The Tulsa World

Robert Bryce provides a fascinating look at the influence Texas politicians and businesses have on the nation. Cronies are guys who hang out together and do favors for each other. The cronies who inspired the title for Robert Bryce’s new book are rich Texas business owners and Texas politicians.

The politicians receive generous contributions from their business buddies in return for seeing to it that the government climate remains favorable for Texas-based companies.

Bryce, an investigative journalist, grew up in Tulsa and now lives in Austin. He makes clear in “Cronies” that Texas today has a tighter hold on this country’s politics, wallets and lifestyle than any other state. Three of the last eight presidents — Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush — have been Texans.

Oil and natural gas provide the energy that fuels the American way of life, and the companies that dominate the worldwide energy business are, for the most part, headquartered in the Lone Star State.

Until just 15 years ago, Texas was solidly Democratic. During much of the last century, its key politicians were men such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn, President Johnson, Chairman Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and John Connally, Johnson’s campaign manager who later was to serve as governor of Texas.

For decades, these men and their Texas cohorts saw to it that the 27.5 percent oil depletion tax allowance, which enabled such wildcatters as Glenn McCarthy, Hugh Roy Cullen, H.L. Hunt and Sid Richardson to become billionaires, was preserved by the federal government.

Now those wielders of power have been replaced by a new set of cronies. The two principal players today, according to Bryce, are a former Texas oilman-turned-politician, President George W. Bush, and his vice president, Dick Cheney, a politician-turned-Texas-oil-man-turned-politician.

“Bush and Cheney,” Bryce writes, “are part of a small group of powerful Big Rich Texans who, through their connections to the energy industry, have exerted extraordinary influence in the United States and in the world. Call them the Texas Six Pack: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, George H.W. Bush, James A. Baker III, former Enron CEO Ken Lay and the independent oil man and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Ray Hunt. Those six men are just the current giants in the long Texas tradition of mingling energy, business and government for private profit.”

The title of the first chapter in “Cronies” is “From Mina al-Bakr to Houston.” The chapter explains how, in the opening minutes of our 2003 attack on Iraq, four platoons of U.S. Navy SEALS slipped in and took over Mina al-Bakr, Iraq’s main oil export terminal. By taking over the terminal, the American military prevented the Iraqis from repeating the oil spills they initiated during the opening days of the 1991 Gulf War.

Bryce adds, however, that “Mina al-Bakr is significant for another reason: it’s a Texas outpost in the heart of the Persian Gulf.

“The terminal may be owned by the Iraqi government, but it was built by the quintessential Texas company, Brown & Root. That’s the same Brown & Root that helped put Lyndon Johnson in power. That’s the same Brown & Root that’s part of Halliburton, the world’s second-largest oil field service firm. That’s the same Halliburton that, until the summer of 2000, employed a former defense secretary named Dick Cheney . . . It’s the same firm that has garnered federal contracts worth $11 billion to rebuild Iraq’s oilfields and civil infrastructure. As soon as Baghdad was captured, one of Halliburton’s first tasks was to assure that Mina al-Bakr was open and ready for business.”

For Tulsa readers with connections to the petroleum industry, “Cronies” will be an especially intriguing read.

The book explains in detail, for example, the events that brought George Herbert Walker Bush into the oil industry: “Bush landed in Odessa in 1948 and later moved to Midland. There he met a Tulsa native, Hugh Liedtke, who had followed the footsteps of his father, a Gulf Oil Corporation lawyer, into the oil business. In 1953, Bush and Liedtke, along with John Overby and Bill Liedtke, formed Zapata Petroleum Corporation. Their luck was remarkable. Shortly after they started Zapata they drilled 127 wells in the West Jamieson field, in West Texas, without a single dry hole.”

George W. Bush’s entry into the oil business was considerably less successful. His first company, Arbusto Energy, failed. Later, he was given a board seat and a consulting gig with Harken Energy Corporation that paid him about $120,000 a year. Then, two months after his father was sworn in as U.S. President, “George W. announced that he and a group of investors had purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team for $86 million.” He financed his portion of the investment — $606,000 — with a loan from a bank in Midland, and later sold his interest in the team for a profit of more than $14 million.

The notes and bibliography that accompany the text reveal that “Cronies” has been exhaustively researched. Its pages are filled with fascinating, little-known details about such public figures as U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R.-Texas), who Bryce predicts will become the next Speaker of the House, and James A. Baker III, the Houston lawyer who was Secretary of State during the George H.W. Bush presidency and who left that job to go to work for Ken Lay, CEO of now-defunct Enron.

“Cronies” is one of those intriguing nonfiction books that come along every now and then — a book that most readers will find difficult to lay aside.

Howard Upton is a Tulsa writer.


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