Follow the Leader

The Right and its Big Night for Tom DeLay

Follow the Leader

The Right and its Big Night for Tom DeLay

BY LOU DUBOSE

here was something weirdly dissonant about the American Conservative Union’s May 12 salute to Tom DeLay. Maybe it was the video tribute played out on 20-by-20-foot screens on each side of the head table and on a dozen smaller monitors spaced throughout the room. Jesse Helms staring into the camera and urging Tom DeLay to hang in there. Dennis Hastert squinting his way through his 30-second video salute. Republican Whip Roy Blunt praising DeLay in a pre-recorded video clip, while sitting at the head table waiting to deliver a longer, live speech to the 900 guests. (Did the majority whip want to redouble his praise of DeLay? Or did someone warn him that the absence of both the whip and the speaker might be read as a vote of no confidence?) Maybe it was the awkward musical interludes by a bluegrass band playing “Waltz Across Texas,” “Wabash Cannon Ball,” and “If I Had a Hammer” between the video-encomiums from Hastert, Helms, Blunt, Congressman Tom Reynolds, and radio evangelical James Dobson. Dobson warned that liberals know that the way “you win the battle is to shoot the brave soldiers first. And Tom DeLay is a brave soldier.” It was the defining metaphor of the evening: the brave soldier under attack by Democrats, The Washington Post, and the liberal media in general. Then again, maybe it was the crowd that didn’t seem quite right. “There’s nobody famous here,” said a realtor from Knoxville, Tennessee. “I watch politics on TV, and I haven’t seen a single person that’s important here.” She was attending a convention at the same hotel and slipped into the dinner, where she took a seat at a half-empty table. She pointed to her dinner companions. “That guy is a real sweet World War II veteran. This guy is a retired high school principal. The man next to him is a manager of a casino in Atlantic City. Now what’s he doing here?” Then she looked at the head table: “Is there anybody important out here?” If Dr. Dobson provided the defining metaphor, the realtor from Tennessee instinctively got the night’s news hook. There’s something odd about a tribute to a political leader with no political leaders in the crowd. She crashed a party expecting to see Senator Bill Frist, and all she got was salmon, filet mignon, a lot of red wine—and the plastic hammer from atop the red, white, and blue marble cake. In fact, if you weren’t a political junkie, you needed a program to find the political celebrities in the crowd. (Maybe the oddest sighting was GOPUSA’S James Guckert and his doppelganger Jeff Gannon sharing the same chair at one table.) Most of the hosts and guests were conservative movement leaders and the drones doing the hard work at the Republican Party’s corporate-funded ancillary offices in Washington—the true believers DeLay correctly described as “the heroes of the conservative movement.” Five of the eight people at the table where I sat were youthful guests of Rightmarch—the web-based group “leading the virtual march from the right” (www.rightmarch.com). Later in the evening I asked a slightly drunk young woman in an elegant black dress (that was probably far too revealing for the Christians in the crowd) what brought her and her four companions to the event. “Just the freeeeee tickets!” she said. Pressed for an opinion on DeLay, she said he was “a good congressman” and a “conservative leader.” One of her five companions from a leadership institute for young conservatives offered up a more sober defense of the majority leader, even if it was yet another variation of the evening’s message. “We’re here to support Tom DeLay because he is a proven leader. And I don’t think he’s done anything wrong, or at least not anything that other members of the House have done,” said Anna Hager of the Leadership Institute. Meanwhile, Morton Blackwell, the Institute’s president worked the crowd, handing out “Hooray for DeLay” stickers. His DeLay tribute speech, in which he repeatedly referred to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as a “socialist,” was pitch perfect for this crowd. The crowd filled the standard expandable ballroom, with an accordion divider that opened up to accommodate what official counters said were 912 guests. (There were about 10 empty tables.) And this was Washington, D.C., so it was coat and tie for men and a lot of black (or Republican red) dresses for women. But unlike most D.C. banquets, this one was dominated by the off-the-rack crowd. Entire tables were filled with 20-somethings from the 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 non-profit foundations that do the thinking and issues advocacy for the conservative movement. Four of the guests at the Rightmarch table were young staffers from non-profits, who accepted an offer of free tickets to the event. Other tables—each with a complement of red and white wine, which didn’t seem to offend the evangelicals, and a placard identifying the table sponsor—were filled by the young foot soldiers of the conservative movement on the tab of wealthier, older patrons. qually noteworthy was who wasn’t in the Capitol Hilton Ballroom for the Thursday night DeLay tribute. The hotel sits at an intersection with K Street, the home of the lobbying shops, trade associations, and political law firms that write our laws and play a central role in the modern Congress, particularly in the House. Yet there were few lobbyists in the second-floor ballroom or the adjacent mezzanine overlooking the main entrance. The biggest names from K Street were Bob Livingston and Bill Paxon, two former House members indebted (if that’s the right word) to DeLay for their careers in the lobby. In 1997 DeLay led a disastrous House coup designed to overthrow a weakened Newt Gingrich and install Paxon as speaker. When the plot unraveled, Gingrich came down hard on Paxon, for whom he had created a special position on his leadership team. Paxon resigned and moved on to the lobby. Livingston, who delivered a forceful speech blaming the liberal media for DeLay’s problems (and claiming both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal rejected his op-ed pieces defending the majority leader), has his own DeLay backstory. When Gingrich finally did collapse under the accumulated weight of scandal and lost House seats in 1998, DeLay used his influence and his whip team to make Livingston speaker-designate. DeLay’s kingmaking unraveled when Hustler publisher Larry Flynt revealed Livingston’s extramarital affairs. Livingston left the House and he also moved onto the lobby. (DeLay then selected Hastert for the position.) “This is not an event for the boys and girls from K Street,” said Cleta Mitchell, the American Conservative Union board member who served as the emcee for the event. Even that statement was odd at an event honoring Tom DeLay. The majority leader is defined by his relationship with the business lobby. By his own admission he raised more than $2 million in lobby money for Republican candidates in 1994, the year the party took control of the House. His leadership suite is the Capitol’s best-known finishing school for top positions on K Street. And with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, DeLay founded the K Street Project, an informal but highly successful Republican campaign to stop lobbying firms from hiring Democrats while compelling them to contribute to Republican candidates. (Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform bought a $2,000 table. But he was conspicuously absent from it. News reports of his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, intricately involved in DeLay’s growing ethics scandals, made him a potential blemish on an event celebrating DeLay’s integrity.) Tickets to the event were sold to the public for the low-price of $250. So K Street’s decision to stay home and catch it on C-SPAN was hard to figure. Even more unusual was the House Republican Conference passing on a “lifetime achievement” banquet for its own majority leader. Only 20 to 25 members of the 233-member Republican Conference DeLay leads turned out to support him. Melissa Hart, the Pennsylvania Republican whose work DeLay praised during his speech at the banquet, had said she would be there. Then she declined. No one from the Texas delegation showed up. Denny Hastert phoned in his congratulations. National Republican Congressional Committee chair Tom Reynolds did the same but stayed away. Republican House Conference chair Deborah Pryce was not on the video screen or in the room. Only two House Republicans, Tom Feeney and Trent Franks—not big players in party politics or policymaking—were eagerly talking to the press. Feeney is an ardent DeLay supporter from Florida. He has received $10,000 from DeLay’s national political action committee (ARMPAC) since his first race in 2002. He also works on a House team coordinating DeLay’s support. He said DeLay is a target because “he is the most effective leader the House has seen in 50 years.” The most unexpected House member in the crowd was John Boehner, the Ohio congressman who has openly feuded with DeLay—who helped muscle him out of power after the 1998 elections. Boehner bought a $2,000 table (front row, center), telling The New York Times the day before the event: “I just wanted to be supportive.” He wasn’t working the press or the crowd. House no-shows created a moment of embarrassment, when emcee Cleta Mitchell summoned New Jersey Congressman Scott Garrett to the head table to say a few words. Garrett was unable to speak because he wasn’t there. DeLay tried to explain his colleagues’ absence, saying in his eight-minute speech that he had “released them to go home for the weekend.” Arizona Congressman Franks elected to wait until Friday morning to start his long weekend. DeLay’s leadership PAC had provided him $21,000 since his first race in 2002, and he wasn’t walking away from the Leader. “I’d jump off the Capitol for him,” Franks said. He said the lack of attendance by his House colleagues cannot be equated with lack of support. Republicans in the House are not worried about “myths spread around about Tom DeLay by liberal papers… “Tom DeLay is bulletproof,” Franks said. “Only a few misfits in our conference think he’s in trouble and they don’t matter.” If House members were rare, this was a movement event, for and about the movers and marchers of the American conservative movement. Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, best known for underwriting tort reform in Texas (see, “A Homeowner Nails Bob Perry,” May 13, 2005) and the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential election, flew in from Houston. He stood beside Franks in the hallway outside the ballroom after almost everyone departed. “I’ve talked to my own lawyers,” Perry said. “They tell me Tom DeLay doesn’t have any legal problem. He has a public relations problem. So he’s going to be all right. You can fix a public relations problem.” Perry added that DeLay “can’t be defeated in his district. If they are going to destroy him, they have to do it here in Washington, D.C.” Conservative movement grand dame Phyllis Schlafly made a disjointed, humorous speech comparing DeLay to Ann Coulter. When I asked her about DeLay, she reminded me that her current book urges Congress to pass legislation “withdrawing from judges all authority in the areas where we don’t trust them… the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, marriage, and the Boy Scouts.” DeLay is under attack because he stood up to the judiciary, she said. “The liberals are going after him because of what he said about bringing out-of-control judges under control. That’s why they’re targeting him,” Schlafly said. “He needs to stand firm. Just stand firm and keep moving ahead,” she said. Which seemed like challenging marching orders. erhaps the absence of the lobby and the Republican House delegation served the purposes of this event. It allowed movement leaders and workers to appear in high relief, rather than as background to the luminaries of K Street and Congress. After all, this was a Tom DeLay remake. In the absence of lobbyists and members of the House, DeLay could be recast as a movement conservative and a regular guy beloved by the folks back home. The most prominent Texan in the soft feature produced to set up DeLay’s speech was his old business partner from Albo Pest Control. The most compelling speaker of the evening was Ena Feinberg, a Jewish “refusenik” who with her husband and children was rescued from the Soviet Union in 1987 by relatively unknown Congressman Tom DeLay and his wife Christine. After the DeLays traveled to Moscow to host and preside over a Passover Seder in the Feinberg home (the DeLay’s are Baptists), DeLay used his office to pressure Soviet authorities to issue exit visas for the Feinbergs. It was a sweet night, recalling what Tom DeLay was about before he ascended to power in 1995. For one brief moment in the Potemkin Village created inside the Capitol Hilton, Tom DeLay was a father, a foster father, a conservative, a victim, and a Christian hero who had done no wrong and a lot of right. Beyond the confines of the Capitol Hilton is what Bush team leaders Karl Rove and Mark McKinnon deride as “the reality-based” culture. It’s that culture, with its prosecutors, judges, and ambitious colleagues, that threatens the majority leader. Skeptics might call that culture the real world, where John Boehner and Tom Reynolds are involved in discreet campaigns to succeed the man being saluted, as is Roy Blunt. Like Roman Catholic cardinals jockeying for position as Pope John Paul II was in the throes of death, the three men are positioning themselves to run when DeLay goes down. Political handicappers see it as a division between the corporate conservatives, who prefer Boehner or Reynolds, and the religious right that is enamored with Blunt. Blunt even played the Christian card at the DeLay banquet, in the form of a homely vignette that described him, DeLay, and Hastert sitting in DeLay’s office “discussing the difference between God’s plan and our plan.” God’s plan notwithstanding, the three Republicans have every reason to believe DeLay is on his way out. They know the majority leader is always a bad story about to break in The Washington Post. And while DeLay’s critics are correct when they claim that several of the stories are based on events that happened more than two years ago, they miss (probably by design) the point. The press is reacting to a critical mass of information that wasn’t available when the events in question occurred. Jack Abramoff was a lobbyist quietly doing deals when he shook down Indian casino gambling interests for more than $50,000 to fly the DeLays to Scotland for golf in August 2002. In February 2003, he caught the attention of Washington Post reporters. Within weeks of the fir
t Post story, A
ramoff’s $81-million Indian lobbying enterprise vertically collapsed, as John McCain followed the Post and began an investigation at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Despite McCain’s reassurances that he’s targeting lobbyists and not members of Congress, the two lobbyists he’s pursuing have long and close ties with DeLay. Abramoff worked on DeLay’s 1995 whip campaign, which was run by Denny Hastert. Mike Scanlon ran DeLay’s “Clinton Impeachment War Room” while he was his press aide in 1997. Both men later sold their services to Indian gaming interests by promising that, if you hire us, you get DeLay. Both men are now lawyered up and hoping to avoid indictments. McCain’s resolve might weaken under pressure from the White House. His investigation threatens to reveal a vast Republican funding network. Not only are there ethical and legal questions about the $81 million Abramoff and Scanlon billed their Indian lobbying clients. What didn’t end up in their pockets ended up in Republican campaign accounts. Both men also directed their Indian clients to make separate contributions, such as the $1.2 million tribes donated to Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. But McCain is not running the only investigation in town. Before he got started, a grand jury, U.S. attorney, and four federal agencies were already investigating Abramoff and Scanlon. A latecomer to the lobby scandal, the Senate Finance Committee, recently began a separate investigation, which can’t help DeLay. There is also the House Ethics Committee. Despite Speaker Hastert’s efforts to rewrite the rules and restaff the committee to protect DeLay, the committee is inexorably moving toward an investigation. DeLay has already been admonished four times by House Ethics, a record for a living, un-incarcerated member of Congress. Under Democratic pressure, Hastert backed away from new rules that would have insulated DeLay from investigation. When the committee meets again, it will open yet another front on which DeLay’s lawyers will have to fight. So in Washington, more revelations about DeLay are inevitable, followed by more critical reporting about his relations with Abramoff and Scanlon. Outside of Washington, the defrauded Indian tribes are suing. The suits will probably be settled, with the cooperation of Abramoff’s former employer. But the man once known as “Casino Jack,” will remain a problem for DeLay. Recently he began to talk to the press, tentatively. In mid-April, an “Abramoff surrogate” speaking to Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, said DeLay was aware of what Abramoff was doing regarding lobbying and contributions. The “leak” suggests that if Abramoff is going to pay the price for what he did with his clients’ money, Tom DeLay won’t escape unscathed. In Austin, DeLay is close to the center of a civil suit on which Judge Joe Hart is expected to rule before the end of May. The issues (see “TRMPAC in Its Own Words,” April 1) raised by five Democratic House candidates who claim DeLay’s Texas political action committee (TRMPAC) used illegal corporate money to defeat them in 2002 are similar to charges in indictments handed down by Travis County DA Ronnie Earle. The only defendant in the civil suit at the moment, TRMPAC treasurer Bill Ceverha, is the defendant with the best chance of clearing his name. His two co-defendants, Jim Ellis and John Colyandro, are temporarily abated from the suit until the criminal charges against them are adjudicated. They’ll be back later—along with additional news coverage the trial generates. The lawsuit has already damaged DeLay, producing incriminating letters and e-mails, including evidence that a corporate executive and a corporate lobbyist conveyed to him separate $25,000 corporate contributions. That could be a violation of Texas law. The Reliant lobbyist who handed Delay two checks totaling $25,000 is former DeLay staffer Drew Maloney. Maloney also organized the event that got DeLay admonished by the House Ethics Committee last year, for accepting a $25,000 contribution from energy company (and Maloney client) Westar. Then there are the criminal charges. No court date has been set for the Austin trial of Ellis, Colyandro, and TRMPAC’s corporate fundraiser Warren RoBold. Regardless of how it plays out, it promises bad news for DeLay. If DeLay is to be indicted himself, Travis County DA Earle will have to do so before the statute of limitations runs out in the fall. So the clock is running in Texas on the trial and a possible indictment. It was a nice party at the Hilton. But it’s unlikely that the best-laid plans of movement conservatives can hold the future at bay for Tom DeLay. The Capitol press pack has seen this type of event in the past: “A Night for Jim Wright” and “A Salute to Newt” were preludes to the departures of both House Speakers. So reporters turned out for the latest iteration of the departure ritual, hoping to find some news in an event that promised none. They also know it’s hard to catch up with DeLay anymore. Ever since CBS reporter Lesley Stahl caught him at an impromptu press conference outside his Capitol office in February, the majority leader has been using back entrances and Capitol basement hallways to avoid encounters with the press. At the Hilton, he spent a half-hour on the ramp that extended from the head table to a ballroom exit, thanking friends and supporters. Anyone with a press credential was kept at a safe distance. Then he and Christine put on their game faces and, hand in hand, moved toward the TV camera crews and print journalists waiting for the “press gaggle” news conference that routinely follows such events. “It’s been a long night,” said DeLay press aide Jonathan Grella. Then quicker than Elvis leaving the building, Tom DeLay was gone. Former Observer editor Lou Dubose is the author, with Jan Reid, of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Republican Congress.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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