SOMETIMES YOU’RE THE WINDSHIELD, and sometimes you’re the bug,” House majority leader Dick Armey is fond of saying. In the wake of this summer’s bungled coup against Speaker Newt Gingrich, Armey has been working frenetically to scrape himself off the glass.
As the whole political world knows by now, the Dallas Republican is in hot water because of his role in the coup: He has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, yet there’s ample evidence that suggests he is not being entirely truthful. Consider what happened on the morning of July 16, just hours after I published the first story about the coup in The Hill, a weekly Washington, D.C., newspaper that covers Congress. Armey stood before all of his fellow Republicans in a closed-door meeting and denounced The Hill in general and my story in particular. But no sooner had the word “trash” come from his mouth than a crash came from the back of the room. One of the rebels intimately involved in the coup, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, knocked over a chair in a rush for the microphone to set the record straight before being forcibly restrained by another Republican.
Armey would say later that he was “surprised” by Graham’s response, and he expressed “bitter disappointment” upon learning that the renegades had heard “encouraging words” from another member of the leadership, House whip Tom DeLay, his longtime friend and fellow Texan. Meanwhile, Armey’s aides deluged reporters with phone calls, insisting that their boss had alerted the Speaker to the House leadership’s talks with the rebels on the night of July 10. Sure, he met with them to gauge their intent. Yes, he ran through “hypothetical what-if” scenarios with other top Republicans regarding the shape of a post-Gingrich leadership. But in the end, he maintained, he never directly supported any move to oust the Speaker—and he actually moved to quell the rebellion.
Maybe so. But that’s not the whole story. During the week of the aborted coup, Armey and other House leaders had gathered without Gingrich to discuss the brewing rebellion. House GOP conference chairman John Boehner, fourth in command behind Gingrich, Armey, and DeLay, said bluntly that the Speaker was doomed. And the subsequent what-if scenario consisted of Armey’s announcing that he would run for Speaker. Several sources recounted Armey saying simply that he wouldn’t “lift a finger” to save Gingrich.
The group dispatched DeLay to meet with the rebels two days later, to find out how serious they were. They were all in agreement about dumping Gingrich, but there was much less agreement about who would lead the House. In a remark he would later rue as fatal to the coup, rebel Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said leadership chairman Bill Paxon, not Armey, was the top choice for Speaker. DeLay immediately informed Armey, who told several people that he went home that night and prayed.
What a prayer it must have been, bringing about, as it did, what one snickering aide termed “the immaculate conversion.” The next morning, Armey informed his fellow leaders—whose role in the coup he would say later he was shocked to read about in The Hill—that the deal was off. The rebels were suddenly “irresponsible,” their objective “immoral.”
Armey rushed to Gingrich’s side after the story broke, cordoning himself off with the Speaker in a secluded Capitol office—and denying DeLay, Paxon, and Boehner the opportunity to join them for several hours. “He was running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” a leadership source later remarked. When the full group gathered, Paxon suggested that he might resign. Armey stunned the others by blurting out, “I accept.”
The retreat into Gingrich’s arms struck those familiar with the deep tensions in the leadership as remarkable. Indeed, Armey’s frustration with Gingrich might have been the worst-kept secret in Congress: Gingrich had routinely undercut his authority and ignored his advice on several major legislative matters. In May, for example, the Speaker overruled Armey and allowed the introduction of an amendment that would massively increase highway spending, and after capitulating on the disaster-relief bill, Gingrich steamed Armey by pinning the blame for the fiasco on him—in front of all of the House Republicans. In June Armey fired back, remarking that he was “not bound” by a budget deal “that two or three or four big shots think they agreed to.” When asked directly at a press conference on June 17 whether he had faith in Gingrich’s leadership after the disaster-relief debacle, Armey’s now infamous response was, “Y’all have a good day now.”
The renegades knew how divided the leaders had become. Several of them met with Armey and DeLay to complain that Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston, a Gingrich ally, was cutting off money to them as retribution for their antics. They left with the uniform impression that DeLay and Armey were encouraging them to continue raising hell. And where did the rebels seek refuge from a pack of reporters for a what-to-do-about-Gingrich meeting the same day Armey declined to endorse Gingrich’s performance? In Armey’s office. At Armey’s invitation.
After all that, Armey faced a formidable challenge to wash his hands of the matter. Among those saying on the record that Armey was aware of and involved in the coup was Sam Johnson, a renegade and fellow Dallasite with unimpeachable character—a man of devout faith who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Privately, other Republicans were only too happy to take potshots at Armey. “Do I believe his story?” one said with a chuckle. “Which version?”
In the end, after the GOP’s kiss-and-make-up meeting on July 23, only one immediate casualty remained: Paxon. Yet the friendship between Armey and DeLay seems dead. Asked by a reporter if DeLay should resign, Armey snapped, “That’s not my business.” Later, when asked about his relationship with DeLay, Armey did not respond, then jokingly claimed to have dropped the phone for fifteen seconds.
For now, the House majority leader can best be described as an Armey of one. The rebels don’t trust him. Neither do the moderates. And neither do his fellow House leaders—with the exception, oddly, of Gingrich. Given his role in the coup, Armey’s success at ingratiating himself with the Speaker is impressive—the two were spotted in a Washington restaurant recently having Sunday brunch—though it seems less so when you consider that Gingrich no longer has anything to fear from his mortally wounded colleague.
What does the future hold for Armey? It is hard to imagine he won’t still have his seat in Congress as long as he wants it, but it is even harder to believe he won’t face a serious challenge for his leadership post in 1998. In any case, looking over his shoulder will keep him from realizing his dream of becoming Speaker. Republicans of all types now sing Armey’s favorite Buddy Holly tune when asked whether he’ll ever run the House: “That’ll Be the Day.”