When word came down last month that former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to violate Texas election law, the news had a whiff of Greek tragedy about it. Here was a man who had ascended to the heights of American political power, only to be cast down by his criminal sense of entitlement, moral certitude and contempt for the democracy he claimed to be serving. DeLay even supplied the perfect closing line to any play written about his life. “I have fought the good fight, run the race and kept the faith,” he told District Judge Pat Priest. Defiant and self-righteous ‘til the end was the gentleman from Sugar Land.
The Hammer’s conviction and sentencing have resparked interest in Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck’s excellent 2006 documentary, The Big Buy: Tom DeLay’s Stolen Congress. The movie will screen this month as part of Denton’s Thin Line documentary festival. Texans Birnbaum and Schermbeck spent two years following the story of DeLay and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle—the majority leader’s Inspector Javert. Though denied even an interview by DeLay, Earle granted the filmmakers generous access, supplying them with details of DeLay’s elaborate, calculated plot to subvert the democratic process.
Earle makes an engaging protagonist with a gift for homespun homilies about the dangers of mixing money and politics. The result is a fascinating, fine-tooth-comb look inside a vast political conspiracy, a profile of a crusading lawman seen as a hero by some and a politically motivated loose cannon by others. The film is a deflating admission of how fragile our little American experiment is in the face of corporate influence.
“We end our film at the point where DeLay has fallen from power,” Birnbaum told me recently. “His conviction is kind of anti-climactic. The real story is that the mastermind is out of power and unable to control the levers of power. How much time he does for the crime is just a footnote. He’s no longer majority leader; he steps down in disgrace; his party loses power the next November, in part because of his legacy of corruption. That’s the story. That’s his punishment.”
The Big Buy isn’t just an investigation of one of the most corrupt chapters in recent American political history. It’s also that a rare example of true documentary drama, when a subject’s life has a rise and fall, concluding not with his earthly, man-made punishment, but with his true fall from grace—or relevance, which is American for grace.