Cirque du DeLay
he John Wesley Hardin Died for You Society has a theme song that goes, “He wasn’t really bad. He was just a victim of his times.” I sometimes find this useful in trying to explain Texas political ethics to outsiders. My theory is that few Texas pols are actual crooks, they just have an overdeveloped sense of the extenuating circumstance. Woodrow Wilson Bean once warned himself that he was skatin’ close to the thin edge of ethics. After a moment, he concluded, “Woodrow Wilson Bean, ethics is for young lawyers.” We had a governor who was caught in a big, fat lie about a football scandal (serious stuff) and explained, “Well, there never was a Bible in the room.” Some civilians believe that the definition of an honest Texas pol is one who stays bought. But among pols of the old school, the saying was, “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.” Many of our pols have the ethical sensitivity of a walnut. All this has led many to conclude erroneously that Tom DeLay, an alumnus of the Texas Legislature, is somehow our fault. I grant you a certain resemblance to some of our more notorious standards: “Everybody does it” and “They did it first” are actually considered excuses here. But I categorically reject cultural responsibility for Tom DeLay. Real Texas politicians are neither hypocritical nor sanctimonious. A pol does what he must—fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly—but no pol of the Old School, when DeLay served in the Lege, would add self-righteousness to shady dealing. Nor was hyper-partisanship practiced. Under Bill Hobby, Bob Bullock and Pete Laney, Republicans were given their fair share of power. In fact, Republicans and liberals sometimes joined forces against conservative Democrats. This was before the time when religion was regularly dragged into politics. The idea that you were immune from ethical lapses because you had found Jesus did not fly here. Sanctimony stinks in the nostrils of the Lord. Doing favors for big campaign donors may indeed be an “everybody does it,” but when those favors take the form of laws that directly hurt your people, you’re supposed to draw the line. Over the line is where Texas pols would put using a children’s charity as a cover for collecting soft money from special interest groups and then spending it on dinners, a golf tournament, a rock concert, Broadway tickets, and so forth. Because the money was supposedly for a charity, Celebrations for Children, Inc., special interests who wanted favors from DeLay were able to give him money without revealing themselves as campaign donors. Cute trick, Tom, but a really cruddy thing to do. In another example of ethical rot, DeLay took a $100,000 check from the Corrections Corporation of America, a company that runs private prisons in Texas and has a 20-year history that includes mismanagement and abuse. CCA wants the Texas Lege, over which DeLay exercises considerable sway because he’s a money conduit, to privatize the prisons. And that check? Made out to DeLay’s children’s charity, the DeLay Foundation for Kids. Barf. Another quality that makes DeLay an un-Texas pol is that he’s mean. By and large, Texas pols are an agreeable set of less-than-perfect humans and quite often well-intentioned. As Carl Parker of Port Arthur used to observe, if you took all the fools out of the Lege, it would no longer be a representative body. The old sense of collegiality was strong, and vindictive behavior—punishing pols for partisan reasons—was simply not done. But those are Tom DeLay’s specialties, his trademarks. The Hammer is not only genuinely feared in Washington, he is, I’m sorry to say, hated. Some of the ethics charges against DeLay are just plain old-fashioned grubby—letting a lobbyist pay for a fancy hotel in London and a golf trip to St. Andrews (Delay claims he didn’t know it was lobby money, even though he was accompanied by the lobbyist). What sets DeLay apart is his response when his shoddy behavior is exposed. He has been admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee, so did he clean up his act? Nope, he went after the chairman of the ethics committee, threw him out, got the rules changed and then stacked the committee with his close allies. “The ethics process in the House of Representatives is in total shambles,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime D.C. crusader on ethical issues. I haven’t even mentioned DeLay’s apparent violation of Texas campaign finance law, quite a feat, since we only have the one. Or the whole nasty and absurd redistricting mess. Or the dubious donations to his legal defense fund. Or the Indian casino gambling saga. Or, or, or. The Houston Chronicle, DeLay’s home paper, has been vigilant about tracking his lapses. The paper recently summed up his MO: “When in danger of losing, simply rewrite the rules in the middle of the game to make it impossible for the other side to win.” This guy smells like a slop jar. Get him out of there. Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her most recent book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America(Random House).