It was a sad day for some of us last week when the ablest Majority Leader to have held that office in the Republican House of Representatives spent his last day in Congress. I have known Tom DeLay for 22 years. One day my good friend Houston builder Bob Perry called me and said there was someone he wanted me to meet. This fellow Tom DeLay, Perry said, was a businessman, not a lawyer, and stood for the right things in the legislature. So in a week or so I visited with DeLay who by then was running for Congress. He seemed nice enough but at that point I did not perceive his remarkable talent and abilities. For the next several years we stayed in touch, with Tom usually asking for a reading of how some issue was going to go in Congress and I usually asking him to sponsor some legislation.
Then one day, after Tom had been in Congress for six or seven years, he called me and said he was going to quit the Congress. He had not been able to accomplish anything much and he saw no future in staying. I was shocked. Of course I had not been expecting such a call. I talked with him for some time. I urged him to become active with the conservative action team, a division of the Republican Study Committee. He did and he told me some months later that he now felt better.
Folks who recently have come to the conservative movement have no idea what the House of Representatives was like many years ago. The Democrats controlled a tight ship. Soon after Ronald W. Reagan was elected President and Representatives Phil Gramm and Kent Hance, then Democrats, co-operated with Republicans to get around the House Leadership, the Democrats passed new rules making it very difficult for the minority to function. DeLay came to Congress some years after those rules had been changed. In addition, the Republican Leadership did not want to fight. They were go-along-to-get-along boys, led by Representative Robert H. Michel (R-IL). Michel was conservative but he often rolled over and played dead. The assumption was that Democrats would always control the House so there was no point in making enemies. Some years later the process opened up a bit and both Richard Armey (R-TX) and DeLay (R-TX) were elected to lesser leadership posts. With Newt Gingrich (R-GA) also in the leadership, things began to change. Then came the remarkable year of 1994. Republicans took control of the House. With Gingrich as Speaker, Armey as Majority Leader, DeLay became Majority Whip. In that capacity, he soon became famous for pulling off extraordinary votes. He almost never lost anything and his reputation grew and grew. When Gingrich resigned as Speaker, some thought DeLay would take his place. But DeLay was smarter than that. He pushed his Chief Deputy Whip out front, Representative J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), knowing he would have a reliably ally in the Speaker's chair. (DeLay and Gingrich never got along very well. Gingrich was pragmatic. DeLay was principled.) DeLay managed to have a relationship with some Democrats so that there were always some who would cross over to help him achieve his victories. Along the way, something else happened. Tom DeLay became a fervent Christian. He had always been a nominal Christian but as he admits his behavior in his earlier days was not consistent with what a Christian should do.
As a secular conservative his interest was more toward economic conservatism. When he became an active Christian his priorities shifted to the social issues. He especially searched for ways that abortion could be curbed. On that, however, he did not have a majority in Congress and some in his own party caused him problems. Nevertheless, it was a real boost to the conservative movement for the leadership, led by DeLay, to call for a Values Summit. Most all the leaders of the social conservative movement showed up not knowing what to expect. There was DeLay, later the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, and others, all listening to us to find out our priorities on the social-issues front. That had never happened before. DeLay grew in ability all the while as his Christian faith took hold. At first, DeLay, who had run an exterminator company in Houston, was not a fiery orator. As time moved on, he became one. And when Armey retired as Majority Leader Tom was elected to that post with no contest. He took the abilities he had learned as Majority Whip and transferred them to the Majority Leadership office. At one time in the past century, a Republican leader as able as DeLay would have at least won the respect of the opposition party, just as Republicans respected Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) when he was Senate Majority Leader. They didn't agree with him but they respected his ability.
Today's opposition leadership is entirely different. Lacking much of a program of their own, their principal activity is to loathe anyone who is in power and effective.
So it was with DeLay. At first the liberals were content with calling him names. "The Hammer" comes to mind. Then they planted stories attempting to show that he was out of step with his party. Nothing could have been further from the truth. DeLay represented a new version of the GOP--a party with an agenda, an aggressive leader, someone who would not tolerate the lies generated by some Members of the House. DeLay faced the liberals head on. They ignored his interest in foster children and the big money he raised for better facilities for such children. They painted him as hard-hearted, lacking in sensitivity. On the contrary, DeLay was so sensitive that after he was indicted for alleged money laundering, for which he well may be vindicated, he began to be the poster child for the Democratic campaign on the "culture of corruption," and seriously considered resigning. "I care about this majority. I don't want to do anything to cause its defeat," DeLay told friends.
After he went home and won a primary with 62% of the vote, and with a former Congressman running as a conservative independent, and unable to get the legal system in Texas to speed up proceedings so he could clear his name, DeLay at last gave up his seat. He already had been ousted from his leadership position as the Republicans have a rule that if a Member is indicted he must surrender a leadership position, a committee chairmanship or ranking minority member position. The author of that rule said he meant that it should apply to federal indictments, not indictments by States, but the rule continues in effect so DeLay became a backbencher. Behind the scenes he still wielded considerable power but with the electorate so volatile DeLay thought it was time to depart so that his seat could remain in Republican hands and so that the Democrats could not use him as an issue this November. DeLay is a friend of Jack Abramoff, the now infamous lobbyist whose clients were wealthy Indian tribes and who spread money around Capitol Hill to both parties in unprecedented fashion. Unlike others who now claim never to have met the lobbyist, DeLay refused to back away from his friend. It was typical of DeLay. He never cut and ran. But that friendship and some of the trips for which Abramoff paid that DeLay used to further the conservative cause were another strike against him.
What now for this once powerful leader? DeLay says he wants to spend his time and effort to further the conservative cause. He said he hopes he can unify conservatives. No easy task. The conservative movement owes Tom DeLay a huge debt of gratitude. He truly hoped to enact our agenda. When in modern times have we had a leader like this? He received many tributes during his last day in the House. But liberals could not refrain from attacking him. It is a troubling day when our politics comes to this. Democrats can rejoice because they have DeLay's scalp hanging on their wall. But what have they accomplished for our country in the process?