The Short Happy Life of Henry Cisneros
by Jim Mendiola
Here’s a joke I heard while visiting San Antonio a week or so after the Lewinsky sex scandal broke: Question - How do you say ‘Bill Clinton’ in Spanish? Answer - Henry Cisneros.
Everyone in the bar laughed. Again. Most, I would find out later, had heard the joke before. What a difference a decade makes. Only three hours back home and I knew something strange and significant was up when our city’s favorite son was now the butt of jokes.
Unless you were there, in San Antonio, during the dorky, skinny-tie years of what VH1 calls the Big 80s, it’s hard to imagine the positive self-actualizing impact Henry Cisneros had on the Chicano community, not just in San Antonio, but all across Aztlan. But then, of course, Henry Cisneros, ever the pragmatic, centrist politician, would probably have never said “Chicano” in public -- it would alienate the gringo voters too much -- and “Aztlan,” to him, was just some taco stand on the Westside.
But it was, I think, precisely in that soothing and calculated moderate stance that the secret not just to Cisneros’ mainstream success lay, but the stance also spoke of a equally pragmatic realization from la Raza that it was exactly this kind of moderate brown politician that would at last succeed on a national level. Cisneros embodied a crossover opportunity even the most radical of nationalist true believers would, grudgingly, accept. The potential payoff of one of our own participating in the national discourse was just that great.
It didn’t happen, of course. The success. And while it’s tragic that any hope for the first Mexican American President is still to come, it’s even more of a tragedy that these days, just a decade later, the significance of Henry Cisneros is not fully realized, appreciated, and thus able to be learned from. In these indiscriminately voracious, pop-will-eat-itself times that this post movimiento generation actively participates and depends upon for its history lessons (MTV News, Primer Impacto, People Magazine), Henry’s story becomes, increasingly, less and less known. It’s useful, I think, to be revisit his story.
The Great Brown Hope
Way back in the day -- like 1988 -- Henry Cisneros was the most famous Mexican American in the United States. The guy spoke at Democratic National conventions. He shared a presidential commission with Henry Kissenger. In barrio grade schools nationwide his distinct, and to Latinos, recognizably indigenous face, smiled down from thousands of Hispanic-pride-type posters alongside fellow Brown heroes like Cesar Chavez, and... and... well, you get the picture. He was pretty much all we had.
As for White America, they too were starstruck by this smooth and articulate, Harvard-trained technocrat. To los gringos -- thank God -- long gone were the messy days of grape boycotts, Chavez’ bad haircut, and the esoteric details of this week’s banned agricultural commodity (“Does a Merlot count, too, Martha?”) .
Henry, on the other hand, spoke fluent policy wonk with the best of them: “infrastructure of urban economic development,” he could say, or, “decentralization of urban responsibilities.” Who cared, really, if our abuela could or could no understand just what “value-added tourism” meant. Or us, for that matter. The vicarious thrill Raza felt at the respectful attention Cisneros received from mainstream America was not only unique and unprecedented, but also, we knew, long overdue.
By even the accelerated standards of the go-go 80s, Henry’s rise to national prominence was extraordinary in its swiftness. He first made national news in 1981 when elected mayor of San Antonio at the relatively politically precocious age of 33. (“The First Mexican American Mayor of a Major U.S. City” headlines proclaimed). Journalists from national publications as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Esquire and the New Yorker soon booked flights to San Antonio (“The Nation’s Tenth Largest City!”) to profile this safe and palatable embodiment of the Decade of the Hispanic. U.S. News and World Report listed him (along with then Governor Bill Clinton) as one of “Ten Rising Stars of American Politics.” Playgirl magazine voted Henry one of the Sexiest Men of the Year. A flattering “60 Minutes” profile beamed his telegenic charisma to a national audience.
And people believed the hype. So much so that it was no surprise when on July 4th, 1984, Independence Day, three short years after his first Mayoral victory, Henry Cisneros stood proudly in front of then Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s Minnesota house in the middle of a hot national campaign. With his smiling young Brown family around him, Cisneros deftly fielded questions to a national press corps eager to hear his thoughts about his just-finished meeting with Mondale, and Henry’s chances for the still-vacant Vice Presidential slot.
“Buenos Dias, Mayor Cisneros,” a network reporter -- not used to seeing polished Latino politicians -- opened the Q&A. “Buenos Dias,” Henry jokingly replied. And then, adding quickly, in a glib, politically astute reassurance to Middle America, “And Happy Fourth of July.”
The self-proclaimed bridge builder between the Anglo and Mexican American communities spoke once again.
Mondale, of course, eventually chose as his running mate Geraldine Ferraro; Henry moved on.
Speculation then turned on either a gubernatorial bid, or a strategic wait for an upcoming U.S. Senate race. In either winning scenario (the victory, of course, taken for granted), Cisneros would add another “first” to his long list of achievements. In this case, becoming the first Mexican American ever to win office in the Great (and still, good ol’ boy dominated) State of Texas.
The collective hopes reached a zenith a few months later when Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, boldly predicted in public what many Latinos were privately whispering for years: Henry Cisneros would be a successful presidential candidate in the campaign of 1992.
“It is in the realm of reality,” Yzaguirre assured us.
Oh, well. And Duran Duran was the next Beatles, right?
Local Boy Does Good
For the citizens of San Antonio, myself included, the office of Mayor, as Henry ran it, was a uniquely personalized relationship. It became second-nature to call the Mayor by his first name: Henry made sure the garbage was picked up on time; Henry lowered the light bills; Henry courted Fortune 500 companies to set up shop, locally, so Tio Bobby could get a job. Henry appeared at PTA meetings, at lowrider shows, and at Chamber of Commerce meetings -- both Hispanic and regular. In grateful return he was reelected as mayor for a second term with 94.2 per cent of the vote, a large portion of that number Anglo.
At the Eighth Annual Henry Cisneros Appreciation Night held at La Villita, a block down from the Alamo, the San Antonio Express News reported that “2,500 businessmen and women, politicians and civic leaders shouted their enthusiasms about Henry’s future over the high powered jazz of Ramiro Cervera’s band.” Tickets were $35 a person (“no exceptions”). Blue and white $2 buttons, emblazoned with the upbeat message “Cisneros: The Future,” sold out quickly. And for hours Henry autographed copies of a 32 page brochure that detailed the still ongoing, historic “Cisneros Years.
His potential, it seems in retrospect, was more important that the present. As a long time supporter of Cisneros put it: “Henry’s always been the most powerful guy in town because of what he was going to be.”
The growing accomplishments chronicled almost daily in the local papers -- with excerpts reprinted verbatim from national publications: “rising star,” “sexiest” -- were reassurances to the faithful that Henry was truly on his way to...something.
Enter La Gringa
Late in Cisneros’ fourth term as Mayor, at the crest of Henry mania, San Antonians woke up on the morning of Friday, October 14, 1988, to banner headlines trumpeting shocking and disbelieving news: “Cisneros Confesses Deep Love For Medlar.”
Linda Medlar, it turned out, was a woman with whom Cisneros had been carrying on an affair for the past two years. She was married and had been working for Henry on his staff as a fundraiser. Recent puzzling decisions by Cisneros -- not to run for Texas governor, not to run for a fifth term as mayor, talk of a break from political life -- suddenly made sense in the wake of the inevitable political scandal that soon followed.
At a forty-five minute impromptu news conference held that day on the front lawn of his Westside home (unintentional ironic shades of his more triumphant Mondale lawn press conference held four years earlier) Cisneros declared, “I am not made of plastic and wiring, but blood and flesh and feeling. In the course of a lifetime these things happen. I can’t be sorry for life.”
The news hit the national wires, with many of those same earlier fawning magazines and newspapers now publishing career obits summing up the tragic end of the country’s most promising Latino politician. In San Antonio, among the city’s Mexican Americans, a not too buried subtext in the subsequent demonizing of Medlar, was the whiteness of la otra. It was a betrayal on the most fundamental of levels.
The future of Henry Cisneros, everyone agreed, would be a future lived in as a private citizen.
A few weeks after the scandal broke, Cisneros sat with a reporter in a coffee shop to talk about his future plans. He was riding out the remaining months of his self-declared last term, anxious to just leave the scrutiny of public life. He acknowledged the burden he felt at singularly representing the hopes and dreams of Latinos nationwide.
“That’s their destiny for me,” he said, “it’s not my destiny for me.”
Four years went by between that mea culpa press conference on his front lawn and Henry’s eventual reentry into public life. During that exile from public service, private citizen Cisneros successfully formed Cisneros Assets Management Company. He prospered financially. His marriage held together.
But Henry still longed for public service.
A tentative reentry into politics -- as an advisor to Bill Clinton’s successful ‘92 presidential race -- led to President-elect Clinton naming Cisneros as his new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. With the appointment, Cisneros instantly became the highest ranking Mexican American official in U.S. politics, and, once again, the focus for the pride and hopes of the national Latino community.
“There are no second acts in American Life,” Fitzgerald wrote. When Bill Clinton chose Cisneros as his next HUD Secretary, Cisneros’ reentry into public life, at its highest levels, seemed to prove F. Scott wrong. But then again maybe not. If we’ve learned anything from Watergate through Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky, it’s not so much the crime as it is the cover up. Cisneros’ recent 18 count federal indictment, may prove the Jazz age writer prescient as always.
The lurid and embarrassing story of the Cisneros-Medlar affair, a story now four years old and thought to be safely laid to rest, was nothing more than prelude to what would become the real story of the end of public life for Henry Cisneros, and the end, for Latinos, of a powerful and respected national spokesperson.
While officially “broken up” with Medlar, and happily living once again with his wife and family, Cisneros had secretly been making large cash payments to his ex lover. Whether Cisneros felt guilty or responsible or, as the FBI maintains, only interested in maintaining Medlar’s silence, Cisneros has never said. Regardless of his reasons, large cash deposits were regularly made into Medlar’s personal bank account.
In sworn statements Cisneros gave to the FBI during their routine background check of all cabinet nominees, the HUD nominee admitted the payouts, but put the payout figure at around $60,000. Upon investigation, the real number came closer to $250,000. He also told the FBI that the payments had ended. Not true again. The payments had, in fact, continued for eight months into his cabinet post.
As private citizen Henry Cisneros the payoffs weren’t necessarily illegal, but as a Secretary Cisneros, continuing them was not only a potential political landmine, but in lying about them to the FBI, during their mandated background check, the less than honest details of the transactions became the basis for a felony, a potential jail time, and a scandal once again.
Medlar, of course, was acutely aware all along of the legal ramifications of Henry’s payout money, and their potential application for personal gain -- and leverage. Ever the shrewd political operative (they met, after all, when she was Henry’s campaign fundraiser), Medlar began to secretly tape her and Cisneros’ private telephone conversations for some future blackmail.
As Medlar expected, Secretary Cisneros eventually stopped the cash payments. By then, Medlar was prepared. She sued Cisneros, her ex lover -- the man she once called “the love of my life” -- for breach of promise, and sold the illegally recorded tapes to the tabloid TV show Inside Edition for $15,000. The eventual broadcast and subsequent media inquiries into the details of the payoffs prompted Attorney General Janet Reno to call for an independent counsel.
Three years and $4 million dollars later, Cisneros now faces his federal indictments and a maximum jail time of 90 years. All for misleading the FBI in their questions about the details of his private life.
On December 12, 1997, the nation awoke to a front page story in the New York Times with the headline “Ex Housing Secretary Cisneros Charged in 18-Count Indictment,” and below, in smaller type, “He Is Accused of Lying in Confirmation Inquiry.”
As you can probably imagine, Medlar is not a popular figure back home in San Antonio.
Regarding the Latino political landscape, post-Cisneros, the reviews remain mixed.
On a local level, his eight year strategy of consensus and bridge building with San Antonio’s Anglo community and an avoidance of racial polarization may have been too successful: there has not been another Mexican American mayor in the ten years since Cisneros left office. This despite the city’s Mexican American population at nearly 60 per cent and climbing. Still, in the city’s last council election (“Now The Nation’s Eighth Largest City!”) six of the ten new council members were Mexican American. The big news of that unprecedented minority majority win is that it was no news at all. The inclusion and impact of Mexican Americans in that city’s politics has become both matter-of-fact and business-as-usual. We’ve got Henry to thank for that.
On a national level, our most prominent Latino politician is -- or was -- ex Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña, who we would only catch on CNN during those infrequent newsbreaks when a DC 9 crashed or a commuter train derailed. As Latinos stand ready to soon overtake African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group, no national brown figures yet exists on the horizon with the stature of say, Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters or even Al Sharpton. No one exists to speak out, rally, and stand up against movements like 187, 209, the Texas Hopwood decision, or the current efforts to eliminate bi-lingual education in California.
Its no surprise, then, that in this vacuum of national political leadership other images and role models fill the void. Actor Edward James Olmos, for instance, becomes the Latino voice in the hand-wringing aftermath of the L.A. uprisings; Jimmy Smits becomes our spokesman in a testimony before Congress; and an readily marketable, dead 23-year old Tejano pop singer becomes the lone subject interest for Hollywood’s fickle, bottom-line driven attention on this country’s huge and historically complex Mexican-American community.
Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, in tiny restaurants, cantinas, and ice houses all over the city, old and brittle newspaper clippings of Henry’s ‘81 mayoral election still hang, yellowed and faded, tacked to the wall.
For now, at least.
Slowly covering them -- one smiling glossy photo after another -- are new images: The original Selena, the Jennifer Lopez clone, La Tropa F, Oscar de la Hoya.
What does it say, finally, when our heroes are no longer political leaders but images from People en español instead?