even 20 years, those old Texas ties are hard to break.
All it really takes is a couple cases of Pearl and a few soggy tacos to bring it all back home.
THE WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS
IT WAS A SUPER-PARTY, TEXAS style. Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs rented the Astrodome, threw an extravaganza, and just about everybody in the nation attended. Society nabobs in fancy dress, celebrities of the stage, screen, and picture tube; professional football players; the media crowd garnished with the electronic tools of their trade; dedicated women’s libbers; neighborhood bridge clubs; the nice young couple next door; entire families—anybody with strength enough to turn a dial dropped in to check the action.
There hasn’t been anything like it since the late Mike Todd threw a birthday party for himself in Madison Square Garden during the bleak-out fifties. Like Bobby Riggs, Todd was a champion hustler with a flair for profitable flamboyance. His celebration displayed his splendid wife, Elizabeth Taylor; ballyhooed his film, Around the World in Eighty Days; and gave us an abiding image of Marilyn Monroe riding an elephant. Gaudy and garish as it was, Todd’s tribute to Todd provided a flash of color during a time that was stained a tattle-tale gray. And it gave America a new and original mode of expression—the televised party.
As such phenomena go, the Riggs-King bash was better than Todd’s natal day festival. If sex symbols and elephants were still in style, they would have been in Houston’s Astrodome that muggy September night. But since it was 1973 and the times they have a-changed, we garnered our contemporary gaiety from a tennis match between an aging hustler and an aggressive young professional—who happened to be of opposite sexes. In this year of national gloom doled out on a daily basis, we gratefully grasp at any glittering straw. After all, the sole purpose of tinsel is to sparkle.
When it came to tinsel, the promoters did all they could. An elderly press-box attendant stood watching Billie Jean make her entrance as a circus version of Cleopatra. The band was playing, banner flying, dancers kicking their legs in unison, costumed animals skipping and waving, celebrities and socialites sipping champagne, camera crews tripping over each other’s equpiment, Howard Cosell wearing a tuxedo. “Judge Hofheinz will love this,” an old gentleman confided solemnly. “This is just his kind of thing.”
Nearby, an official of a tennis organization was surveying the same scene. “I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head with amazement. Thirty-thousand people at a tennis match. I never thought I’d see anything like this.” The blaring pageant that stretched across the Astrodome baseball diamond was indeed a far cry from the English garden party decorum of Wimbledon. But underneath all the carnival uproar, the evening seemed to hold a special satisfaction for Billy Jean King. And some others.
Earlier, in the hotel where the press center was located, I had ridden an elevator with a harassed maid shepherding a loaded pushcart. “Ain’t this something?” she inquired. “I never saw so much action.”
“Who are you backing?” I asked. She looked at me, surprised. “I’m for her,” she said, emphatically. “She’d BETTER win—or you and me won’t hear the last of it.” The elevator stopped and the woman began to maneuver the cart into the hallway. “Yeah,” she said, “I’m looking to her to shut mouths.”
The day after the match, a stewardess friend of mine was recounting her flight to New York during the time of the event. The plane had been kept abreast of the progress of the match by the Captain. When they landed, the stewardesses rushed to their hotel to catch the ending on television. “Watching her win was so-o-o delicious,” my friend purred.
Everybody needs a symbolic victory now and then. The crowd that filled the Astrodome was sprinkled through with decorous suburban housewives who began the evening gently applauding Billie Jean’s good shots—and ended by standing on their chairs, urging her to knock the tennis ball down his throat. “Come on, Billie Jean,” a woman urged. “Win this one for the dishwasher.”
But while it was invigorating to taste the sweetness of feminine triumph, most women were aware that no real change in their status would come about because of Billie Jean’s win. A prominent woman in the tennis world had remarked earlier, “Even if she does win, it won’t matter. After all, it won’t get us 30 senators.”
As for those who take their tennis in a serious hush, this freak event heralded by partisan T-shirts and home-lettered banners must have boggled the mind. And if there were any gullible souls who expected it to live up to its billing as THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES IN THE MATCH OF THE CENTURY, they were truly disappointed. It was what it was. Much ado about something small. A flack’s hot-air balloon. Summer madness to ease our Watergate-parched consciousness with a drop of levity. But, as televised parties go, this one was a lot of fun.
Of the million who attended, nobody had a better time than the guest of honor. When a reporter, remembering the restrained atmosphere of tournament tennis, asked Billie Jean King if the noisy hoopla had bothered her, she replied, “I love it!” Her gold earrings flashed in the bright glare of television lights as she explained, “If you’ve been around me for many years, you know I believe in screaming in the courts. I believe in bands. I believe in spectators participating in the sport. For me, a lot of dreams came true for tennis tonight…and nothing could be greater.”
Barefoot and beaming, she sat on a platform surrounded by a crush of reporters, celebrities, and onlookers, a small, happy woman sipping a beer. “I appreciate all this,” she said, surveying the pandemonic scene happily, “because I remember when women tennis players didn’t have press conferences. When I won the U.S. Open in 1967, there were three reporters. THREE.” She shook her head in wonder as an Australian reporter pushed in front of a cameraman from India. “I think this is great,” she said.
Billie Jean knows a good party when she sees one. Flushed with success, she smilingly surveyed the scene with relaxed confidence. But when a reporter yelled across the crowd to ask, “What do you feel you’ve accomplished besides winning a lot of money and shutting a man’s mouth?” her face became earnest. The rhinestones on her tennis dress glittered as she leaned forward to answer, seriously. “I’ll tell you right now, I feel a culmination of the 19 years that I’ve played tennis. I’ve played since I was 11 years old and I love tennis very much. But I’ve wanted it to change ever since I started on the courts. I thought it was just for the rich and the white and the men. Ever since that day when I was 11 years old and I wasn’t allowed in a photo because I wasn’t wearing a tennis dress, I knew that I wanted to change the sport.”
While she had no intention of inflating the evening into anything momentous, it still had much personal significance for her. To Billie Jean, this night’s effort was just one more link in a long chain of struggle. “There’s been constant pressure since this match was announced,” she said. “Pressure from the press, from the public…” she put her hand on the big gold trophy. “And now it’s finally over. I can’t believe it.” She hesitated a moment, then said, “But tomorrow I’ve got another match to play.”
No, Billie Jean is not naive enough to expect this sprawling tennis sideshow to be the agent of any lasting change. But, tonight’s victory is, for her, a signal that the changes she has fought for are real, possible, and important. By proving herself so conclusively, maybe she will help to speed acceptance of the changes that have already taken place and some which are still to come.
It was steamy and hot in the room under the Astrodome, but the reporters pushed in closer to the platform as Bobby Riggs joined Billie Jean. “Why did you lose, Bobby?” a harsh male voice demanded. Riggs blinked behind his big glasses. The match had drained his energy and he was too tired to hustle. “Billie Jean was too good for me,” he said. “Too aggressive.” The subdued tone of his voice and the blotched color of his face prompted another question, “Could you have made it through five sets?”
Bobby looked at the unlifted faces of the interrogators for a second, then bent his head close to the microphones. “She won all three sets,” he snapped. “What the hell do you want?”
Beside him, Billie Jean smiled, “To the victor goes the spoils,” Bobby Riggs said. “This is her night.” Blushing but gracious, Billie Jean inclined her cheek to receive the kiss that Riggs was determined to give her. That gesture, she decided, was the cue for her exit.
She stood up from the metal folding chair and picked up her blue suede tennis shoes. Her husband, Larry, lifted the heavy trophy from the table and, trailed by a phalanx of television cameramen, Billie Jean and her protectors began to shoulder their way toward the door. “Hey, Billie!” a female voice called out. “You did it! You really did it!” The crowd of onlookers began to applaud and the sound of their approval followed her out the door.
Everybody agreed that it had been a rousing good time. As the evening’s honoree, Billie Jean got all the presents, including the one she had most wanted. A burly male sportswriter standing next to me said as she was leaving, “That girl knows what she’s doing—and she’s got $100,000 to prove it.” And the respect in his voice bordered on awe.
TELEVISION TIME WARP. OR WAS IT?
THE CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM IN Houston had as a recent exhibit part of a larger show of electronic environments, something called Telethon, which was a compilation of bits and pieces of old and new television shows and commercials from Stopette to Rin Tin Tin to Tom Eagleton’s acceptance speech. The setting for Telethon was pure Mom and Pop nostalgia. Down in the basement of that cold warehouselike museum, down the concrete stairs, past corrugated steel walls, lucite cubes and curved stainless, tucked way back off in a corner…there was a living room. A cozy, comfy, of all things, living room. The kind of nest that causes kids to cringe and flee. Only aproned Mom serving brownies was missing, and Pop dozing in his chair.
The furniture was Early American maple, complete with overstuffed rockers, skirted couch, vinyl recliner, oval hooked rug, Reader’s Digest on the matching octagonal end tables and figurines on the coffee table. The walls were papered in a fox hunt scene interrupted here and there with paintings of wistful rural scenes…ducks, barns, eagles, autumn leaves. The television set itself, stage center, was…what else?…a 23-inch screen maple console with curved legs and fake drawer pulls. Visitors to the show sat side by side, rocking and reclining, watching The Lone Ranger, Steve Allen, Mark Spitz, Miss America, Name that Tune, and cigarette commercials…and it was wonderful.
“Wait,” said one young girl to someone about to leave, “Elvis Presley comes on after this.” And sure enough, after Steve Allen’s interview with the man on the street, swaggering Gordon Hathaway, there was Elvis in white tie and tails singing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” to a real live top-hatted hound dog.
People rested there. They came in, looked around, smiled, made contact with their fellow viewers, found a comfortable spot to sit in and enjoyed something which, if it were offered to them seriously outside a museum, more than likely they would have disdained. It was like going home again without fuss, recriminations, or disappointments. Sometimes people stayed for hours and occasionally somebody fell asleep there, just a-rocking and reclining.
“Our grand prize!” the voice of Bill Cullen exclaims. “This nineteen fifty-seven two-tone blue and white Chevrolet!” Two-tone! What, no fender skirts?
“Wonder bread builds strong bodies eight ways…”
The two young men who put the show together, Californians Billy Adler and John Margolies, have said that what they were aiming for with Telethon was to take “visual information from a visual culture” and to “compact the disposable TV experience into a…continuum.” Commercial television is, they are quoted as saying “instantly fascinating and totally forgettable…Telethon is about remembering what we have forgotten.”
The sound of horses hooves. “Oh…he’s gone. Now I’ll never be able to thank the masked man. (sigh) I wonder who he was.” “Why, don’t you know? That’s the Lone Ranger.” “HI-YO SILVER!!” Dah-dah-dump, dah-dah-dump, dah-dah-dump-dump-dump.
“Viceroy…with twenty thousand tiny filters.”
“Just spray Stopette and POUF! away goes perspiration worries. POUF!”
And then there are those things that because they never change can never be forgotten. “There she is…Miss Amerr-ica…”
Then Edward R. Murrow’s monumentally serious face appears, and he introduces his See It Now program on Joseph McCarthy, and the Senator from Wisconsin himself comes on…and the string of nostalgia is momentarily broken. The reality of the time interferes with its fantasies (America’s best-loved family: Ozzie! Harriet! David! Ricky!) and Mom and Pop sour, just a little along the edges. When Amos and Andy appear, funny as the routine is, the audience takes a second look…when was this made, 1956? ’57? What was happening in 1956? It seems so close and so far away.