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Interview with: Fred Zeidman
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: June 12, 2008
DG: Today is June 12, 2008. We are in the offices of Fred Zeidman who is being interviewed for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Mr. Zeidman?
FZ: Fine, David. Thank you.
DG: Fred, let’s begin at the beginning. Tell us where you were born, about your early life.
FZ: Wharton, Texas. Right down the road, about 60 miles down the road, back before there was a Southwest Freeway. We used to have to take Old Main Street and it was a long trip from Wharton to Houston. So, I grew up in Wharton. Did not leave the state until I went to college. I went off to undergraduate and graduate school and then could not stand it and came back as quickly as I could afterwards. So, I have been back in Houston since 1972, so I have been back 36 years. Is my math right? I am going to be permanently memorialized not knowing my arithmetic, I guess!
DG: Well, the math was right. What did you do when you were a kid?
FZ: You know, I grew up in a little country town. A funny story. We were talking the other day this past weekend with a bunch of friends from New York City and I said, “You know, I don’t know that it hurt me to grow up in a little farm town or not. I don’t think it did. Things have been O.K. since. It was just a typical small rural community. Ironically, it is still 8,000 people. The same size it was when I lived out there. I mean, the two most famous citizens, I guess, are still alive – Horton Foote who still lives down there and Dan Rather, but it was a little farm community that Houston has still not quite grown out to, although it has changed a little bit since I was there. Just a typical rural town where everybody had to get along. I mean, I don’t know if you have ever heard any of my speeches where I have said, “You always had to behave because if you didn’t, your mama was going to know about within an hour no matter what. You knew everybody in town, everybody knew you and we all grew up pretty well grounded, religiously, civically. You know, it is a big difference than growing up in a big town because in a small town, everybody has got to participate and you learn that from an early, early age on, and you are involved in all kinds of activities, both at your synagogue or your church, and the Boy Scouts and the Cub Scouts I mean, ironically, back at my reunion, I got up to speak and I said, you know, I have had a very interesting career since then which has taken me into some pretty fascinating places including bilateral discussions with most of the leaders of the free world, the Western European countries and obviously here in the United States and I have never felt particularly intimidated by my Wharton elementary school, middle and high school education as opposed to some of the private schools that have trained some our best and brightest. So, I think the basic groundings and the difference in right and wrong were all taught to us, again, both in a family sense . . . a highly religious community, a highly tolerant community. I mean, look, I am the classic Baby Boomer, right? I was born in 1946. I mean, that was the start, right? So, I grew up during all those turbulent times and Wharton, Texas, never had any of it. Schools integrated virtually without incident. I will tell you one line I will never forget and actually, I think, very surprisingly considering you are in the rural south, at my high school graduation, the superintendent stood up in his speech and said, “I want ya’ll to look around because it is going to be different from now on. There is going to be a little salt and pepper in this class going forward,” and all of us got the gist of what he said because I graduated in 1964, they integrated the schools or started the integration process in 1965 but without incident. I mean, really, in this little town of 8,000 people, Hispanics, African Americans, everyone participated, everyone got along, we did what we had to do and that was life. So, it really was an interesting background and one that I have never second guessed or ever been sorry that I grew up in. And I can remember my parents, the discussions at our table were always highly political but my parents were never actively involved in politics in town. I asked them why which is particularly ironic considering what has happened with me over time, but I grew up in that highly charged atmosphere and they were ardent, ardent Zionists so Israel was a big part and this was right actually at the start of the creation of the state of Israel. I remember saying to them, “Why aren’t we active in politics?” And they said, “Look, there are only 8,000 people in town. We have a clothing store in town. We can’t aggravate half of them so we need to stay out of politics. We are Republican, the Democrats are going to find somewhere else to shop. We can’t afford it,” so they stayed out of that mix but were tremendously active and were phenomenal role models to me in every club in town; you know, the Lyons Club, the Rotary Club, Shriners, the Business and Professional Women, as well as the synagogue.
DG: When you lived in Wharton, what was the city’s view of Houston, that big Babylon up the street?
FZ: Well, that is exactly what it was. You have got to remember, in those days, Houston was not Houston. I mean, Houston was a big Babylon up the street but it was far removed from Wharton. Again, it was a two lane road and Highway 59 at that time from Wharton to Houston, it was a drive to get there. And there really wasn’t much to do there. I mean, if you had a serious medical problem, the doctor in town would probably send you into Houston. You know, we had to come in for an orthodontist because there wasn’t an orthodontist in Wharton but, I mean, there really was very little connection. Now, whether there might have been . . . Wharton County is one of the most prolific oil producing counties in the state, home to a tremendous amount of production and I think some of the original Texaco production might have been down there, so there is probably a lot bigger connection, if you will, if you were involved in the oil industry, although it was very small. You had tremendous land owners in Wharton because it was all agriculture and they were all ranchers or farmers in Wharton County. We were the county seat. But there was no land boom. My guess is the only real connection . . . Wharton had its lawyers and everybody used the Wharton lawyers. I mean, I guess if you really needed serious stuff, you would come to Houston. Wharton did not have a stockbroker so the stockbrokers would come out but there wasn’t much money to be spread around anyway. So, there really wasn’t a whole lot of connection at that point in time and these were in the early, early days of television. So, I presume we got the two Houston newspapers out there but I am not sure they got delivered very early. I mean, I remember seeing a newspaper in the house every day. Houston was a long way away at that point in time. There was no instant communication at all. Phone service was still, you know, you would call the operator. My all time favorite story about telephone ______ was a cousin of mine who was not, at that time, my cousin, called Wharton to talk to my cousin who was from Wharton and she called the operator and said . . . because you had to go through an operator, there was no direct dial . . . I have just always loved this story . . . she called and said, “Could you connect me to” whatever the number was, his number, to such and such at this number, and the operator said, “Well, he’s not home. He’s over at somebody else’s house playing poker. Do you want me to connect you over there?” She has told that story for 50 years but, I mean, that is what Wharton was all about. Everybody knew everybody’s business, and it really was about as simple a life as you ever could have imagined. It was just unfettered by all the complications that my kids grew up with in this fast-paced life now and yours will be even more so.
DG: A lot of people who grew up in small towns tell one of two stories, either, I can’t wait to get out of this small town or no matter where I go, I am going to come back here to stay. What was it for you?
FZ: Well, interestingly enough, my dad is going to be 100 this year . . . his advice was always great, and it is particularly interesting in light of my now connection to the University of Texas, but the only place I ever wanted to go to school was University of Texas. That is the only place I wanted to go to school. My dad said to me, “If you want to go to the University of Texas, I will buy you 4 pair of blue jeans and do not ask me for another nickel.” Well, that was a little disconcerting and I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because let me tell you, you’ve grown up with the same people all your life. If you go to college with them, you will be with them for 4 years, and you will be with them the rest of your life and you will never meet anybody else. I just don’t want to participate in that.” He said, “Go away to school, I’ll pay for every nickel of it, and then you want to come home, you can come home and then you can be with all these people again but at least you will have been exposed to people outside the state.” So, I did. When I got out of school, my dad said to me, “Do you want to come back into the family clothing store?” I said, “You know, unfortunately, you sent me way to the big city and as much as having lived in New York and having spent a great deal of my childhood actually in New York,” because my dad was from New York – we used to spend our summers up there – “I have been touched a little bit by the faster pace of the bigger city.” And I remember saying to him, “Dad, I just don’t want my biggest decision every day to be whether Mrs.” . . . there weren’t any Goldsteins in Wharton, but whether Mrs. Goldstein when she brought the dress back the next day, really had worn it the night before whether we were going to take it back. I said, “I have just expanded the horizon with which, the environment in which I like to make decisions, and my preference would be not to come back. I don’t know what I want to do,” but, I mean, I have gotten intrigued by the world of finance at that point. I had gotten my MBA. And just chose that other path. So, I still go to bed early at night when I can, even in Washington, but I really had 8 years, at that point, 10 years, 9, 10 years of exposure into a life that exceeded Wharton. Now, a lot of Whartonians enjoy Houston life, they enjoy living out in the country or in that environment, but they either have a place here or they . . . of course, now, you know, it is 35, 40 minutes on the freeway so it is easy to come back and forth. I guess Wharton will be annexed by Houston at some point. It is already out to Richmond/Rosenberg, right, which is only 20 miles away, and, I mean, if you look at where I live now, I live inside the Loop. I mean, I still like small town living and I truly believe that if you live inside the Loop, you really live in a small town. You go anywhere in this town and you see everybody you know. If I go outside the Loop, that probably is not going to happen but we have been able to . . . Kate is from Shreveport, arguably a small town, so we have been able to shrink this phenomenal city into a very livable size. I mean, you live inside the Loop, there is no traffic. I am downtown in 3 minutes. I am here in my office. I am here in 5 minutes. Where is the traffic? It goes to the airport, I know. I hit it going to the airport. But, at any rate, I feel like I have managed to bring as much of Wharton as I could to Houston but that being said, I never really wanted to go back to Wharton for anything other than to visit.
DG: You graduated from Washington University?
DG: And you got your MBA from NYU?
FZ: NYU, 2 years later.
DG: Any particular reason for Washington University?
FZ: Well, yes. Again, interesting story. This whole . . . it is sort of the follow on to this conversation with my dad. And yes, it had a lot to do with my being from Wharton and being very naïve, so great question. When dad said Austin or nothing, back in those days, when daddy told you to do something and momma, you did it. I mean, everybody was Mr. and Mrs. and Ma’am, yes, Sir and yes, Ma’am . . . by the way, which is funny, David, because I still say that to people now that I am 60 years old. They get insulted. “I am not that much older than you. Don’t say yes ma’am to me,” or “Don’t call me Mrs.” I said, “I am sorry. That’s the way I grew up. Everybody was Mrs. and Mr.” But anyway, it is an unbelievable question. So, I said, “Yes, sir, I guess I am not going to University of Texas.” So, I had to decide very quickly where I wanted to go to school. So, I picked what I considered to be sort of the equivalent schools. Now, this was in 1964. I am not sure it is any different today but I very quickly applied to Washington University, Vanderbilt, Tulane, Northwestern, and Emory. I did not want to go to an Ivy League school. I never even thought about it. I went and visited. I went to the East Coast and visited a couple of them and that was not for me. Coming from Wharton, St. Louis and Nashville and even Evanston were about as far as I would go. And the only thing I ever wanted to do was get a business degree. And I said this is where this naiveté comes in. So, I get accepted at all the schools and I have applied to the business school. Well, 4 of the 5 wrote me, you are accepted into our liberal arts program. We do not give a Bachelor of Science degree in business but you can get a bachelor of arts. Well, what they were trying to tell me was I could take all the same courses, I just could not get a B.S. degree and I do not even remember but I guess if you get a B.A., you have to take art history, right, and if you get a B.S., you don’t have to take art history, you take something else? Anyway, so I would have had to take a couple of liberal arts courses. I did not understand that. I thought it meant I could not take business courses. The only one of the 5 schools . . . I had never been to St. Louis. I had been in the train station because we used to take a train to New York every year. My mother was afraid of flying and that is how we used to spend our summers in New York, so we would take the train and the train from Houston from Union Station where I obviously spend a lot of my life these days going in and out of those ballparks, and that is another thing by the way . . . you know, I have been a baseball fan my entire life. Growing up in Wharton, we did not have TV. I used to listen to the Mutual game of the day. And that is why when I got an opportunity to buy the Washington Nationals, for a kid that grew up playing with baseball cards listening to Mutual game a day, to be able to own a Major League baseball team, I mean, how is that for a thrill of a lifetime? But, at any rate, I had never been to St. Louis. But the only place that would give me a business degree, because I never had any intention of going any further, was Washington University. So, I said, “I am going to Washington University.” I remember the day I was sitting in English class when the letter came home and, of course, they sent it to your school at the same time. Of course, Wharton . . . I was, by the way, the first graduating class . . . I apologize for rambling but I was the first graduating class to go across 100 in Wharton. We had 101 students. But we were the Baby Boomers, right? We were the post war . . . you could not have been a Baby Boomer if you were born the year before me. The war was still on, right? 1946 was the year everybody came home. So, they announced to the whole school, “Fred Zeidman, wherever you are, you have been accepted at Washington University.” So, I went home and I said, “I guess I am going to St. Louis because I can get a business degree.”
So, we packed the trunk and they took me to the train station. I mean, this was a couple of weeks later. And my father said, “When the train gets to St. Louis, get off, that is where you are going to college.” “O.K. by me.” So, I did. And, of course, it was a marvelous experience and it is a marvelous school and I am as close today with so many of my fraternities – our 40th reunion was 2 weeks ago. I ended up missing it. I mean, not only had I every intention of going and all of my friends and fraternity brothers – we really are still close – were all going to be there, I was going to be the keynote speaker because of my experience. And then, I get the call from the White House, would I like to go to Israel with the president on the trip he made for the 60th anniversary 2 weeks ago? What am I going to do? I mean, that is something that is not coming around again. Hopefully, I will have a 50th college reunion. So, I did not get to go, I did not get to see it. But, I mean, phenomenal bunch of guys obviously. A few Houstonians but for the most part, Chicago, New York, and we are as close today . . . you know, they say your best friends are made in college. That is probably true. I mean, I still talk 40 years later to . . . if you look at my call list today, there are 2 of my close friends, fraternity brothers, on the list for today. I am still trying to do a little catch up with everybody that I did not get to see when I was in St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. So, it was a great experience. St. Louis again was not a big fast city. I mean, at that time, if you recall, it was a dead city, right? I mean, it was the railroad city and the railroads were gone. It was the chemical center and distribution center. All the industries that were dead in America, so many of them were centered around St. Louis. And so, it really was, again, a small town environment. And it was great for me. And I loved every second of it. And, of course, graduating in 1968, I don’t need to tell you what that year was. That is the year everybody went to no draft deferments, everybody got drafted. That was the year of the lottery and everybody got drafted. Everybody was going overseas. And so, if you wanted to go to graduate school, every graduate school in the country was taking everybody . . . I mean, all you had to do was be able to read and write and Harvard, Wharton and everyone else would accept you. And I was fortunate enough to have graduated number 1 in my class in finance at Wash U so all those things being . . . I had my arguably choice of graduate schools. A funny story. I got ready to graduate and I had no intention of going to graduate school. I was going right to Wall Street, right, because I was the Wall Street genius, so I started taking interviews. I took 4 interviews and every one of them said to me, “Wait a second, you don’t have an MBA, you have an undergraduate degree. We are not going to hire you.” So, after the 4th . . . this was in 1 day . . .after the 4th Wall Street firm had said, “Wait, how did you get this interview? I mean, you don’t have an MBA. We thought you had an MBA.” I went back to the dean of the business school and I said, “I’ve got a problem. I can’t get a job on Wall Street because I haven’t got an MBA. I want to work on Wall Street.” My father, interestingly enough, had worked for the New York Stock Exchange before he moved to Texas and married my mother. So, he said to me . . . this is funny because this is something else that had I really understood, I might have . . . but he said, “There are more NYU graduates on Wall Street than any other school in the Ivy League schools. I said, “O.K.” So, I will never forget this – this was in March/April 1968, just before I graduated; you know, that is when you do your interviewing. So, I call up the dean of admissions’ office at NYU and I said, “Fred Zeidman, I would like to come up for an interview.” And, of course, you know, when you are in the middle of all this, you don’t realize that all the graduate schools are taking anything that breathes because everyone was getting drafted and sent overseas and out to the war. So, I said, “I would like to come over.” “Come on. What time do you want to be here tomorrow morning?” I must be a hot shot.
DG: They know me!
FZ: Yes, they know me. So, I got on the plane, I flew to New York, I went in, I walked in, they said, “You are accepted. Do you want to go to school here?” I said little did I know . . . you know that old joke about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple? I mean, I did not realize if I could walk in and talk, maybe they would accept me. So, that is how I got to NYU afterwards.
DG: So, how did you end up back in Houston or how did you end up back in Texas?
FZ: Another great story. I never wanted to live the rest of my life in New York. It just was never a place to me to raise a family, it was a great place to be single. I mean, I don’t have to tell you – I was in New York in 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1971. I lived in Greenwich Village. I mean, what a time to be single in New York City. That was it. But that wasn’t the way I was brought up, that a family should be brought up, and I did not want to have to commute somewhere. And I had a good friend, actually an older brother of one of my closest friends who is still here in Houston and is still one of my very close friends from Wharton, who said to me . . . who is maybe 10 years older than I was and he said to me, “If you stay here past 28, you will stay here forever. So, if you want to get out, you’d better get out.” And the market turned south. I was working on Wall Street. The market turned south in the early 1970s. Bear market. Things were not good. I was discouraged. I said, “Maybe now is the time to go home.” I was about 27 at that point. I remembered what Don had said to me. So, I said I have had enough. I packed up and put all my stuff in the car and as I drove across the George Washington Bridge, I said, “I finally got you.” Maybe you still do – you only have to pay the toll when you come in, not going out. I said, “I am going out and I am not coming back. You are not going to get the total. So, I crossed the George Washington Bridge and drove home.
DG: To do what?
FZ: Well, I had sort of . . . investment banking and venture capital, all those kinds of things were really in their infancy down here. There was nothing here but oil and gas obviously and the money center was Dallas. And I thought there would be some opportunities there and I was going to come back and . . . go into that business. I came back, tried to set up shop for myself. I actually put a deal together fairly quickly and decided that being the consummate entrepreneur was not necessarily for me. I was 29 years old and did not want to have to live deal to deal. As I put this first deal together, I was able to successfully put it together and it was just a fluke I got into it. I mean, first of all, this is the greatest town in the whole world to do business in. I mean, everyone will give you a chance, everyone will open the door, and I have tried to keep this door open and that phone open for anybody because of how open people were to me when I came. Nobody knew me. I didn’t know anybody. You know, we were from Wharton. I did not know a soul in Houston. Nobody. Not quite true – I had gone to college, I had a couple of _______ friends but they weren’t the ones that really did not make it when I got here. People are willing to listen and people are willing to give you a shot. And if things fail and you have been honest, they will give you the second shot. I mean, it is an incredible environment to be in. So, after I put the deal together, one of the groups that had invested in the deal had a venture fund that was not managed and they said to me, “Would you like to come to work for us?” We have done the deal and run our fund here, and I was ready to get a steady pay check because it was tough and did. So, I worked there 8 or 9 years until the deal came in that was too good to pass up and I asked permission to leave with the deal and I did. I am as close to the guys I worked for in the 1970s, today, as I was back then. I learned a tremendous amount from them and how to do business in Texas. My daddy had always taught me the right way to do business and we have tried to maintain a business . . . I have just been very fortunate in the people I have been involved with and I think most of us in this town have that opinion because it just is an open place. I mean, I am the living example of how, you know, you can come to this town and accomplish something because people are willing to give you a chance. I do not think that is true everywhere but it is a new town, it is a wide open town, it is an entrepreneurial town.
DG: You would be worthy of inclusion in this project for your business life and for your community service but I want to talk about your political life. What was your first conscious sense of being drawn to political activism? You told us when you were a child, you wondered why you weren’t more active and you understand the reasons . . .
FZ: Well, O.K., another fascinating story. I had always been tremendously intrigued by the process. Again, my parents were never actively involved in it, but it always fascinated me. Politics always fascinated me. I mean, it is only in retrospect that you look back and say, why was I so attracted to books like Advise and Consent? Why did I always want to read Theodore White’s, “The Making of the President?” which started in 1960. I mean, I can remember when I was 11 years old and this is another great story which I told the first time that I actually spoke at the Rotunda of the Capitol. When I was 11 years old, we went to Washington, D.C., and, of course, times were different then and, again, my parents were totally inactive in politics. My father was actually a Goldwater Republican and my mother was a Franklin Roosevelt Yellow Dog Democrat, which is why these conversations were always so fascinating in my house. So, senior year in college, junior/senior year in college, I needed one more elective. I decided I would take a polysci course, and I took a course from a guy I will never forget. I think he recently has passed away – a guy named Laddie Coeur and I do not know who he was but I did not know who he was at that time other than a professor at Wash U. He was extremely socially liberal and, of course, he was teaching politics as dogma. I mean, I will never forget – I wrote my thesis on a book called “The Gay Place,” which was the book if you remember, the Lyndon Johnson in Texas before Masters of the Universe. And when the course was over, I said, boy, if this is what really drives our country, I am not sure I want to get involved in this. 25 or 30 years later, I found out that Dr. Coeur had been Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to John Kennedy in the White House and then I understood for the first time ever why he taught the course the way he taught it. But, at any rate, got out of school, went to New York, no political activism at all. Always interested in it but just was a way . . . oh, so we go to the Capitol and Sam Rayburn takes us around. I was just smitten by Sam Rayburn. I mean, he was the Speaker of the House at that time. These were the days and time, it would be enough to write a $100,000 check for Sam Rayburn . . . I guarantee you my parents never wrote a penny and here was the Speaker of the House of Representatives walking me through the Capitol and walking me in that Rotunda, and the first time I stood there and spoke and looked up at that, I said, I don’t believe this. This is a little kid from Wharton when he is 11 years old just sitting up looking at this ceiling and am sitting up here now in front of one thousand people and a national television audience making a speech. It’s a pretty good country! Not bad! But, I mean, it is a land of opportunity. It really is. I mean, 100 years ago, my grandfather came – he could not speak English - and here we are. So, I really sort of stayed out of the process and I moved back to Houston in the early 1970s. Still was not involved. That is where the relationship with the president goes back to but, you know, he was not very involved in this kind of activity either back at that time. So, about 1980, 1979, right around there, I still watched all the conventions, I was still fascinated by them . . . I get a call one day from a guy in Wharton. Mack Sweeney. Mack was much younger than me but our families had been very, very close and we all knew each other, and he told me he was getting ready to run as a Republican for the United States Congress and challenge the then existing senator. And remember, this is right at the time that the Republican Party really started to grab hold of Texas. It was right after Bill Clements . . . now, see, I was not even involved in the Bill Clements days but I understand it was Bill Clements coming out of the Lyndon Johnson era. Remember Lyndon Johnson made the statement when he signed the Voting Rights Act, “the Democratic Party will lose the South for 100 years.” I mean, in retrospect, you can put all these pieces together but nobody understood it then. We were always a very conservative Democratic state. The first few times I voted, I voted as a Democrat because if you did not vote as a Democrat, you had no influence on state elections, right, because everybody was the Democrats. You just had to pick the most conservative Democrat to vote for or your state vote did not count, Republicans lost everything. Anyway, long story short . . . so he said, “Can you help me maybe raise some money in the Jewish community,” and that kind of thing? I said, “Sure, Mack.” You know, Republican. I knew I was Republican. I did not know what that was exactly but I knew I was not . . . I had come out of the high school debate team, I knew what the Democrats stood for. It was all the welfare state days. It was the start of food stamps. It was the start of Medicare. It was the start of all of the great welfare programs, none of which I believed in at all. So, I knew that I was not that socially liberal. I knew I was not ultraconservative but none of the religious issues were on the table at that time. I mean Brown v. Board of Education was pretty simple but Roe v. Wade had just been passed and, not that nobody was paying attention to it but, I mean, those kinds of issues were not up until many years later. So anyway, I said, “Sure I will help you.” So, after I did that, I said what have I gotten myself into now but I started making calls to the Israel Lobby Network, daytime network, and little did I know – this is one of these sort serendipitous things that happen – that the man he was running against happened to be the single most powerful and vocal anti-Israel vote in the United States Congress. So, when I started making calls for this little kid, an entire national network mobilized and sent money in for this little bitty race in Wharton, Texas. So, he wins and through this effort, I end up having raised a lot of money which gave me fairly high exposure very, very quickly. And, of course, there was no such thing as a Jewish Republican back then. So, that also opened up a national world to me as opposed to just local, and it had exposed me to all of the national and statewide Republican leadership very, very quickly. And so, I was bitten. I was bitten by the bug, right? And I loved it and I thought I could make a difference. You know, my parents had told me from the time I . . . “We can all make a difference. We’ve got to try. Every individual can make a difference.” And I could see that arguably, at least in one case, I had made a difference. It was a good feeling. I never asked for anything in return for it, I just thought it was the right thing to do and it was good for America, it was good for the state of Israel which obviously has always been very important to me, but it was the right thing to do and it was the right thing for America. And so, I just got more and more involved in the process, primarily on the fundraising side. I still wasn’t any more of a policy intellectual than I was when I came out of Wharton High School, so none of that mattered. And that is really how it all started for me, and it was really a function of having had an opportunity primarily, I really believe it was because of this dearth of Jewish participation of the Republican Party that, as I said, was like a vacuum that sort of swept me up and it exposed me to some of the true Jewish leadership in the country and national political leadership in the country. And these were people that were fascinating to me and they were names I had read in newspapers in Wharton, right? And they were making a difference. And they were giving me an opportunity to make a difference. And I was not going to pass it up. I promised my mom and daddy I’d do it. I had tremendous support from home. I mean, by 1980, we just had the second of the four kids and they came afterwards and Kay was all for my getting out and participating. She was the same way. And so, I just got more and more involved in it and it really takes on a life of its own if you allow it to. And it has been unbelievably rewarding. I mean, I did not change the course of this country but at least I could never be blamed for not having made some contribution to what has gone on in this country over the last 30 years.
DG: There was a time in Texas where a two party system meant conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats.
FZ: Yes, that is what I said. I mean, if you will look at my voting record, the first 3 times I voted, it was in Democratic primaries because there was no other way my little vote was going to count at all if I voted as a Republican.
DG: From your seat close to the action, can you tell us how the shift happened?
FZ: Well, ironically, as I said, it almost happened . . . you know, I was young, I was at this level, not at this level back at that point, so it is only in retrospect that I can look at it. And, again, I look back at that famous LBJ line and whether or not Texas was just part of that entire movement because of the conservative nature. Texas was Democrat only because everybody was a Democrat, not because they believed, if you will, in all of the social issues that we now characterize the Democratic Party. I mean, it was very conservative. People have not changed the things they believe in and the way they vote. They have changed the party that they vote for because the party . . . and I tell people all the time, “You’d better not ever be totally single issue when you pick an elected official. You’d better pick the person that stands for most of what you believe in, if not 100%, because you are always going to find that one thing and then if you switch, you are going to go back to somebody who doesn’t believe anything that you believe in. So, I think that as the Democratic Party moved more and more to the left, they abandoned the great number of conservative Democrats who found a home in the Republican Party and look, again, let’s look at this in an historical perspective. Jimmy Carter comes in and is an absolute disaster arguably as a president. Ron Reagan comes in. Now, this is the point in time when this shift happens. So, you’ve got all these social issues that are manifesting themselves. You have an arguably disastrous presidential administration followed by a man who brings you all back together, and that sort of galvanized everyone in the South so arguably, we might have been part of that, into a very tight knit, not a loose knit, Republican Party and that is when the state shifted. The state shifted right during that mid 1970s period. I mean, that is when Lyndon Johnson went out in . . . he ran one in 1968. Did not run again in . . . no, wait a second, I am sorry. He had become president. He did not run again in 1967. What year did he back out? The country had been at war. All that started shifting. And I do not even know who was running the state at that point. I lived in New York and really, I could not begin to tell you who the governor was, whether he was a Democrat or Republican. My guess is he was a Democrat or she was a Democrat who would have been a Republican had times been different but everybody in Texas knew. That whole shift came really when Bill Clements became governor. I understand he was as irascible then as he is today but, I mean, the fact of the matter also is it all happened around the time of Jimmy Carter being president, Ronald Reagan then coming in and giving people hope and leading this country forward and that put the party in power and in play. And people that obviously historically I believed might have been Democrats became Republicans. And then, as you got into the 1990s and you got into the . . . I mean, George Bush had been president, the current George W. ran for governor, replacing Ann Richards who everybody loved but also had been fairly well a disaster, if you will . . . not a disaster as governor. I mean, no one was more beloved than her but there were all types of problems in that administration. And, at that point, I think the Republican Party was able to . . . we had a great bench, for lack of a better word, and they were able to truly organize the state and the party, and we had this tremendous group of young leaders: Rick Perry, George Bush, K. Bailey Hutchison, John Kornin, David Dewhurst – I mean, all these people came into leadership right at that time, and everybody got in lock step and marched where they did not have any of this internescene fighting and people believed in that. You also had this emergence at that time of the Religious Right who got organized into the Christian Coalition, if you will, right through the 1980s and 1990s, and started voting as a block as opposed to not voting and it enabled them to take full control, if you will. Do you remember in that same period, we had the turnover in Congress in the 1990s, and so, that is where we are today. Now, whether it is going to continue into the elections in November, we don’t know but politics got horribly partisan during that period of time.
DG: You described the party as having a great bench. Who were the coaches? Who were the people that were doing the organizing that were . . .
FZ: Well, again, I was not part of it and so, I don’t know. But literally, my understanding was it was the group that was around Governor Clements. I mean, it was the time that the Tom DeLays of the world came into power but I was not part of that party structure. I mean, it was a time when George Strake was heavily involved here. Jack Raines was heavily involved here but I was not part of that, so I do not have any first-hand knowledge of any of that. I was not at all familiar with – I don’t want to use this word totally wrongly but what has always been called the Dallas Mafia, the big Dallas money that controlled the Republican Party. It funded so much of this. So, I cannot give you names other than the Harris County Party _____ was again being run by George Strake, George Bush, people that have been icons of Republican politics. And I think they are the ones that galvanized on a local basis and my guess is so much of this happened, again, right during this Ronald Reagan period as well and you had a tremendous organization coming out of that. Jim Baker. I mean, these were people that were names that in retrospect, you go back and look at. John Tower. I mean, there is one of the most powerful men in the world. My guess is Sunder had a tremendous amount to do with the organization of his state and putting it on firm footing.
DG: From the time that you did become involved, what was Houston’s place in the Texas landscape and then what was its influence on a national basis?
FZ: You know, again, I could only answer that in retrospect. We still had, I mean, Bill Clements went out and I was not involved in that at all. I mean, I just started getting involved in the process and it was all on the fundraising side. It really was not on the grassroots side. Houston, to the best of my knowledge, had never been a major player. I mean, Dallas was the major player. I mean, nobody from Houston. I mean, George Strake became Secretary of State but I do not think anybody from Houston was ever, that I know of, in the true leadership arena. I mean, you had people like Marjorie Harsht (sp?), you know, people that were icons of the party but were so influential in organizing at a grassroots level but it was all Republican. And so, Houston, to the best of my knowledge, you know, they had this ongoing battle with Dallas and I think a lot more of Dallas controlled what happened in Texas state politics. I am trying to remember. I don’t know of anybody that really . . . I mean, because I don’t want to leave anybody out, of true national prominence and political leadership that came out of Houston back in those days.
DG: This is being filmed in 2008. What is the dynamic of the Republican Party in Houston today?
FZ: Well, you know, the Harris County Republican Party, first of all, is the – I think I am right – either the 3rd or 4th largest Republican political organization in America. I mean, it is like 3rd or 4th between the state of Texas which obviously it would be good to include Houston and the national party. I mean, it is tremendous. But its influence still I think arguably might be second to Dallas. There are any of a number of us that are extremely active at the national level. It is changing. It is changing because, first of all, you have to decide where George Bush is from. The president becomes governor and then he becomes president of the United States, and there are a lot of us in Houston that were involved with him which has given us positions that we would not have had under any other circumstance. But a great deal of it is still Dallas oriented. I mean, we are very active here. We raise a lot of money here. I think Dallas is arguably close to as big as Houston, supposedly much smaller than Houston but I think their fundraising rivals ours. You have a lot of people here that are exceptionally interested for all the right reasons in the political process. Great people that I work with every day here. But that being said, we are the center of the oil industry at this point which might make us, you know, the enemy of the rest of the United States. This week, I guess, since we are in 2008 and the TV is not on at the moment so I cannot tell you where our oil prices are but, I mean, obviously most of the world thinks that we have falsely manipulated that price and that we are gouging the rest of the world, so I think we need to have an air defense system of some kind here in town to save all of us at the moment, but I think our influence on the Republican side arguably might be waning to some extent because we have had our run, the Bushs are about through running the country for the time being. It is going to move away from us. One of the things that we have seen through this election cycle is that people, and maybe they all get energized after Labor Day but people have not been as willing to get involved, and it is because, again, it is moving away from us and we have had a hell of a run. I mean, I’ll bet more Houstonians have been invited to the White House than any other place in the country _____ it may be Dallas but Texas has had a great run. I mean, look at your boards of regents, if you will, at the University of Texas system, at the A&M system. You’ve got a couple of Houstonians on them but it is not undue influence. So, I do not think that our influence certainly does not exceed our size but I am not sure it even measures up to our size. We do have great leadership in this town on both sides, that has been good for Houston but politically, it is still individuals. I mean, the world does not go as Houston goes in the vote. We have been a very strong, consistent Republican vote and there are a lot of us. So, hopefully, in statewide elections, we just have a great deal of swing in electing officials just by our sheer numbers. A lot of that is at the grassroots level, not at the leadership level and there are 2 distinct groups. The Republican Convention is in town this weekend. A state convention. The people that are involved in presidential politics are involved at those levels, are really not involved that much at the grassroots state level. I mean, you go out to the convention this weekend, I would love to see how many of the people, if you will, that will be at the major donors dinners for John McCain when he is here Tuesday, will have been at the convention all weekend, and my guess is not that many. I mean, obviously, state legislature is tremendously important. We all depend on state funding but that being said, we have Democratic leadership here in this town and current mayors donate. Marvelous job. And a marvelous job of accessing state funds for the town. So, it is not Republican leadership here locally. It is supposed to be nonpartisan but . . .
DG: You mentioned earlier about how much more partisan politics has become – a measurable loss of civility in some expressions of political debate. How did that happen from your perspective?
FZ: A good question and, you know, everyone will always want to point the finger at the other side. It evolved. It evolved as there got to be a more ideological split between the parties in terms of . . . and maybe it was always there and we just did not know it but there are such sharp differences and people became much more sensitive to it and there was this growing sense of not what is good for the country but this antipathy towards the other side and the fear of what they would do in America. I mean, this country has survived 250 years, 240 years, 230 years, without any major catastrophe. We had a couple of world wars and wars like the Vietnam War or the Iraq War. I mean, I am not going to tell you we should have or should not have gone to either one of them. We are not here to debate politics but there have been issues that have become, whether they are more divisive in the issues that got resolved early on or whether it was just as divisive then, we just did not have a media, we did not have instant access to communication that made it so much more poignant and brought it to life like that, and I don’t know when brass knuckle politics started. It might have always been there but it is in front of our face now. I mean, if John McCain or Barak Obama say anything in a room that’s got more than 2 people in it, it is going to be on You Tube in 20 minutes. I mean, that is just the world we live in. And the battle for political for elected office became so critical and whether this developed during the Reagan days or during the Clinton days or during the Bush days or during the Carter days, I mean, I don’t know. During the Nixon days. You know, the more I think about it, I think Watergate really sort of busted everything open. I think there was a lot of privacy afforded to our political leadership up until Watergate and when that broke out, again, I mean, you had CNN starting and CNN had to compete with – who was the first all news station to try and go compete with your major networks and regular television and we had cable come on. And so, CNN could break news stories that maybe the big networks were afraid to . . . so you had all these things that brought politics much more into the home than you had it before. And then you had these ideological splits, if you will, and whether it started with integration of the schools, I don’t know. I don’t know what the issues were before. I mean, I guess Prohibition was the big issue in the 1920s. Who knows? And World War II, I was in favor of. Whether it was the Vietnam War, you know, I don’t know what caused it but there were . . . that started us on the path that the geniuses that run political campaigns got more and more . . . and, again, you got in a position where there were no secrets, there were no holds barred, there was no honor among thieves, if you will, than trying to destroy a candidate on the other side. And it just evolved into what it has evolved into which is just horribly bitter partisanship that I think still seems to be working but arguably to me, might be working to the detriment of the United States of America. And to all of us.
DG: You are a busy guy. If I looked at your resume today, what would it show me, what are you involved in currently?
FZ: For money or for not? I mean, I will tell you the most thrilling thing that I have ever done. Well, ironically I said . . . the president asked me one day, and you will appreciate this, about being at the Museum and it is the most exciting thing I have ever experienced and I said, “I’ve got to be honest with you. Truly the most exciting moment I have ever had in this public service arena was during my Texas Southern experience where I had been asked by the governor to go out there and when I sat on the stage and watched these kids come across and get a degree and it was the first member of their family and the families were all up in the stands and they were cheering, and to see the elation on their face that they were getting a college degree, and I had had so much to do with that during the straightening out of TSU in those days” . . . I mean, there have been some issues since then, I said, “Believe it or not, nothing could have been more exciting to me than that. I have always had this tremendous interest in education.” But that being said, chairing the U.S. Holocaust Museum is a thrill beyond anything I could have ever imagined and I thank the president every time I see him. The first words out of my mouth are, “Thank you for having given me this opportunity. I mean, what a thrill for this little guy from Wharton, Texas, to be able to operate in that arena, to be as actively involved as I am in the issues in the Mideast and to know that, you know, in Wharton, Texas, the most important thing I could do growing up was to pack boxes of clothes to send to Israel in 1950 and 1951 all as they settled the state. And here I am involved in discussions, in carrying word back and forth between the leadership of our two countries. I mean, heady stuff. So, that has been phenomenal. And, of course, I have always been active. Giving back to me is such an important part of my life. And, again, knowing that I am coming back home and getting heavily involved with the Medical Center and the University of Texas system here and, of course, in the political campaigns here, the papers . . . since you said we are in 2008 and just announced last week that I am going to be a treasurer for Republican . . . arguably in a nonpartisan race but Republican candidate for mayor of the city of Houston, Bill King, and I am obviously looking forward to that. And this town has never run out of business opportunities. We have been here 1-1/2 hours and I will promise you somebody has called with something to get involved in while we have been here. It is the greatest . . . I would not trade it for the world. You know, David, back in the 1980s, I was running a venture fund for a savings and loan when the savings and loan debacle happened, and everything got shut down. And I said to Kay, “If we ever want to leave Houston, now is the time to leave.” I mean, Houston was dead if you remember. The job disappeared the day that the Feds showed up. But I said, “I’ve got to tell you something. There is no better place in the world than Houston, Texas, and why go somewhere else that is booming? It will go through a cycle, too. It isn’t going to get any worse than it is in Houston right now. And I don’t have any reason to ever want to leave. And it is August and it is 110 degrees and so what? I will still trade. We don’t have to be out in it. I jogged this morning at 6:30 and the 10 people that I passed said, “Can you believe it is actually breathable at this hour of the morning?” so it worked out really well. But I will tell you another funny story. When I first moved back from New York, I complained about the weather, I complained about everything else and I started jogging. A bunch of the guys said to me, they said, “Hey, look, Fred. You know, we got along real well before you got here.” You know, I had been here a few months. “If you don’t like it here, leave and go somewhere else but quit complaining about it every day.” And I have not complained since then. There is no better city to live in and no better environment, I don’t think, to do business in than Houston, Texas. Whatever you want, it is here. I mean, the cultural life is as good as anywhere it could be in the United States of America. Again, I don’t have traffic. I tell everybody, “Move inside the Loop. There is no traffic.” But, you know, it is a warm, caring community that will give anybody that wants to try an opportunity. A great place to be and would not trade it for the world, and don’t intend to leave.
DG: Thank you, Fred.
FZ: Thank you.