WASHINGTON -- On March 24, former Congressman Bob Livingston was sent an e-mail by a New York Times editorial page staffer suggesting he write an op-ed essay. Would Livingston, who in 1998 gave up certain elevation to be House speaker because of a sexual affair, write about how Majority Leader Tom DeLay should now act under fire? In a subsequent conversation, it was made clear the Times wanted the prominent Republican to say DeLay should step aside for the good of the party.
Livingston in effect declined by responding that if he wrote anything for the Times, it would be pro-DeLay. But this remarkable case of that august newspaper fishing for an op-ed piece makes it appear part of a calculated campaign to bring down the single most powerful Republican in Congress. The Democratic establishment and left-wing activists have targeted DeLay as the way to end a decade of Republican control of the House.
Ironically, this campaign's intensity may protect DeLay from Republicans who in their secret hearts would like to see the sometimes-overbearing Texan fall. No GOP politician wants to be the handmaiden of DeLay's Democratic detractors. Last Wednesday's closed-door caucus of House Republicans gave DeLay a standing ovation. Contrary to claims on leftist websites, no Republican member has called for the majority leader's resignation.
Accusations of DeLay going on junkets funded by private sources and putting relatives on non-government payrolls reflect common congressional practice. The assault on DeLay did not begin until he redistricted Texas congressional seats, which changed the 2004 election from a net loss to a net gain for House Republicans. That accomplishment, however, makes it much harder to rip holes in DeLay's House GOP support.
At least 18 news organizations now have assigned reporters to cover DeLay, but the quest by The New York Times for a prominent Republican to suggest his resignation may cross a line. Livingston, a Louisiana congressman who was Appropriations Committee chairman, was set to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker in November 1998, when he stunned Washington by announcing his resignation from Congress after allegations of a sexual affair.
New York Times editorial page staffer Tobin Harshaw sent the March 24 e-mail to Livingston, now a Washington lobbyist. Chris Terrell, a principal in The Livingston Group, declined to give this column a copy of the message but read it to us. Harshaw, reached in New York, confirmed he had a conversation with Terrell, but added: "We don't comment on assignments, written or unwritten."
According to Terrell, Harshaw's e-mail suggested Livingston might want to write "a short op-ed on DeLay's political future." Terrell said he telephoned Harshaw, saying his boss would "write a favorable piece," then asked: "Is that really what you're seeking or is that what you would print?"
It clearly was not. While Harshaw asserted "we would welcome any thoughts" by Livingston, Terrell quoted him as saying "we are seeking those who would go on the record or state for the good of the party he [DeLay] should step aside."
The importance of such a column by so prestigious a Republican as Livingston would break a solid GOP front supporting DeLay. Potential Republican defectors have stayed loyal to DeLay because of Democratic leaders. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, abandoning traditions of at least minimum courtesy between party leaders, has led the campaign against her Republican counterpart. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the aggressive new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has made this the cornerstone of efforts to recapture the House in 2006.
The one crack in the pro-DeLay alliance was a March 28 editorial in The Wall Street Journal charging the majority leader with "betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office." To be accused of imitating the ethical standards of the Democrats he deplored was viewed by DeLay as a "gut shot."
The question: Would this editorial start a chain reaction of Republican House members abandoning DeLay, much as Democrats turned against Speaker Jim Wright in 1989? Those defections doomed Wright, whose fall was followed in five years by the Republican capture of the House. Since Bob Livingston would not get the ball rolling, the campaign to get DeLay still needs a major anti-DeLay Republican to go public.