Waco Pins Its Hopes for Image on Bush Ranch


By Jim Yardley, February 16, 2001



WACO, Tex., Feb. 9 - Several hours into Day 1 of the 51-day standoff between federal law enforcement officers and the Branch Davidians, Sammy Citrano decided the officers must be hungry. He loaded his truck with hot coffee and beef fajitas, drove outside town to the siege site, and soon he was feeding guys carrying machine guns. He admits now that he was terrified.

That was on Feb. 28, 1993. Flash forward eight years. Mr. Citrano, owner of George's restaurant, is again delivering food outside town, this time about 30 miles away, in Crawford, at the ranch owned by President Bush. He fed Sam Donaldson breakfast. Barbara Walters complimented his coconut cream pie. This time, the guys with guns are Secret Service agents.

"I'd much rather do what I'm doing now than what I was doing back then," Mr. Citrano said.

Around here, he is not the only one. Mention Waco and most people think of a national psychodrama instead of a city. This public relations image, of course, comes from the standoff that ended with the deaths of David Koresh and about 80 Branch Davidians, an episode that came to be known by a single word: Waco. (It is not pronounced Wacko, despite the jokes.)

Now, Wacoans believe they have a perfect chance to show the world that their city is actually, yes, a normal place. President Bush has said he may regularly visit his Texas ranch, meaning that the White House press corps will bunk in Waco, the nearest city. This captive audience of so many pens and cameras already has Waco image makers plotting their city's rehabilitation.

"We have learned from 1993," said Steve Smith, a vice president with the Waco Chamber of Commerce. "We were thrust into a situation we weren't prepared for. Now we have a chance to be prepared. There are parts of Waco the media never saw. They went straight from their hotel rooms to the siege site."

[Mr. Bush is making his first visit to the ranch as president this weekend.]

In Waco, a countywide task force is preparing for the media juggernaut, not to mention the Secret Service and the rest of the presidential entourage. There are potential perils. Waco may feel misunderstood and misrepresented, but the White House press corps are not known for their sensitivity. A wag once described Waco as "one tall building surrounded by Baptists." The White House press corps could be described as pit bulls surrounding the president.

Mr. Smith, a member of the task force, realizes that trust and affection take time in any courtship. He eventually envisions barge parties on the Brazos River in which media types can mingle with locals. Or maybe trips to sporting events at Baylor University or tours of any of the 14 local museums.

But for now, he is worried about the basics. The city is preparing a media kit listing restaurants, local attractions and other services. A "concierge" is being posted at the local airport for anyone in need of directions. And, importantly, Mr. Smith knows the way to any journalistic heart is with late-night room service, all-night pharmacies and same-day dry cleaners, and he is trying to make arrangements.

"These people coming to Waco may already have a preconceived perception," he said. "It may take a few trips before we can make inroads."

The scars to the civic psyche are still fresh from 1993. Like nearly everyone else, Mr. Citrano watched the initial gunfight on television, stunned at the violence and bewildered by the Branch Davidians. He had never heard of them. His impromptu food run to the scene turned into a daily ritual as he became the designated caterer to the siege. He still has a letter of appreciation from the Department of Treasury.

"They say it put Waco on the map, but it was for a bad reason," Mr. Citrano said. "It was Waco, wacko. There were jokes on David Letterman."

What they painfully discovered was that their city had become synonymous with violent religious extremism and karmic weirdness. People here felt unfairly stigmatized and about as blindsided as when a 1953 tornado ripped through downtown, leaving little except the 22-story Alico Building.

Their frustrations were compounded because the Branch Davidians' Mount Carmel compound was outside the city limits, about 10 miles east in Elk, and few locals had ever heard of them.

"I've been to conferences and when I've gone up and said I'm from Waco, I get this kind of snickering," said Dr. Mairi C. Rennie, director of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor, a leading research archive dedicated to the English poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "It's kind of a laughingstock."

Nearly everyone in town can tell a similar story. Elizabeth A. Taylor, who began her job as the city's director of tourism the day after the standoff began, said Waco has not suffered economically or lost any conventions because of the stigma. But as someone in the business of persuading tourists and conventioneers to spend time here, Ms. Taylor concedes the episode has prompted some "challenging conversations."

"We've coached the staff to take the confrontational stuff," she said, noting that Waco enjoyed 1.6 million "person trips" last year for conventions, for sports at Baylor and for tourist spots, such as the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame & Museum and the Dr Pepper Museum (the soft drink was created here).

The inevitable question is, of course, what kind of a place is Waco. The dominant presence here is Baylor University, a Baptist institution. For years, Baylor was known for prohibiting dancing on campus, a policy that has been rescinded. Children who grow up here are often told that the city of 110,000 people has the most churches per capita of anywhere in the country, an arguable point but a reminder of the area's religious passion.

Don Howard, a filmmaker who lectures at the University of Texas in Austin, grew up here, attended college at Baylor and then fled to Austin where he remains as a Waco expatriate. Mr. Howard says the Davidian episode struck such a nerve because it exposed Waco's small-town insecurity over how it is perceived and "gives lie to their pretensions of culture." He considers the four "guiding principles" of Waco culture to be race, religion, death and football.

But Mr. Howard admitted that his hometown surprised him when he returned to film "Letter from Waco," his 1997 memoir that aired on PBS. He said he discovered the city's wild history ó that it once had legalized prostitution, that Elvis Presley spent his 21st birthday here. He said he found people whose lives gave lie to his perceptions of Waco. One woman he filmed was the only white person to attend a black Baptist church. He also featured the quiet, modest driver of a high school football team bus who, once prodded to talk, turned out to be a football hero in his own right.

"You have all of these very rigid patterns set up, and yet with all that, you have people crossing lines," Mr. Howard said. "It was almost through the back door that I learned what a great place it was."

It seems unlikely that the White House press corps will make time to ride the bus with the high school football team. But city officials are already planning to showcase other attractions, like Waco's symphony, its opera and fishing lakes. Reporters may not have enough time to cover the president.

"They all know that this is a time to show our best wares, to do whatever we've got to do to show the good side of Waco," said Mr. Citrano, who added of the press, "If they're happy, they are going to be nicer to the president."

One footnote: Patricia Ward Wallace, a professor of history at Baylor, noted that the media caused a stir in Waco in the 1890's. A muckraking journalist, William Cowper Brand, started a newspaper, The Iconoclast, whose principle target was Baylor University. He was kidnapped by angry Baylor students and saved from hanging only by the intervention of faculty members. Finally, one Baylor supporter had had too much of the free will of the press and shot Mr. Brand dead on the city's main street, Austin Avenue, though Mr. Brand was able to kill his attacker as well.

"We look to history for lessons," said Professor Wallace, telling the story with a smile. White House correspondents beware.

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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov