An ironic farewell to former Houston mayor Louie Welch.
I had a truly surreal experience one day last month. And the next day on the front of the Metro Section of the Houston Chronicle was a photograph that captured it. It was a photo of a police honor guard arrayed at attention awaiting a funeral procession. Standing at the end of the row, also at attention, is a woman. The photo is nicely composed, shot from behind to capture the individuals and the shadows they cast.
It lead me to think about both the “odd” bedfellows (old-timers who remember the Frank Mann versus Eleanor Tinsley council race will understand the use of that word) that politics can create and the hair-splitting that politicians sometimes have to do to arrive at a position on complicated issues. How do you deal with a person who has valuable skills or has done great things politically, but does stupid and irresponsible things on a personal level (a former president and a local state rep jump quickly to mind)?
This doesn’t just happen in politics, of course. Most of us have a relative who makes us cringe when he opens his mouth and attacks some minority group, but whom we love for other reasons. Or we have a friend who embarrasses us when he drinks too much, but who has our back when we need a hand. It’s just that in politics some reporter is bound to find that relative you want to keep hidden or print something linking you to that friend with the lapse in judgment. Then you have to play out that cognitive dissonance in public. (See, that psychology degree has come in handy!)
Courtesy is certainly owed the holder of a political office, at whatever level of politics. This is, of course, why we stand when the president enters the room. One shows respect for the office, whether one respects the person who holds the office or not.
There have been times when I had to perform a personal reality check while attending a public function. For example, I’ve attended events honoring former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, whose politics I found reprehensible. He was being honored for his steadfast support for NASA and as a champion of foster families. I share his strong support of both those causes and the organizations in question.
And as a fellow Rice graduate, I admired the intellect and inspirational personal success story that characterized former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. I have always found him to be a kind, decent, and humble man. Yet this is the same man who displayed breathtaking intellectual dishonesty in several rulings and testimony as the nation’s highest attorney.
Where does one draw the line?
Former Houston Mayor Louie Welch was not a simple man. He served five terms as mayor (1963 – 1973), after two unsuccessful tries. Before that, he was a council member for four years. I believe he is the only former council member to become mayor. He led what is now the Greater Houston Partnership after leaving office. He was a true visionary, securing the water rights that Houston uses today, creating the EMS function of the fire department and expanding Houston’s international presence. Gregarious and quick with a quip but fiercely tenacious, he was a rat terrier of a man—he simply adored Houston with every inch of his 5’6” being.
Yes, this is the same Louie Welch who uttered those stupid, derogatory words “Shoot the queers” in 1985. As you may recall, while waiting to begin a TV interview he tried to make a joke about his strategy to prevent AIDS. The camera was rolling and the live feed went directly to the TV station.
Welch was a man of his time and that time had passed him by. He was a politician who learned his craft when reporters carefully edited the public personas of the powerful, and all interviews were on tape. The remark would be utterly shocking by today’s standards of public humor, but it was crude and offensive even in the 1980s. An overnight printing of hundreds of T-shirts pleading “Louie, don’t shoot!” raised money for the gay community’s political efforts. Welch subsequently lost his political comeback bid to unseat mayor Kathy Whitmire.
Funerals are a part of politics. Attending a funeral is a sign of respect to the deceased and a gift of compassion to their family. When a person in elected office attends, it can be especially meaningful. I have colleagues who seem to comb the obituaries for funerals to attend. My personal rule, however, is to attend only those where the deceased would actually know who I am. For example, when Ann Richards died many of my council colleagues traveled to Austin to attend the service. I am a great fan, have read her autobiography, and even have a picture on my office wall taken of the two of us while she was governor. While we had met several times, she would not know me on the street. I did not attend the service.
On the other hand, I make it a point to attend services for city employees (police, fire, and civilian) who have been killed on the job during my tenure in office. I perceive that as part of my duty to a colleague in public service. I have been shocked that many of my peers do not view this the same way.
When Mayor Welch failed for the first time to attend the most recent city inauguration, I knew he was very ill. When he died, the mayor, council members, and I received notice of the funeral arrangements. He would be accorded what is our version of a state funeral. Out of respect for his devotion to the city I also love, I joined hundreds of mourners and attended.
Former mayors Hofheinz and Lanier attended the service, but slipped away at the end. Mayor White actually had to leave before the service ended. No other sitting city official bothered to attend.
So there I found myself, standing at attention with the honor guard, the lone representative of the elected leadership of the City of Houston. I still have my T-shirt, carefully saved. I think Mayor Welch might have appreciated the irony.
Annise D. Parker is the second-term city con troller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houston controller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Comcast) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houston tx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.