VIEWPOINT: THE SAGA OF HOT TUB TOM (DeLAY) By Scott Bennett
by Scott Bennett
Sun, Jan 8, 2006, 02:35 PM
In the early 80s I attended an Austin party and met a young state rep from Houston by the name of Tom DeLay. As I recall we chatted for nearly half-an-hour and to the extent he made any impression at all the memory is mostly of a not terribly bright, amiable, even slightly goofy good-time-Charlie. During the days I covered the Texas Legislature I cannot recall anyone ever mentioning Tom DeLay except in relation to party antics.
In 1990 I again met Tom DeLay for lunch in Washington DC. It was an off-the-record lunch with a man I was told was fast becoming one of the most powerful GOP politicians around. Huh? Hot Tub Tom? Surely someone was pulling my leg. But no this Tom DeLay bore no relation to the man I had met years before. That Tom DeLay was ready to rock. This Tom DeLay was ready to fight.
On a personal level I took an instant and total dislike to him. He was openly irritated his staff has arranged a meeting with a member of the press, even one reasonably philosophically in tune with his views. He clearly considered anyone working for a mainstream media organization to be an enemy and his way of dealing with enemies was to get in their face. What I remember most about this Tom DeLay was that he was only too happy to make enemies – looked forward to it. Friends, he told me, were fickle but you could count on enemies. See who a man’s enemies were and you would know instantly if you could trust him, he advised.
On a political level I found DeLay fascinating. One of my personal political heroes has always been Sam Rayburn. Mr. Sam was a man who knew how to accumulate and use power. My favorite Rayburn story had Mr. Sam calling a committee chairman from Maryland to demand he cut lose a bill Rayburn wanted passed. He told the chairman he had 24-hours to report the bill favorably, or he, Rayburn, would move Annapolis to Galveston. The bill was duly reported out.
DeLay at this point was nobody. Newt Gingrich was just a rabble rousing backbencher. Dick Armey was just a nutty professor sleeping under his desk. But the new Tom DeLay was clearly in the thick of planning an overthrow of the regime ancient in Congress. Enough Mr. Nice Guy, he said. Republicans had to stop thinking like they were a “constitutionally ordained minority.” The time had come to get in some face and kick some butt. Yes, you needed “media smoothies” (I think he meant Gingrich) and “pointy heads” (I think he meant Dick Armey), but what you really needed was somebody who could get people elected and break heads. He clearly meant DeLay.
I have never seen or spoken with Tom DeLay since. But that meeting encouraged me to watch carefully and with interest. Personal distaste aside the idea of someone who was willing to seek and use power to create party discipline was an idea I liked. Political parties needed to stand for something and their members shouldn’t be able to take party money and then become free agents. DeLay I believed could never be Speaker; he was too unpolished to be a public spokesperson, and too hard-line right to be out front; he wasn’t made for the media age. But boy if he was willing to operate in the shadows - look out.
In 1994 the hero of the mainstream media, Bill Clinton, handed control of Congress to the GOP and “Hot Tub Tom” became the “Hammer.” The Hammer rose quickly to become the most powerful party master since Rayburn. But he wasn’t Mr. Sam. Mr. Sam understood when to hold them and when to fold them. He never gave his enemies any more reason to hate him than they already had. He allowed his defeated foes their dignity. Mr. Sam knew today’s foe could be tomorrow’s friend and he didn’t want to make the trip back more difficult. Finally, Mr. Sam knew that there was a legal limit and an ethical limit. He never crossed either line.
Personally, I believe that Tom DeLay did what Ronnie Earle says he did; I just don’t think it was illegal. Personally, I don’t believe that Tom DeLay played ball any harder than Democrats in years gone by when he manipulated the redrawing of Texas Congressional lines; he just did it at the wrong time. He saw that the key to a Republican Congress and his own power was raising money just like Mr. Sam whose power was largely built on oil money flowing into Democratic campaigns across the country. But just as Mr. Sam had a blind spot for Lyndon Johnson, the Hammer apparently had one for Jack Abramoff. The problem was that Lyndon was bound for the White House and Abramoff for the jail house.
The DeLay era is over. We may never see his like again. That is both a good thing and a bad thing.