Businessman Politician: A True Cautionary Tale
My political cherry was popped when I was only seventeen years old. A 28 year old handsome blonde with a grin the size of Texas was running for governor of Nevada. And I was passionate about a race for the first time, even though I couldn’t vote.
James Ray Houston was a political outsider. Running as an independent, he promised to shake things up, to bolster a flagging economy, to create jobs. He even proposed a dual monetary system backed by silver as well as gold. He sold silver futures backed by bullion in his own vault. (Can you say “conflict of interest, boys and girls?”)
James Ray was a self made millionaire and planned to apply his winning business principles to government. He was a breath of fresh air blowing through a stale room of Carson City bureaucrats. It didn’t hurt that he was gorgeous.
One night, I was waitressing in the Orleans Room at the MGM Grand Hotel. It wasn’t unusual to hear famous names paged throughout the casino on any given day. Sammy Davis, Jr. Wayne Newton. Barbara Eden. It was so commonplace as to fade into background sound. One name shattered the white noise: James Ray Houston.
I delivered my order and picked up one of the house phones. “James Ray Houston, please,” I said to the operator. A moment later, a smooth voice answered.
“This is James Ray. Who do I have the pleasure of speakin’ to?”
“Oh, Mr. Houston. I really want to work for your campaign, I believe in all you are doing and want to help any way that I can.”
“Where are you? I’ll come talk to you right now.”
My idol strode into the restaurant, shook my hand, and invited me to work in the main office with him. No simple volunteer headquarters for me. I was to show up at 9 am the next day. It never occurred to me to question why I would rate this honor.
I worked directly with his campaign manager, another true believer. Larry (not his real name) was a 50-something transplant from Berkeley, California who idolized our candidate as much as I. We worked hard on campaign materials and strategy. Rarely, James Ray passed through the office, bestowing his own peculiar form of attaboys and attagirl. And if his hand lingered a little too long around my waist? Well, it didn’t mean anything. This was Las Vegas after all.
Our work was paying off. James Ray was running even with the popular incumbent governor. People were sick of the status quo. Anyone who questioned this newcomer to the state and his main platform of the dual monetary system was just trying to keep the good old boy network in place. Larry and I congratulated ourselves and doubled our efforts.
Three days before the election, the Las Vegas Sun broke the story. James Ray Houston’s silver vaults were empty. Cavernous. Echoing. Empty. He was in debt to the tune of 2.4 million dollars.
The FBI tapped our home phones as well as the office. James Ray was arrested. Larry and I spent hours on the phone wondering how we’d been taken in so completely. We also yelled over the constant buzzing on our phones, “We know you bastards are listening, don’t you have anything better to do?”
Eventually, the FBI decided we were blameless. Our phones quit buzzing, the office was impounded, and Mike O’ Callaghan retained the governorship.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should. A business man — politician. He’ll promise you everything but only give you Arpege. Which doesn’t even exist any more. Neither does Santa Claus.
Merry fucking Christmas.
Postscript 1: Apparently Arpege still does exist — who knew?
Postscript 2: Santa Claus still doesn’t
Postscript 3: James Ray Houston received a “not guilty” verdict when he convinced the jury that he didn’t mean any harm when he swindled all those silver buyers.
Postscript 4: James Ray went on to swindle thousands more in other states in various Ponzi schemes. He was finally convicted in 2011 and died in prison a year later at age 68
Postscript 5: I have never been that politically naive since. Too bad so many Americans are still political virgins.
Postscript 6: Oxford Dictionaries official Word of the Year for 2016 is “post-truth”, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”