Cattle breeders are accustomed to beating back such elements as drought, dust storms, locusts, and twisters to get their cattle to market. When her getaway was halted at one point by an inopportune red light, fans stormed the street, mobbing the car. Agriculture commissioner Perry, a gung ho backer of the lawsuit, was conspicuously quiet about it—maybe because he was running for lieutenant governor. People in Amarillo watch Oprah every day. From that distance, she looked like a great religious figure, her flowing brown pantsuit billowing in the wind like the robes of a prophet.
She seemed stunned at what lay before her. Who could have guessed that one of the most obscure and embarrassingly titled state laws on record—the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act—would set off the most uproarious Texas range war since the fight over barbed wire?
Coyne, I provide a forum for people to express their opinions. Was it possible that he and his fellow plaintiffs were thinking—as others in the courtroom certainly were—that this black urban woman embodied all the rugged, heroic qualities that we used to look for in the great Texas men of the past, men who had tamed the vast frontier?
As spectators hung on her every word, she chronicled her triumphs over childhood abuse, racism, obesity, and poverty to become one of the wealthiest, most influential women in the world. Enter Paul Engler, a native Nebraskan who had moved to the Panhandle in with one simple, albeit unglamorous, vision: to make cows fatter, faster.
Winfrey, in turn, decided to counterattack with her best weapon: her own celebrity. Under the colored lights, at the lip of the stage, they beamed back at her. What had happened?
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When she left at the end of the day, she always rolled down the window of the car, stuck her head out, and smiled benevolently at everyone. And then there was the question of whether a law deed to protect perishable produce could be applied to livestock. Just when you thought that Texas was no longer Texas, just when you thought that we were finally becoming just like everyone else, something like the Oprah trial comes along. And to keep everyone watching, Winfrey made sure that her shows, taped at the Amarillo Little Theatre, were filled with extravagant salutes to the very place she was being accused of ruining.
Indeed, at the end of every one of her shows, Texans stood and roared their approval, prouder than ever of who they thought they were. The first week of the trial made it clear that there were a lot of Amarillans who worshiped Oprah. He envisioned fenced-in commercial feedlots stretching across the Panhandle where cattle would while away their last days by the feed trough.
Every woman in Amarillo knew within days what happened next: Winfrey immediately picked up the phone, called Mrs. Seliger, graciously thanked her, and chatted with her for several minutes about—among other things—where to get her hair done in Amarillo. A spokesman for the show saidcalls came in within thirty minutes.
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Other shows celebrated all things big in Texas, including gigantic mansions, huge ranches, big hair, big purses, and multimillionaire bachelors who were looking for that perfect gal. I answer to the spirit of God that lives in us all. And, oh, what a glorious war, waged by a group of rich Texas cattle barons, the classic symbols of old frontier Texas, against an even richer black Chicago talk-show hostess, a classic symbol of modern-day American success. The shoot-out was on. When Gary Molberg, the hapless chamber of commerce president, realized just what support there was for Winfrey in Amarillo—some residents were lining up alongside a remote highway before dawn in the bitter cold simply to watch her jog—he issued a retraction of his memo and sent her a bouquet of yellow roses.
The lawsuit seemed flimsy at best. The lobby of the federal courthouse, millionaire Winfrey would be put on trial, is ringed with a sweeping mural of a cattle drive. Oprah was going to be forced to spend at least a month in Amarillo, the board game—flat beef capital of Texas—a city that has been known to smell like a cow patty when the wind comes out of the east and wafts through the stockyards on its way downtown.
The jurors sat through laborious testimony—involving carcass weights, commodities markets, and the difference between feeder cattle and fed cattle—as many spectators nodded off. Engler and three smaller Amarillo cattle feeders filed suit in federal court under the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act, a law that states that those who interfere with the sale of Texas produce by knowingly making false statements can be held liable to the producer for damages. Spectators in the packed courtroom sucked in their breath. The cattlemen were still making money.
The irony seemed too delicious to be true. But in the words of year-old Bourdon R. The cattle market basically went into a free-fall. We are allowed to do this in the United States of America. Howard Lyman, a failed Montana rancher turned vegetarian and animal rights activist, told Winfrey that American cattle were being fed ground-up meal made from dead livestock—the same practice Amarillo might have caused the spread of mad cow disease in Britain. Agriculture Department expert on mad cow disease, both of whom insisted that American beef was safe.
This is the United States of America. The cattle barons who filed the lawsuit saw themselves as Alamo-like defenders, hoping to save Texas date this contemporary Santa Anna who dared to say that she would never eat another hamburger. This, after all, is a city the cattlemen built. She hesitated for another moment, still staring at the unbroken flatness, and then turned woman the cameras and offered her most cheerful wave.
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Every morning, just for her benefit, one local television station reported the temperature in Chicago, while another offered a daily sight-seeing tip just for her. The coverage, of course, was not flattering. Simpson juror did.
At the time, his desk was littered with fan letters and checks from ranchers from all over the country. And even if the show was flagrantly biased against cattlemen, at least some airtime had been given to the beef proponents.
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Escorted by bodyguards, she slipped into a black Chevrolet Suburban with black tinted windows, which raced her off to a meeting with her attorneys. People were still eating beef. The reality was that the cattle industry had been moving away from such feed practices. The notion eventually made him a multimillionaire and one of the most powerful cattlemen in the country.
A s she stepped from her from her Gulfstream jet, her two small cocker spaniels, Solomon and Sheba, nestled in her arms, Oprah Winfrey stopped for a moment and stared in silence at the treeless Panhandle horizon. A chagrined Engler slouched under his Stetson, crossed Taylor Street, and disappeared around the next corner as the kazoos buzzed merrily behind him. No one around town appeared particularly upset. Winfrey turned and looked directly at the twelve jurors who were soon to judge her.
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Her first show included two native Texans, country music singer Clint Black and movie star Patrick Swayze, who gave her a cowboy hat and a pair of black Lucchese boots and then two-stepped with her around the stage. Paul Engler shifted uneasily in his chair.
The moment of truth had arrived. But the real comeuppance is that Engler is a lot more foreign to people here than Oprah. During the first week of the trial, a dozen satellite television trucks circled the federal courthouse like a bunch of covered wagons, while national reporters fanned out through the city, looking for cowboys and rednecks and steak eaters.
They loved the Texas that she had recreated for them—a Texas with a golden, nostalgic glow, a Texas where everyone was friendly and funny, larger than life, and able to ride a horse. Lyman argued that if the remains of one mad cow were fed to other cattle, thousands of cows, and in turn, countless American beefeaters, could be infected. The three local television stations cut into their regular programming to broadcast her arrival.
Not that she needed him. Every night the Amarillo Little Theatre was invaded by Amarillans who wanted to see Oprah and hear her talk with her fake Texas accent. One afternoon the great cattleman, known in the industry as the Father of the Feedlots, found himself walking past people who had gathered to serenade Winfrey with kazoos.
And there had never been a documented case of mad cow disease in the U. The cattlemen wanted revenge. She ascended the courthouse stairs among a cluster of U. Inside, after Angelou whispered some encouraging words in her ear, Winfrey rose slowly from her seat and walked to the witness stand. Other than reporters, few spectators even recognized Engler as he strode in and out of the courthouse. The year-old Engler is all-male, as tough as a fence post; a framed photo of a double-barreled shotgun, permanently cocked at visitors, hangs over his desk.
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