“Oscar was fun to write about because he was so sure of himself, a larger-than-life character,” Jan Jarboe Russell said of reporting on Houston oil and gas tycoon Oscar Wyatt Jr. She covered his business and political maneuverings in the months leading up to the Gulf War in Iraq, and his post-invasion disdain for the war. “He had definite opinions and was unafraid to state them, popular or unpopular,” Russell remembered of her conversations with him thirty years ago.
A man would have to be sure of himself to stand up in front of a largely pro-war crowd, as he did in Corpus Christi six days after the invasion, and tell them it was a mistake. But he went much further. “I have five sons, and I damned sure don’t want any of them—or any of your sons—to be the white slaves of an Arab monarch,” he told the stunned gathering, referring to Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. Many in the crowd walked out.
Russell used the speech to introduce Wyatt, but she painted a more complete picture of his motives. His energy company, the Coastal Corporation, was one of few American customers buying low-cost Iraqi crude at the time, and it imported 250,000 gallons of barrel per day just before the war. But that business relationship with Saddam Hussein’s government would prove useful when he and former Texas governor John Connally successfully negotiated directly with Saddam Hussein for the release of 24 American hostages from Iraq in 1990. It was this dichotomy that led Russell to call Wyatt an X factor. “The unknown and unseen variable,” as she put it.
Wyatt’s exploits and accomplishments live on the edges of public opinion. He needed those big wins to paste over the failures. “Wyatt became the most hated oilman in Texas,” Russell wrote when he cut off the supply of expensive natural gas to San Antonio power plants in 1973, causing brownouts. Coastal paid a $40,000 fine in 1980 for violating oil pricing regulations. But his biggest flop came much later.
Russell didn’t keep up with Wyatt’s career but, she said, “I do remember enjoying Mimi’s story after his trial in New York.” In a November 2007 article for Texas Monthly, “The Day Oscar Wyatt Caved,” Mimi Swartz covered Wyatt’s guilty plea on a charge that he made illegal payments to Iraqi officials under the Oil-for-Food program. He spent a year in a minimum security prison.
Wyatt, though, may have had the last laugh. He recently celebrated his ninety-eighth birthday in his Houston mansion with his socialite wife Lynn Wyatt. And given what we know now about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, his words to Russell back in 1991 were prophetic. He said the Gulf War was just the beginning, saying, “We’ve still got huge numbers of the Arab masses mad as hell at us.”