The Exterminator

How did Tom Delay become the most powerful man in Congress? By trying to squash his enemies—from the president to fellow Republicans who won’t follow the party line.

THIS ADMINISTRATION,” SAID TOM DELAY, “ THEY belong to the Scandal-of-the-Month Club. I just think that there’s more coming.” The last part sounded more like a guarantee than an observation. It was early March, five days after Juanita Broaddrick went on television with the latest accusations against Bill Clinton, and the House majority whip had called from his home in Sugar Land to give me his take on recent developments. The Senate’s verdict of acquittal, the public’s continued support of the president, the pundits’ predictions that Republicans will lose the House, none of these had dampened DeLay’s enthusiasm for bringing down Clinton. Nothing had convinced him that he was on the wrong course. “We will be disagreeing with him on policy,” he said of what lay ahead. “You combine the scandals with policy—all of that manifests itself in the elections.”

Only a weary tone in his voice betrayed that anything was different now. Back in December, DeLay had been supercharged, as if he were plugged into some hidden socket. When it finally dawned on Washington that the House of Representatives was going to impeach the president, the city broke into bedlam. For days I had tried to contact DeLay but couldn’t even get his press secretary on the phone. I didn’t understand why until I went to Washington. It was the eve of the impeachment and the country was about to bomb Iraq—two strangely interrelated crises that had sent the town into a mad scrum. “Welcome to the fun house,” one reporter said when I arrived. Later I heard an aide answer one of the ceaselessly ringing telephones in the Capitol by saying, “Asylum, lunatic speaking.” When I first approached the Hill, I came upon a horde of reporters frozen around Mike Pappas, an obscure New Jersey congressman who was in the process of becoming the latest Republican to declare he’d vote for impeachment. The throng exploded with clacking shutters and flashing strobes. “Let me be clear about this,” Pappas proclaimed. “It is not about sex.” No, of course not: The most potent aphrodisiac in Washington has always been power.

In the office of the majority whip, oblivious to the tableau of disorder around them, DeLay’s staff moved with a remarkable singularity of purpose. A contained fury gripped the office. (“There’s this Vulcan mind-meld that exists between us,” Mike Scanlon, DeLay’s press secretary, said later.) At the epicenter of the tumult, behind a polished wooden desk, sat DeLay. He was feeling utterly confident of Clinton’s downfall. “Looks like the coffin’s nailed shut,” he said. Just then his chief of staff stuck her head into the office. “The Speaker needs to talk to you,” she said.

Which Speaker?” asked DeLay. Most likely it wasn’t Newt Gingrich, who had already announced he was leaving Congress. DeLay was much closer to Bob Livingston, who had just been elected to replace Gingrich.

Elect,” she said, indicating that it was Livingston.

Right now?” asked DeLay, puzzled.

I stepped outside. Almost immediately, DeLay came charging out of his office, putting on his coat. Scanlon asked if we might go to the Rayburn Building with him, but DeLay blew up at the suggestion. “Frankly, I need to be thinking about all this,” he spat out. Hours later, the reason for DeLay’s abrupt departure became clear when Livingston publicly admitted to having had multiple extramarital affairs. The storm was careening off on unanticipated tangents, bruising souls for whom its force had not been intended. Watching the roiling disturbance, I saw DeLay emerge as the most powerful Republican in Washington. Except for him, Clinton would never have been impeached—but because of his success, Republicans have spent the weeks after Clinton’s acquittal arguing over whether they did the right thing.

THE OFFICE OF MAJORITY WHIP HAS not typically been the pivot around which Washington turns, but DeLay has made it so by legislative skill, among other talents. Beltway insiders have wildly disparate opinions about DeLay but all agree on one thing: He is the most effective whip anyone has seen. “My time on the Hill goes back to 1964,” said moderate Republican Sherwood Boehlert of New York. “In all those years, I have never seen a person succeed at his job as well as Tom DeLay. I say that as a person who frequently disagrees with him.”

The reason for DeLay’s success as a politician is not immediately apparent. He is not particularly handsome, particularly charismatic, or particularly eloquent. But he is particularly dogged. “A time came when Tom and I were running for chairman of the Republican Study Committee,” majority leader Dick Armey told me. “It was the only time we’ve gone head-to-head. I thought I was doing great, but Tom won hands down. He knew how to sew things up, how to glide back and forth between one back room and another, far better than I did.” DeLay is highly competitive, a devout Baptist, and partisan to the core. He started out a fiscal conservative but has become close to the Christian right. He divides the world into friends and enemies, and he’s famous for intemperate remarks that reflect his polarized worldview. “We’re going to only fund those programs we want to fund,” he announced during the budget impasse of 1995. “We’re in charge. We don’t have to negotiate with the Senate. We don’t have to negotiate with the Democrats.”

DeLay has a reputation for arm twisting, but it’s impossible to unite several hundred elected officials with sizable egos just by running roughshod over them all of the time. DeLay has other means of building consensus. “He knows every member,” said Tom Loeffler, a former congressman from San Antonio. “He knows the demographics of their district, he knows what committees they serve on, he knows their wants and needs.” When Kay Granger of Fort Worth arrived in Washington in 1996, DeLay gave her a desk and loaned her a staff member until she got settled. Essentially, he runs the whip’s office like a service organization. Whatever the members need, he gets.


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