texasmonthly.com: How did you go about writing an accurate chronicle of Tom DeLay’s trials and tribulations when the congressman essentially refused to speak to you? What special challenges were there in writing this story?
Paul Burka: I would have liked to have been able to interview Tom DeLay, because, as I informed his lawyer and his press assistant, it was my intention to write a fair story that gave him credit when he deserved it and criticism when he deserved it. I would have liked for him to have presented his own case. But I can’t blame him for not talking to the media. There are too many embarrassing questions to which there aren’t any good answers. Once he decided not to cooperate, the challenge of the piece was to get it to be more than a “clip job”—that is, a rehash of newspaper stories that have already been published. So I went to Fort Bend County to write about Tom Campbell, his primary challenger; to Clear Lake, to talk to Nick Lampson, his general election opponent; to Washington, to talk to members of the Texas congressional delegation (and to listen to the oral arguments in the Supreme Court over his congressional redistricting map); and to Houston, to talk to supporters in the business community. If I couldn’t have Tom DeLay in person, at least I could go beyond the one-dimensional “Dr. Evil” that appears in the media to fill out the other two dimensions. That’s what I tried to bring to the story.
texasmonthly.com: If Congressman DeLay had granted you an interview for this story, what question would you have most wanted to ask him?
PB: I’m more of a conversationalist than an interviewer, so it probably would have come out like this: There were a number of instances where lobbyists and contributors asked you to do something for them, and you did them. And I would mention a few of the instances from the story (Westar, the Indian gambling letter to Gale Norton). Where do you think the line is between what is permissible and what is not, and how did your actions fit your idea of where the line is? How do you think this looks to ordinary people who read about it in the papers, or who say, “This is what’s wrong with politics?” That’s the kind of question I like to ask. It sounds hardball, but it’s really softball. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
texasmonthly.com: When dealing with a subject as controversial and polarizing as DeLay, how do you go about maintaining objectivity?
PB: Objectivity is overrated, especially in magazine journalism. Magazine stories are supposed to have a point of view. My point of view on Tom DeLay is already on the record. I started my November column with, “Live by the hammer, die by the hammer, Tom DeLay had it coming.” But I also questioned whether he had done anything wrong—and really, that was the point of the column, not that DeLay was a bad guy. So the important thing in a magazine story is not objectivity. It’s credibility. To me, credibility is writing the story in a way that the reader senses is fair. If he is an able politician, which Tom DeLay certainly is, I have to say so. If he has been good for Texas, which Tom DeLay certainly has been, I have to say so. In short, I have to write about him as a three-dimensional character, not as a one-dimensional character—to make an honest effort to write about someone in a way that gets as close as possible to who he really is. Tom DeLay is an excessively partisan and ideological politician with little respect for the institution in which he serves and its traditions, a pop-off who will say and do just about anything to tear down anyone and anything he doesn’t like. Tom DeLay is also a highly skilled leader of his party with a superb grasp of legislative strategy and tactics and a talent for moving his party’s agenda that ranks with the best practitioners since Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. And he is also a loyal Texan who doesn’t let ideology stand in the way of helping his state. Obviously, this is a story about his fall, and so most of the story is going to deal with the events that brought him down. But he is multidimensional, and it is my job to convey all of the dimensions.
texasmonthly.com: In your experience covering Texas politics, is Tom DeLay’s style all that unusual, or has he simply become a lightning rod for worries about political corruption?
PB: Most politicians do favors for their friends and for lobbyists. It comes with the territory. But they have a sense of self-restraint that helps them know where to draw the line. That sense wasn’t well developed in Tom DeLay.
texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, just how valid are Ronnie Earle’s concerns that special interest monies are taking representative government away from the control of “John and Jane Citizen”?
PB: As long as corporate money is disclosed and spent within the rules, I don’t see that there is much of a problem. Special interests are always going to conspire against the public interest—or, more insidiously, contend that their interest and the public interest are one and the same. But when you have these special nonprofit entities to which corporations can contribute secretly, which then engage in attack ads, candidates have no ability to respond. I’m worried about these nonprofits. In general, however, money is one of two elements in electoral politics. Votes is the other. Corporations have money. John and Jane Citizen have votes. Collectively, they have the power to counteract corporate money—if there is disclosure.
texasmonthly.com: At the time that Congressman DeLay resigned, you had completed a draft of this story. How did you go about changing the piece in light of the resignation?
PB: Rapidly. I found out on the night DeLay made his decision. Our editor, Evan Smith, called me from Minute Maid Park, where he was watching the Astros’ Opening Day game. He had gotten the message on his Blackberry. I got on the phone immediately to sources I had met in Fort Bend County. Everything was going crazy down there, but people were very gracious about returning calls. In between calls, I went through the piece, decided what I could keep, what needed improving, and what I had to get rid of. The entire lead of the story was dead, of course, more than a thousand words. By eleven-thirty, I had talked to Eric Thode, the Republican county chairman, and I had a new lead anecdote, thank goodness, and it was better than the previous version. I did a quick outline of the revision, setting out what I had to do, section by section, and e-mailed it to Evan. Then I wrote the three-paragraph lead. I didn’t want to wake up to a blank computer screen. But the main thing is, I was really pumped up. DeLay’s announcement made the story so much more relevant, and I was able to put a lot of things in the story that hadn’t made the previous version.
texasmonthly.com: Is Tom DeLay’s story a testament to the extent of political corruption or evidence that, in fact, the system does weed out the worst excesses of power?
PB: I am hesitant to say that DeLay is a testament to the extent of corruption (other than the election law charges in Travis County). No charges have been filed against him. But he was surrounded by corruption. His associates played on his name and his power to enrich themselves—some of them in criminal ways—and some of the money found its way back to DeLay for trips and entertainment and payments to his wife for employment. So I’m inclined to say that DeLay’s story is more an indication that the system weeds out the worst excesses of power than that it reveals the extent of corruption. And that was my conclusion.
texasmonthly.com: How surprising was DeLay’s resignation to you? How sound a strategic move do you think it was for the Republican Party?
PB: Well, it was a surprise, like it’s a surprise whenever the Yankees lose in the post-season. But then you stop and think about it, and, you know, A-Rod doesn’t hit well in the clutch, and Randy Johnson is the only dependable starting pitcher, and he isn’t getting any younger, and the bullpen is weak except for Rivera, and Bernie’s washed up, and all of a sudden it’s clear in hindsight why they lost. That’s how I feel about DeLay. He’s under indictment, he can only get 55 percent of the Republican primary vote in his home county, he’s targeted by an experienced Democrat with lots of money, he’s lost his leadership position and has no chance of getting it back, and he’s going to be the poster boy for why Democrats should control Congress and all of the Republicans are wishing he’d go away so the Democrats won’t have him to kick around any more. Of course he stepped down. It’s obvious. Now. Which is why it’s good for the Republican Party.