I begin today with a quote from an eminent 19th-century British historian, and I will end this post with a quote from a feisty old Texas gal.
It was Lord Acton who wrote, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Who better to confirm Lord Acton's observation than Tom DeLay?
It has certainly been a precipitous plunge from power. A mere eight months ago, DeLay was still "The Hammer," the unbeaten and unbowed wielder of Republican clout in the U.S. House, a cinch to retain his cushy congressional seat in suburban Houston. Yet today, already stripped of his leadership post, he has decided to give up his seat before the voters opt to kick him out.
He says today that he'll quit Congress this spring, in order to focus on an issues agenda that will include nurturing a closer relationship between religion and politics. He neglected to mention that, as an indicted criminal defendant, he will also be compelled to focus on the issue of staying out of jail.
(At this juncture, let me interject the most amusing line of the day. Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman has just issued a statement praising DeLay on the occasion of his "retirement." No, Ken. When you leave a job at a ripe old age, without a single cloud over your head, and you move to Florida and eat the early-bird specials and play tennis until your old knees give out...that's the proper use of the word "retirement.")
Anyway, DeLay tells Time magazine that he's quitting because "I can evaluate political situations," meaning that he's not sure he has enough votes to win re-election as a backbench congressman. But this argument is a tad incomplete; it's akin to what Richard Nixon said in 1974 when he resigned the presidency.
Nixon said he was quitting because "I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress," when, in reality, it was because he faced impeachment and conviction for high crimes and misdemeanors. DeLay's statement about "political situations" omits the most important fact of all: A legal noose might be tightening around his neck.
Federal investigators have already determined that his own House office has been the scene of a criminal enterprise. A former top DeLay aide, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty last week, admitting that he had conspired with Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff (now a convicted felon) to corrupt public officials, engaging in these actions while working for DeLay. He is the second ex-DeLay aide to plead guilty to criminal charges in recent months.
DeLay himself has not been accused of any wrongdoing in this federal probe; his current indictment stems from the alleged violation of Texas election laws. But it's clear that, at the very least, he will spend much of this year fending off questions about the feds.
He might also spend the rest of this year fighting off the feds, as well - and now he has a big pot of money for legal expenses. He told Fox News this morning that he decided to quit his seat and dump his re-election bid because he wanted to spare his constituents a "nasty" campaign. But it just so happens that, under federal election rules, a candidate with legal woes who quits his race is permitted to transfer all his campaign money into his legal defense fund. (The rules are explained here.)
The best way to assess DeLay's rise and fall is to focus on the big picture. His ties to his former good friend Abramoff are merely symptomatic of DeLay's longstanding efforts to fuse the '94 conservative revolution to the K Street lobby-finance machine; he married conservative ideology to big money; power became not merely the means, but the end in itself. And then Lord Acton's observation kicked in.
Which brings me to the feisty old Texas gal, Beverly Carter. I met Beverly 11 months ago, while I was on a fact-finding mission to DeLay's Texas district. She's a Republican precinct chairwoman who has known DeLay since the late '70s, when he was novice state legislator with a mustache and a pin-striped suit with bell bottoms and a reputation for having a good time (his nickname was Hot Tub Tom).
Beverly told me last May that she had DeLay all figured out:
"We Texans don't mind...pigs feeding at the trough. Here's the thing, though. Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered. And Tom has been a hog."