IT WAS EARLY IN January when Eric Thode got the phone call from a member of Tom DeLay’s staff. Thode was a little surprised to hear from DeLay. As the chairman of the Fort Bend County Republican party, Thode was responsible for running the March 7 primary election, but that was two months away, and he expected DeLay to win easily against three opponents. Surely DeLay wasn’t concerned about it. So what could the eleven-term congressman from Sugar Land, the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, want to know?
As Thode remembers the conversation, the staffer said DeLay was “contemplating his possibilities.” What if he were to win the primary with a less-than-solid showing? What if Ronnie Earle, the Travis County district attorney who had secured two felony indictments against DeLay involving the misuse of corporate funds to help Republican state legislative candidates in the 2002 election cycle, was able to win a conviction before the 2006 election? What if something happened in the federal corruption investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom DeLay had once described as one of his closest friends? If any of these circumstances came to pass, the Democrats could win the seat. His seat.
Where was this leading? The answer wasn’t long in revealing itself. At what date, asked the staffer, could DeLay withdraw as a candidate? Was there a way for the GOP to replace him on the ballot after the primary? Thode explained the complicated procedure that allows the Republican county chairmen from the four counties in DeLay’s district (Fort Bend, Harris, Brazoria, and Galveston) to pick a replacement for a seat that becomes vacant due to death, resignation, or ineligibility. When he hung up, Thode knew what no one else in America would know for three months: The end of Tom DeLay’s political career was at hand.
DELAY UNDERSTOOD ALMOST everything about power in Washington except the insidious power of scandal. He had plenty of precedents to learn from; in his career, he had seen two Speakers brought down by ethics violations, Democrat Jim Wright, of Texas, and Republican Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, as well as his own handpicked successor to Gingrich, Bob Livingston, of Louisiana, who confessed to an extramarital affair and quit the House. Three lessons were to be drawn from the dethroning of Wright and Gingrich. The most obvious was that they were intense partisans whose political style—Wright’s stretching of parliamentary rules to run roughshod over the opposition, Gingrich’s (and the entire Republican leadership’s, including DeLay’s) loathing of Bill Clinton—made the minority party hate them and look for ways to bring them down. The second lesson was that if you’re going to make yourself a target, you’d better not give the opposition a reason to shoot—and in today’s Washington, that reason is usually ethical transgressions. The third was that scandal, once contracted, is a virus with no known cure. The only safe course is to stay within the rules, but DeLay lived on the edge. He painted the target on his own back.
With the possible exception of John McCain, no member of Congress had been so much in the news over the past three years. The difference, of course, was that the media’s treatment of the senior U.S. senator from Arizona (and presidential aspirant) had been almost universally favorable, while the opposite was true of the 59-year-old DeLay. Nicknamed the Hammer for his mastery of the dark arts of persuasion, the man who had arguably been the most powerful figure in Congress for a decade had taken so many hits from Democrats and the media, and faced so many perils for so long, that what’s amazing is not that he fell but that he survived as long as he did. Indeed, at the end, every political reporter in Washington seemed to be on the DeLay obituary beat. Under attack in his district, under indictment in Austin for money laundering of campaign funds by a political action committee he created, under scrutiny in Washington in connection with the Abramoff scandal, under an ethical cloud that earned him repeated admonishments from peers charged with enforcing the rules that he flouted, and unseated (voluntarily, though with much prodding) as a high-ranking member of the House leadership, DeLay nevertheless retained influence, as he demonstrated when he said in February that Congress would overturn the Dubai ports deal, ruining the White House’s efforts to salvage it.
This is the point in the eulogy where we say of the dearly departed scoundrel, “No one really knew him.” And outside the Beltway, it’s true. A feeding frenzy engulfed DeLay with such intensity that the public came to regard him as a cartoon character: a one-dimensional caricature of the corrupt, devil-may-care pol. They saw him as a crook. A cheat. A right-wing fanatic whose motivation never changed. Like Elmer Fudd, he wanted only to kill the wascally wabbit (who pwesumably was a Democrat). An entire industry sprang up—manned not just by leftist operatives but also bloggers, investigative reporters, and watchdog groups—for the purpose of shining a light on his and his associates’ every move. The one-dimensional DeLay so completely obscured the 3-D version that few could see, through the facade, one of the ablest politicians of our time and an essential benefactor to his region and his state.
But DeLay’s fall is not a tragedy, for he was not a victim of fate. He has no one to blame but himself. The fatal wounds were entirely self-inflicted. Even as he faced the likelihood of a trial in Austin that could send him to prison and the strongest electoral challenge of his life in November from former Democratic congressman Nick Lampson, he could not restrain himself from reinforcing his own caricature: He assailed Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor for airing their concerns about the independence of the judiciary in the face of attacks by DeLay and other politicians, and he lashed out at society for treating Christianity “like