WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Disappointment with Newt Gingrich's affair. Scorn for Bill Clinton. Praise for Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas. "This is the best time for me to leave," Dick Armey insisted, as open cardboard boxes in his Capitol office suite showed that, best or not, the time had come -- and with it, an opportunity to talk of old times not forgotten, as well as some he would like to forget.
The outgoing House Majority Leader said that labeling the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress a Gingrich-Armey revolution misses a third person -- and gets the order wrong. "I think the three most important people with respect to the Republican majority were, maybe in this order: Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich," he stated, pointedly placing the former Speaker of the House in third place.
The Republican Revolution that grew as a reaction to Mrs. Clinton's unpopular health care plan fizzled in many areas. It did, though, bring about what Armey called the "single largest public-policy accomplishment in the United States government" of the last decade: welfare reform in 1996, which "honors people's ability," instead of leaving them "dependent upon the state. It has worked."
Armey does not give Newt Gingrich major credit for the GOP's 1994 electoral success, but he proclaimed enthusiastically that the "stubborn commitment ... sheer will and legislative ingenuity of Newt Gingrich" made welfare reform happen. "He saw it, he understood it, he knew what it meant. Every good benefit we see in welfare reform today and in the lives of these little babies all over America, Newt predicted it."
Gingrich's secret life, though, helped to bring him down. "I worked side by side with Newt every day for four years," Armey recalled. "There were probably no two people in this town and in my life, on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis, who were closer." Yet Armey said he knew nothing of Gingrich's six-year affair with a congressional staffer, which led to the breakup of the Gingrich marriage.
Armey called Bill Clinton "the most successful adolescent I have ever known. ... (He) was basically like a prep guy saying: ‘Where's the next party? I love this job. Look at the parties. What a great limo." But Armey said bluntly, "Clinton's charm worked with Newt. ... I used to tell Newt with respect to his relationship with President Clinton, you are always better off if you are being pursued than you are if you are pursuing. Bill Clinton would pursue you if you refused to pursue him. Newt never got that."
Ronald Reagan is the former president Armey esteems: He smiled and chuckled as he talked about working during the Reagan years on legislation to close unnecessary military bases. President Reagan held a small bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office; Armey and his wife were invited to attend. Reagan "sensed that the least comfortable person in the room was my wife, Susan, and he said, ‘Susan, you come stand ...'"
At this point Armey, overcome by emotion, had to clear his throat: "'You come stand by me.' He reached out to her ..." Armey blinked away tears and provided his own comic relief to help him regain composure: "Imagine how I would have felt if Bill Clinton had said that to my wife. ... But when I saw Ronald Reagan reach out to the woman I love with all my heart with that kindness and that consideration, it was like instinct to him."
Armey concluded by talking of his retirement plans and how he also plans to reach out to his wife. Noting happily that his adopted hometown, Dallas, has a National Hockey League franchise, the Stars, Armey talked of how he is looking forward to watching more sports on television. "My wife took me downtown to show me a big-screen TV; I walked in the store, they had the Stars on, and I thought to myself: ‘I love this lady. She deserves to watch the Stars on big-screen TV.'"