The Unauthorized Biography of Wes Wise

Seated across the table from me, babbling non-stop about almost anything I have not asked him is the mayor of the City of Dallas. He is very uptight. He stands to pace every so often. There is much wringing of hands and nervous giggling. The eyes dart everywhere except directly into mine. The rhetoric is meandering and, from time to time, complete nonsense.I was ready for some of this. After three years of talking to and watching and writing about Wes Wise, I knew he would come out playing pre-vent-defense. He would wait for me to make the first move, then fake left and go right. He would swipe back playfully when cornered. The rhetoric would be brilliantly unspecific. He would brag a lot. He would be tough and fiesty and relentlessly energetic. He probably would get the better of me.

But this was different. The man was scared. It made me think, oddly enough, of Richard Nixon. Watching him on national television last spring, as he explained his innocence for the fourth time, I saw something in his eyes I’d never noticed before. Not the usual cunning bravado, but a kind of fear. He wasn’t afraid of jail; that, we would soon enough learn, was the least of his worries. No, it was the fear that we had caught up with his act. A fear of knowing we knew. A fear of what we were going to do to him now that we knew.

Before we have even formally begun, the mayor is off on a tangent about how the Times Herald story implying he is facing bankruptcy upset him, about how he was not going to speak to any Herald reporter until he received a response to the irate telegram he fired off to Otis Chandler, head of the Herald’s parent company, the Times-Mirror Publishing Co. in Los Angeles. He added that it was an “unfair invasion of privacy” for the Herald to have the gall to excerpt and print from the court records his house payments, his wife’s salary and other details of his personal finances. “That’s just going too far,” he said.

I missed an opportunity to slip in a question. The mayor is very good about keeping the ball rolling himself. As he droned on into a third re-explanation of how he didn’t understand how people could say he hasn’t provided leadership, I thought back to when I had first noticed the fear in his eyes. It was not so panicky, but it was definitely there the first time I met the man.

I was a greenhorn reporter with the Herald covering a breakfast meeting; afterward the mayor approached me and introduced himself. I stammered “Uh, hello Mr. Mayor,” not so much out of awe-at-his-presence, but because I was thunderstruck by how small and unimpressive and well … average this establishment drag-onslayer was. He just didn’t make it as a White Knight. Nor for that matter, did he seem much like a mayor.

“Wes,” he said quickly, “Call me Wes.” He would say that three more times before the conversation ended.

“Need a ride?” he asked, pointing a stubby index finger out to a huge blue Cadillac limousine with a fancy city seal. A beaming black was holding open the door.

“No thanks, Mr., uh, Wes,” I said. “Got my own car.”

He nodded and giggled nervously, and turned and waddled that Mickey Rooney strut he has out to the car. As he settled into the back seat of the car, he smiled back at me through the window sort of sheepishly, as if embarrassed by the big car and the black chauffeur and all. The car pulled away, and he glanced back to wave at me one last time, and that’s when I saw the fear.

Now I’m going to go ahead and ask a question. I ask what he thinks his major accomplishment as mayor has been.

“When I was elected, the one thing I wanted to do was to develop some kind of rapport between City Hall and various groups like blacks, the young people and Mexican-Americans. Open up City Hall to all the citizens. I think that’s underway.”

“Anything specific in mind?” I asked.

An icy moment of silence. “I wouldn’t know where to start…” He proceeded to dive headlong into a Byzantine tale about a couple years back when he’d all but single-handedly staved off a possible race riot. I didn’t recall the particular incident, and I didn’t find an opening to get a clarification. I didn’t have the heart to press him.

I also got soft-hearted when he tried to explain to me that there wasn’t any truth to this business of his avoiding decisions.

“I like to make decisions. Let me tell you about three decisions I’ve made. I made changes at the Dallas Transit Authority when they were needed. I did the same thing with the Dallas Housing Authority board. And just recently, I proposed a campaign finance regulation ordinance for city elections. I did those things on my own, no one told me to, so I don’t really understand how people can say I duck decisions.”

As I began to chide myself for letting Wise get away with quotes like that, I also began to see the man, in a sense, for the first time. Here I was interviewing the mayor and trying to ask the “tough questions,” and yet I felt obliged to lay off the little guy, to protect him from himself. And there he was, fretting and pacing like a cornered animal, more scared of me – no, anybody – today than he was three years ago. Sure, the mayor has had some rocky times lately-financial troubles, a few months of only fair to bad press. But this was something deeper. It lies, perhaps, in the history of the man.

There are few hints of political destiny hidden in the recesses of Wes Wise’s previous 45 years, either of the John Kennedy silver spoon variety, or of the Richard Nixon Horatio Alger stripe. You are left only with fate.

“I don’t know,” the mayor is now explaining, “I guess I’m just hooked on people. You know, when I ride in the Cotton Bowl parade and those thousands of people are cheering and watching on TV, I love that. I enjoy that…”

“A good politician has to have some of that ego.” He pauses for me to agree, and noticing that I am not listening too carefully, he hurries on.

At the time, I was thinking of a most interesting conversation I had with a fellow by the name of John Long, a boyhood friend of Wise’s who still lives in Shreveport, Wise’s home. Wise apparently did not have a comfortable or particularly distinguished youth. His father died when he was 15, forcing him to leave high school and take a job at a radio station in nearby Monroe, Louisiana. He would eventually have to get his diploma via the “high school equivalency test.” He would never finish college.

He is remembered as an above average student; an affable, talkative kid with a lot of friends, but few close ones; a boy who rarely stood out in the crowd. “He always had three loves,” recalls Long. “Sports, politics and speaking before groups. He was really into debate and speech contests. And when he was real young, he used to play stickball by himself out in the street and do his own play-by-play.”

Politics was in the blood. Wise’s grandfather, W.E. Hamilton, was the political boss in Shreveport at the time. “Sort of the John Stemmons, you might say, of Shreveport politics,” the mayor would quip later in the interview, following with a nervous giggle. Long remembers Wise always had an uncommon interest in politics for his age. As early as grammar school, he was handing out cards for local candidates. “He was never the pushy, manipulative leader in the group,” says Long, “but I do recall whenever we were sitting around trying to decide what to do, Wes would always be the one to come up with an idea, and he would always sell it to the rest of us.”

“Wes was kind of old for his years in a way. I think because he went to work so early.

“He always had a thing for financial independence, making it on his own.”

From the day he left high school, Wes Wise spent most of the next 30 years or so moving up from radio station to TV station to play-by-play work with minor league baseball teams. He spent two years in the Army as an instructor in psychological warfare. He made three unsuccessful stabs at college. He got married. He spent 7 years as a sports-caster at Channel 4.

None of that, on its face, suggests that in 1969 Wes Wise would quite casually decide to run for the Dallas City Council and win, and two short years later, decide somewhat less casually to run for mayor of Dallas and

I asked the mayor why he’d gotten into politics in the first place. He replied that he’d been hosting a talk show at Channel 4 and had been interviewing some candidates for City Council that year and had noticed how bad they were. That got him to thinking, he said. I was trying to pay attention, but I was also thinking about what he’d said about being “hooked on people” and the Cotton Bowl parade and the cheering crowd. And I was thinking about a life conspicuously untouched by success. And I was thinking about a kid out in a modest residential street in Shreveport playing stickball all by his lonesome, doing his own, probably flattering, play-by-play. I was thinking about the guy we all knew in high school who was always “around,” but never made the football team or never received one vote for “Most Likely to Succeed” -or “Class Favorite.” And I was thinking about a young man, out on his own, feverishly trying to make his way up in the world in front of a microphone and, later, a camera. I was thinking about politics and ego. And fate.

Because politics, as with so many other men, became Wes Wise’s ticket out of mediocrity. Of course there was much more to it, and that’s where the old bitch-queen fate enters the picture. It never would have occurred to Wes Wise to run for mayor of Dallas, Texas, had not the time been oh-so-obviouslv right. This is not a Richard Nixon we are talking about, in this sense. Wes Wise, for all his drive to succeed, has never been a man of political acumen. He’s not a born Machiavellian plotter. But with Erik Jonsson out for good, with the downtown crowd confused and splintered and going with a less-than-inspiring compromise candidate , and with the natives restless, he had little choice but to run for mayor. Few men can look a gift horse like that in the mouth, let alone a man with the hunger of Wes Wise. It’s a matter of being the right man in the right place at the right time.

His floundering campaign in 1971 took off when he made the run-off; from then on, his election was easy. There were those willing to say his election was good; the rest simply thought it necessary.

Whatever, Wes Wise entered City Hall in a political climate any politician would give his eye teeth for: The folks may not have given him a mandate, but they had certainly given him the nod. Dallas had been run well enough and was still young enough to be free of any persistent or pressing urban woes. Most importantly, the press was ready for a little action. Every woman in the bar looks good after your fourth drink.

So began a love affair between Wes Wise and the Dallas press corps that made John Kennedy’s famous interlude with the Washington press look like adolescent petting. The man had no limits to the good press he could get. Wes Wise puff pieces became a Sunday ritual in both papers.

“He made good copy where there was none before,” a reporter would later reflect. “We were just glad to have a mayor that would talk to us.”

But I have to give Wise his due. The one thing I unabashedly admire about the man is his uncanny knack with the press. He could really court and spark reporters.

I recall one morning, fairly early in his first term, when a group of us had been out on some public relations trip, a bike ride to protest pollution or something. Reporters and pols alike wound up at the Downtown YMCA and-I swear this is true-the mayor did not have a ride. A cameraman from Channel 4 anxiously offered Wise a lift. The mayor anxiously – and with a nervous giggle -accepted. Then all seven of us, including the mayor of Dallas, proceeded to pile into the KDFW-TV company stationwagon.

I remember wondering if this was as neat as it seemed. Here I was with five colleagues cracking dumb jokes, and the guy talking the most and laughing the loudest was the mayor of Dallas. I was kind of taken with it. I’d never seen, or even imagined, a major elected official doing that sort of thing. But when we arrived at the Channel 4 studios there I was, along with all the other reporters in the car, shaking his hand, slapping his back, casually calling him “Wes,” and well, wondering how anybody could not like this guy.

We were putty in his hands. Swiftly and surely he implemented the Wes Wise game plan, which would amount to avoiding anything having to do with being mayor other than talking to reporters. Phase 1: His Wednesday get-togethers with the “folks” at City Hall. You may not have gone. You may not know or have ever heard about anyone who ever went to the “Face the Folks” sessions. But how could any of us forget reading about them? Phase 2: The “average man mayor” number, starring Wise’s little red Volkswagen and his plain little old house and plain little old family.

It was a beauty of an act. As one particularly sage city bureaucrat put it, “You never had a chance to figure what, if anything, that guy was doing. I bet most people never even thought to ask.”

Wise also managed to PR the city council out of its wits. He told them he was going to give them more of an active voice in city affairs and proved it to them by establishing council committees in specific urban problem areas. In contrast to the Erik Jonsson style, he would not walk into informal council sessions with a problem and a succinct, non-negotiable list of alternative solutions. “He’d just come in, state the problem and ask us what we all thought,” says former Councilman Ted Holland. Downright ingenious. Wise makes points with the council by giving them a larger decision-making role and, in the process, whittles down the odds of his ever having to dirty his hands with a controversial stand. And with the council doing more of the paper work, he has more time for speeches and junkets and ribbon cuttings.

Still, between the headlines of that Cinderella first term, there were bad omens. The day Wise was sworn in as mayor of Dallas, right there on the steps of City Hall, he signed his name to a $20,000 note with his new business partner, George Rodgerson, to get their fledgling public relations firm off the ground.

Wise had hooked up with Rodger-son just prior to Wise’s election to the mayoralty. He’d left Jim Underwood’s public relations firm, where he’d worked during his two-year stint on the council. He was out of a job. Rod-gerson, who’d hacked around town for years as a newspaperman and then as a public relations type, was now out on his own. He got a whiff of something sweet: This guy Wise is out of work, and he is going to be mayor, and I can offer him a deal he can’t resist. Sure can’t hurt to have the mayor’s name on the door.

He got together with Wise and laid his cards on the table. Wise was interested, primarily because it was the only offer he had. In that sense, it was an irresistible deal.

It didn’t take long for Rodgerson and Wise to discover that their partnership was not an automatic ticket to easy street. Not only was Wise having trouble fitting in more than a half-hearted day a week at the office, but lucrative accounts were staying away in droves because of his presence. “I think people were afraid to get involved with us because they thought it might look funny,” Rodger-son said recently. “We lost a lot of business because of his title.”

In mid-1972, Wise was approached by a downtown merchant by the name of A.B. Isip. Isip mentioned to the mayor he’d been wanting to start an export firm in Dallas. He wondered if the mayor and Rodgerson would be interested. Wise sent him to Rodger-son.

Rodgerson liked the idea, and immediately got several investors involved, including Dallas businessman Jim Schleder and Fort Worth psychiatrist Bernard Dolenz. Venture capital was raised (including a $20,000 note co-signed by Wise), and the Texas Export Development Corp. was formed. Wise never gave the matter a second thought. Let someone else make the decisions. Maybe this will be the ticket to easy street. A man’s entitled, especially if he’s mayor.

Isip took an exploratory trip to the Orient, and came back empty-handed, but full of eyebrow-raising stories about fortunes to be made in Indonesia crude oil. The backers, who didn’t know one thing about it, listened. Isip indicated he had a pretty hot deal on the line.

A second $25,000 loan was secured by Dolenz and Schleder, which Wise and Rodgerson blithely signed. Isip went back to Indonesia. He came back empty handed.

No oil, and almost all the investment down the drain. Later, the Texas Import people would move in court against Isip, seeking to recover the corporation money he spent on his unsuccessful junkets.

But for the moment, the problem was money. Rodgerson and Wise were each in serious debt. So was the agency. Wise was apparently getting nervous about some new deals Rodgerson had cooking. These tickets to quick money were resulting in quick debts. Rodgerson was apparently peeved about Wise’s lack of contribution to the agency.

In the late spring of 1973, Wise split from the firm, up to his ears in debt and out of work. To this day, Wise, though he signed on some hefty notes for the company, denies he really knew what was going on at Texas Export. After a couple of questions about it, he simply said, “You’ll have to ask Rodgerson about that, I was never at the Texas Export office …”

The mayor’s debts were considerable. There was the $25,000 Texas Export note he and Rodgerson owed. There was some $36,000 in accounts payable held by the firm when it fell apart, of which he owed half. There were other assorted personal debts. It can’t be precisely pinned down, but an educated guess places the mayor’s total indebtedness during this period somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000.

A little less than a year later, Wes Wise would be backed even further to the wall. He and Rodgerson had not been paying on that $25,000 note they’d signed their names to. Schle-der and Dolenz, who’d put their necks on the line to secure the loan, were getting the heat from the bank. They could raise little response from Wise or Rodgerson.

Finally, they were forced to file suit against the mayor and his former business partner, seeking all of the $25,000 loan, plus about five grand in interest they’d been paying while the loan was in default. The court ruled Wise and Rodgerson owed the money. Wise has dealt with it by assuring the public out of one side of his mouth he will take care of his debts, stalling Dolenz and Schleder out of the other side of his mouth with a settlement offer of $15,000. Schleder and Dolenz have countered with a settlement offer of $20,000, to which the mayor has not responded as of this writing. “We are not letting him off the hook,” says Schleder. Meanwhile, Rodgerson has appealed the ruling, in his own behalf. But that doesn’t help Wise any. And if you look at his income and his assets, you really have to wonder how Wise is going to get out of this one.

In a few months, another humiliating slap. The mayor finally accepted a job at the new World Trade Center drawing $22,000 a year from none other than Trammell Crow, biggest land developer in town. Worse, we would soon enough find out that John Stemmons had secured the job for Wise, and there were further rumors that Stemmons and some others were helping bail Wise out of some of his debts. Later, a personal, unsecured loan for $25,000 would be taken out by Wise at Metro Bank to pay off personal debts. The note is co-signed, Wise admits that. And our best guess is that the angel is John Stemmons, even though Stemmons denies it.

No one was wondering more than Wes Wise what this would do to his cherished anti-establishment image. No one believed his own press release more than Wes Wise. He liked the man he read about in the headlines. But when he had to look into the mirror in the morning and face the fact that he was no longer Mr. Independent, that he was a man deeply in the red who was being bailed out by his former adversaries, the image began to crack.

In a way, taking the job with Crow looked much worse to Wise than it did to any of us. The sad thing is Wise’s financial collapse did not result from scheming or conniving, but from childish naivete, negligence and, yes, stupidity.

“I think it really took its toll on him,” says a current member of the council. “Wes was different one day. I think the embarrassment broke him.”

A new Wes Wise emerged. He began to miss board and commission meetings at an unhealthy clip. He began to spend long periods of time out of town on junkets, almost as if to escape City Hall. He was not returning phone calls. He became grouchy and jumpy and, at times, completely inaccessible to the press.

I’d been wondering if anyone else noticed when one day over coffee several other reporters and some folks from City Hall and I began trading Wes Wise stories. Everyone was trying to one-up everyone else. People were laughing at the man.

“I was just down in a councilman’s office” piped up a colleague. “He had gone with Wise to Washington so I asked him what it was like to take the mayor to the Capital. The guy said, ’Sort of like taking my grandchild to Disneyland.’”

“That’s okay, but listen to this,” said another reporter. “Wise is talking about the Dallas Housing Authority problems with a member of the DHA board and someone suggests he ought to talk to city housing director Dick Wilson about something. ’Who?’ the mayor asks ’Dick Wilson, your director of housing,’ the board member replies. ’Oh yeah,’ says the mayor, ’I’ve got to get by to meet that guy some time.’”

“Have you heard about Bobby Stewart?” I asked. “Apparently last month Stewart called Wise for an important luncheon meeting to talk about international air routes for the regional airport. Wise didn’t even bother to return his phone call for two weeks.”

There were other signs of decay. Wise began blowing the one thing he’d never blown before: PR stunts. The first and worst I can recall was his disastrous handling of rumors about his running for higher office. These began not long before his reelection in 1973, and depending on which bar you dropped into, the mayor was being touted to run against County Judge Lew Sterrett, Congressman Alan Steelman and Governor Dolph Briscoe. These were predictable rumors about an attractive, charismatic young politician like Wise. The problem was, he began to believe them himself. An acquaintance of Wise’s recalls his talking very seriously about running for governor in 1974. “I asked where he was going to get his money, his support in other cities, and a few minor details like that, and he didn’t answer me. He had no idea.”

His crumbling ego buoyed by all this talk, Wise himself began to fuel the rumors. He was coy with the press, offering quotes like, “I cannot say that I won’t run for a high office.” There was serious talk he might resign in mid-term to file his candidacy. All the while, Wes Wise was quite sure, as he’d always been, that this was playing well in Pleasant Grove.

But it wasn’t. His colleagues on the council were getting hacked at the mayor’s game playing; the citizenry, for the first time, began to take notice of this little guy at City Hall and did not approve of his opportunism. Dallas is funny that way. It was fine for Wise to spout his urban, liberal cliches and be an “average man mayor” and all. It was kind of fun. But even a hint of political opportunism turned us cold.

Worse than the financial collapse and other blunders, the press was climbing out of Wise’s bed. The honeymoon was over. Wise was refusing to talk to reporters he had once slapped on the back and asked to call him “Wes.”

The night I sensed it was really all over between Wise and the press, and thus, pretty much over for Wise, was the night that John Tackett, then covering City Hall for Channel 13’s “Newsroom,” took the mayor to task for being in some meeting while a group of blacks held a sit-in right in the council chambers. The mayor was absolutely livid. He fired off a letter to “Newsroom” defending his absence. He called Tackett at his home at midnight to give him a piece of his mind. When Tackett indicated he didn’t appreciate being called and awakened at that hour, the mayor hung up on him.

It was all part of a new, and self-destructive, tactic with the press. Once the “reporter’s friend,” Wise now was jumping all over reporters for even the slightest hint of criticism. When Jerry McCarty wrote his story on the mayor’s being allowed to fly first class on the city’s money, Wise wouldn’t speak to him. More recently, when reporter Bryan Martin suggested the mayor might be facing bankruptcy, Wise started blasting. Scared and on guard, Wes Wise slowly but surely destroyed the one thing that had always protected him, the press.

It explains a strange conversation I had with the man a month or so ago. I was at the point in my research where I needed to talk to the mayor himself. I called for an interview. He returned my phone call within 24 hours, which is the first time I’ve ever been up on Bobby Stewart.

Wise: “I don’t know if I should talk to you, Jim, because I hear through the grapevine that you’re out to do a job on me.”

Me: “I think it’s unfortunate you’ve heard that sort of thing. I just want to talk to you.”

Wise: “I don’t hear you denying you’re going to do a job. I haven’t heard you deny it once.”

And so on. He ended by saying he’d have to think about it long and hard and that he would call me in a few days, which he did. I couldn’t help thinking back to the day he’d ridden and joked with us in the car on the way to Channel 4, and what a difference three years, some humiliating financial problems, and bad press could make.

Old lady fate was taking away all she had given. The aces she’d dealt Wes Wise in 1971 were gone from the deck; he was now receiving a series of deuces, which were forcing him to lose his poker face. It left him rattled. He forgot his lines. Between his ad-libbing, I was seeing-we all are-the real Wes Wise: A small, limited and undereducated man, hopelessly in over his head. A man, who when he woke up one morning and discovered he was mayor, tried to duck and dodge and fake and PR his way around being the chief executive of the eighth largest city in the United States. A “peoples’ mayor” who is afraid of people. An “average man mayor” who is just that – average and nothing more. A mayor who responds to mounting complaints about his lack of leadership by explaining, “It depends on how you define power and leadership. If you mean do I sit in an ivory tower and decide who the next United Fund chairman will be, no, I don’t have that kind of power and I don’t want it. But if you mean going before a Senate committee and making a good showing for the city, yes, that’s the power I want.”

It took courts and Congress and the Fourth Estate to squeeze out the truth about Richard Nixon. Wes Wise does not require that. He is telling on himself.


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