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King of Crooks

April 15, 2005
By A. P. Short

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

—Jesus the Nazarene, Matthew 23:27

Tom DeLay is not a likeable man. Some part of him has always known this, it seems, and has avoided the spotlight the way a cockroach or a beetle will, less out of a conscious sense of self preservation than because to operate in shadows and dark places is part of the creature's fundamental nature.

For twenty years, DeLay's penchant for ducking the limelight allowed him to coexist harmoniously with a Republican Party that was trying with all its considerable might, despite an increasingly draconian and heartless pro-corporate legislative agenda, to recast itself as the party of the common people.

When Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1994, DeLay was elected majority whip, the position for which he had been born and bred. Infamous for his tough tactics, many of them in ethical and legal gray areas, and renowned for his ability to convince unheard-of numbers of representatives to change their votes at the last minute to ensure passage of critical legislation, DeLay filled the post with ease and style. He was a success because he did things his way, but also because his way was exactly the way the party wanted it done.

DeLay was an invaluable Republican field general during the party's ten-year dominance of the U.S. House of Representatives, a streak that will continue at least until the 110th Congress is seated in January of 2007. He raised more money, twisted more arms, and destroyed more enemies of the Republican machine than anyone in his era, perhaps rivaling even all-time great fixers like Tex Colson, Richard Nixon, or Joe McCarthy.

Unfortunately for the GOP, the easy symbiosis between the seemingly respectable upper-class family and the crazy aunt in the attic could not last forever. Newt Gingrich was brought down by a wave of scandals, and Trent Lott, Gingrich's successor, met with his own ignominious end after publicly lamenting in 2002 - the failure of Strom Thurmond's 1948 "Segregation Forever" presidential campaign.

Suddenly the Republicans found themselves in the position they had been avoiding for the better part of two decades Tom DeLay was next in line for House Majority Leader. No longer could DeLay get by without ever speaking on the record, without stepping in front of television cameras to let the country get a very good look at the man who controlled, for practical purposes, the legislative agenda of the United States of America.

The fear, of course, was that Juanita Q. Public, like most people who get to know Tom DeLay, would not like what she saw. So the Republicans did their level best to ensure that Americans saw a little of DeLay as possible, and for the most part they were successful. By the end of 2004, DeLay was still bringing up the rear in polls gauging the public's knowledge of prominent political personalities very few people outside of Texas had any idea who Tom DeLay was.

The Majority Leader's comfortable anonymity could not last forever. During the 2002 election campaign, DeLay pushed his already outrageous fundraising tactics to new heights, threatening donors with retribution if they gave to (or hired) Democrats and funneling vast sums of corporate cash into the coffers of Texas state Congressional campaigns. In doing so DeLay ran afoul of Texas law, and Democratic Attorney General Ronnie Earle wasted no time in busting up DeLay's racket.

By the beginning of 2005, several of DeLay's top aides were facing indictment on serious corruption charges, and speculation was mounting that DeLay himself could soon be charged with a felony. This development presented numerous complications, not least of which was the House ethics rule that a sitting Majority Leader who is indicted for a crime cannot continue in his leadership post. The Republicans, apparently not yet understanding how completely the lid had come off the hamper containing Tom DeLay's dirty laundry, moved to shield him from disciplinary action by changing the rules of the House to allow a member to continue on as Majority Leader despite being under indictment.

House leadership also retaliated against the Republican members of the House Ethics Committee who had agreed with their Democratic counterparts that DeLay's illegal fundraising was worthy of an official rebuke, replacing the wayward Republicans with DeLay loyalists. Then the House rules were changed once again, this time to make it essentially impossible for the ethics committee to conduct an investigation into a House member's ethical lapses (the sole reason for the committee's existence.)

Then in March, Tom DeLay made a rare political misstep that seems likely to cost him his leadership post, and perhaps even his Congressional seat. Seeing what looked to him like a golden opportunity to get some positive face-time with the American public, DeLay plunged himself headlong into the Terry Schiavo case, railing publicly against the "liberal judges" who had heartlessly allowed the woman's wishes to be carried out and the law to be followed.

The result was disaster. Even among the devout, the issue was a non-starter, and tiny percentages of the American population agreed with the Republicans' decision to intervene at the eleventh hour. To make matters worse, DeLay pontificated openly in public about why conservatives should be happy that God sent Terry Schiavo to save him from the Democrats and their evil liberal media empire. Mel Martinez circulated a memo drafted by a former DeLay associate that crowed about the wonderful (imaginary) political benefits that would accrue to the Republican party as a result of their meddling in the private affairs of a grieving American family. It was not the GOP's best moment.

By early April, stories of DeLay's shady dealings with corporate lobbyists and foreign companies were breaking almost daily, and public satisfaction with the Republicans in Congress was sinking fast. Slowly, it began to dawn on movement conservatives that it might be better to cut DeLay loose than to allow him to take the entire party down with him.

In recent weeks even extremely DeLay-friendly news outlets have gone rather wobbly. The National Review is hedging its bets with lukewarm, easily reversible defenses, while the Weekly Standard seems to have adopted an editorial policy of "Tom De-Who," avoiding any mention of the embattled Republican leader. The Wall Street Journal tossed DeLay to the wolves outright last week, and even the ferociously pro-DeLay Bill O'Reilly has subtly shifted his daily spin from "witch hunt" toward "innocent until proven guilty."

At the roots level, rank-and-file Republican bloggers are aghast that the party leadership would even consider putting its 2006 fortunes on the line for the sake of such a clearly corrupt and illegitimate leader. The pieces are all in place for DeLay to be hustled out of town quietly in the middle of the night like the Baltimore Colts. Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist will toss one more bad apple on the trash heap, and the GOP juggernaut will roll on, battered but unbowed.

Well, not so fast. Let the record show that it was not until DeLay became unpopular that House Republicans even discontinued their Herculean efforts to cover up his crimes, much less discovered the conscience they must have thought they left in their other pants.

Commentators across the land, many of them Republicans, have taken to calling Tom DeLay a "hypocrite," presumably because the legislator-for-sale is also conspicuously Christian. But Tom DeLay is no hypocrite. He is what he is, and he has never made any great attempt to hide it from his colleagues. This, after all, is the man who said, when asked why there shouldn't be at least some limits on corporate financing of election campaigns "Money is not the root of all evil in politics. Money is the lifeblood of politics."

Tom DeLay has never pretended to be anything other than a nakedly partisan political animal who will do absolutely anything to win. It's the rest of the Republican party whose hypocrisy is on display. The GOP, with all high-minded talk of civic duty and its flimsy talk show patriotism, is being exposed for what it is - the refuge of crooks, thieves and con men, with Tom DeLay their beloved but disgraced King.

Perhaps Tom DeLay is the most corrupt Republican in government. Even so, it is the coverup and not the crime which has brought low most prominent Republican criminals in our history, and on that score the entire party is implicated. Dennis Hastert engineered the shakeup of the ethics committee, and presided over the rule changes designed to keep DeLay in the House no matter what his crimes. Rick Santorum may be willing to call DeLay to account in April, but back in February he said nothing while the Republican leadership was purging the ethics committee to protect the Hammer.

Indeed, back before DeLay became toxic, but long after it became common knowledge that his money was raised through some very creative channels, prominent Republicans had no qualms about feeding at DeLay's ample trough. Eric Cantor, John Cornyn, John Thune, Lindsey Graham, Bob Ney, John Sununu, Norm Coleman, Bob Ehrlich, Chris Chocola, and Saxby Chambliss all took money from DeLay, and the list goes on and on. The list, in fact, is so long that it would literally be quicker to simply list the Republican congresspeople who have NOT financed their campaigns partially from Tom DeLay's tainted largesse.

But to focus on DeLay's overt corruption, his criminal activity, is actually to miss the real importance of his tenure as House Majority Leader, and just what it has done to the political climate in this country. For it is not DeLay's penchant for rewarding his donors with corporate pork or showering his immediate family with bogus "salaries" from his campaign coffers that has turned our legislative process into a farcical, undemocratic free-for-all.

In his lust for absolute power, Tom DeLay has fundamentally changed the way the American legislature is run - trampling on the rights of the minority and of the public the Congress is supposed to serve, and making a mockery of the values set forth in the U.S. Constitution. DeLay has for years longed for a system where the checks and balances that the founders set forth have been dismantled in favor of unfettered one-party rule, bought and paid for with endless rivers of corporate money.

The moves DeLay has made toward this nightmarish ideal have not been made in secret, but out in the open. And even now, at the moment of DeLay's disgrace, John Cornyn continues to endorse DeLay's dark vision of Republican dictatorship by threatening judges who refuse to bow to GOP pressure to subvert the laws of their states. Bill Frist continues his push to remove the right to filibuster judicial appointments, paving the way for the GOP to stack the already conservative federal bench with hordes of Republican partisans.

No doubt it will not be long, now that Chris Shays has broken the ice and become the first Republican to call for DeLay to step down, that some idealistic young GOP rep will stand in front of a microphone and call Tom DeLay a "cancer on the Republican party." Embodied in that statement will be a lie much greater than any that DeLay or his ample right-wing spin machine ever produced.

Tom DeLay IS the Republican party. He represents everything the party has stood for going back to the time of Ronald Reagan - hatred, hypocrisy, and endless, endless greed. The GOP may succeed in cutting Tom DeLay out like a tumor, but the cancer that threatens to choke our democracy will continue to grow.

In the next few months, as DeLay continues to circle the drain and is eventually pulled to his doom, we will learn very little about the man that we do not already know. He will lash out in desperation as the end draws near; he will expose his fundamental meanness and lack of human compassion as he personally attacks the people he once called his friends.

It is the rest of our congresspeople, both Republican and Democratic alike, who will show us their true colors in the final days of DeLay's tenure as House Majority Leader. Those who have not succumbed to the ethic that DeLay embodies - power and money at all costs, and the American people be damned - will step forward and call for a return to government by the people, not by K Street lobbyists and slick PR executives in two hundred dollar ties.

We will know the rest of them, the tainted ones, by the careful way in which they present the Tom DeLay problem as a problem with the man, and not one that infected the institution itself. Those who continue to profit from the atmosphere that Tom DeLay brought to the U.S. Congress may pile on DeLay as his carcass begins to bloat, but they will not have the courage to ask, not what Tom DeLay was, but HOW he came to rise to a position of such great power, and WHY it took so long for him to be exposed.

If these corrupt elements, and they exist in both parties, are allowed to get away with pretending that Tom DeLay was the problem, another Tom DeLay will simply rise to take his place. Americans will continue to lose faith in their leaders' commitment to representing them, and we will fall further toward the disintegration of the democratic experiment we all claim to love.

The King of Crooks is sick and dying, but his court lives on. Are we rabble content with our small victory, or shall we storm the keep as well?

Visit A. P. Short's blog at apshort.blogspot.com.

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