Texas-Sized Problem

On successive days in mid-November 2002, Tom DeLay was elected House majority leader, replacing the retired Dick Armey, and Nancy Pelosi was chosen as the House Democrats' leader, succeeding Dick Gephardt. One of those had amassed a capable but relatively quiet record of service in the House of Representatives, stirring controversy only once (by supporting the primary opponent of a longtime congressional incumbent from Michigan). The other had called the Environmental Protection Agency “the Gestapo of government”; had denounced the Nobel Chemistry Prize, after it was given to the discoverers of the link between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion, as the “Nobel Appeasement Prize”; had called CNN the “Communist News Network”; had linked the Columbine High School shootings to birth control and day care; had avoided military service during the height of the Vietnam War in 1969 (reportedly explaining, in 1988, that so many minority youths were going after those well-paying military gigs that there was no room for good folk like himself); had led a fanatical crusade to force votes on articles of impeachment against a president with an approval rating above 70 percent; and had been rebuked (privately) by the House Ethics Committee for attacking a business trade group for daring to hire a former Democratic congressman as its president.

And guess which choice the media said was a calamity?

You got it. Ellen Goodman cataloged some of the grim assessments of Pelosi in a Boston Globe column at the time: “The Economist called her ‘a disaster for the Democrats.' The National Review foamed -- and foam is the right word -- that she was a ‘latte liberal.' Rush Limbaugh dubbed her ‘Miss America' and his political-porn Web site featured her head on a beauty queen's body.” Beyond that -- well, you'll recall the promiscuous usage at the time, by no means limited to commentators of the right, of the moniker “San Francisco liberal,” invoked with all the freight that phrase was intended to carry. DeLay got a few newspaper profiles that duly took note of his minatory reputation, but that also jocularly conveyed a ceremonial vignette in which he handed a hammer wrapped in velvet to his successor as House majority whip.

There are superficial reasons why this was so. Pelosi is a woman, and was the first woman in history elevated to such a post. DeLay was already more of a known quantity. We live in an age in which “San Francisco liberal” can plausibly be called a pejorative, while “Houston conservative” doesn't quite fill that bill. But there's a deeper reason: Most of Washington, including crucial constituencies like the mainstream media and moderate Republicans, hasn't been willing to come to grips with how profoundly corrupt and un-American Tom DeLay is.

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In what we liberals tend to call, let's face it, the good old days of the 1930s, there were virtually no rules in Washington. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's campaigns were financed by individual businessmen and unions, and they gave him any amount they wanted to give him. In 1936, labor leader John L. Lewis showered Roosevelt with $483,000 -- which sounds like a Rhode Island television buy today, except that adjusted for inflation, it'd be more than $6 million. Kennedy family money reportedly lined the pockets of many a sheriff in West Virginia during that state's important 1960 primary. In Congress, meanwhile, oilmen openly handed members of Congress of both parties (but more often Democrats, who controlled the committees) envelopes of cash. Procedurally, a shocking amount of power stayed in the hands of a tiny number of committee chairmen, and “congressional oversight” and “congressional ethics” were two phrases not often mentioned in polite company.

But the point is, this changed. And although the changes came in the liberal era of the 1960s and '70s, it's worth noting that the changes were delivered in a largely bipartisan way. Especially after the disgrace of Richard Nixon, many Republicans were willing to go along with the procedural reforms pushed by the famous “Watergate Class of 1974,” the young liberal Turks elected en masse to clean the town up. The reforms were responses to the cesspool that Nixon had dug, but they reflected a sense -- held by a lot of people, Republicans included -- that the old ways were wrong, and that new mechanisms were desperately needed to conform to new ideas about elected officials' civic responsibilities.

Tom DeLay, at the time, was a young man with an exterminating business who had indeed won a student deferment (even after a Baylor University dean asked him to sit out one semester, according to Slate) and who was developing a hatred of government so concentrated that it could only be salved by joining it. He was elected to the statehouse in 1978, the first Republican to represent Fort Bend County in the 20th century. Six years later, when the 22nd Congressional District seat opened up, he took it easily. DeLay was badly outnumbered in 1984, when 21 of Texas' 27 members of Congress were Democrats. But he found comrades in Washington -- railing against tyrannical government, the liberal media, the activist judges; the railers were thought to be crazy then.

Well, they're the gummint now, and they have to be taken seriously. And in the obvious ways, of course, they are. But there's one important way in which, oddly, they're still not taken seriously enough: There remains an unwillingness to recognize just how reactionary their agenda is, and to call it what it is. It's a strange thing, because it's hardly as if those on the right have kept their agenda a secret. They've demonstrated many times that they have no patience for civic debate, and seek only to smash the opposition. They want virtually no government protection or regulation for regular people; they've passed virtually no major legislation that serves the public interest, and only legislation that serves corporate and far-right religious interests. In their desire to reintroduce the teaching of creationism in the schools, they want to go back to the 1920s; in their desire to merge state and church, their ideal America looks more like the 1720s.

All these practices and goals, which DeLay has embodied more than any other single person, have been in plain view for some time. But somehow, a lot of people who ought to know better, who ought to have studied the record, have never quite believed that DeLay and his minions are quite that awful. Well, they're that awful. It's taken the disgraceful Terri Schiavo episode -- the most explicit step to date toward church-state merger, if this isn't stopped -- and the recent allegations about personal corruption for people to see it. But as usual, the worst corruption has been the legal kind.

It should have shocked the media, whose job it is to protect our civic institutions, a long time ago that the Congress of the United States is run today as a rampantly undemocratic fief. Any casual conversation with a Democratic Hill staffer will lead without fail in the inevitable direction: They don't see bills, they don't know when something's coming out, they don't know half the time what they're voting on. From Republicans emanate occasional public grumblings about how things are run -- grumblings that, wouldn't you know it, tend always to be recanted two days later. The Prospect has highlighted these abuses. And every once in awhile -- as during the contentious Medicare vote in November 2003, when DeLay and the Republican leadership held the floor open for three extra hours in the middle of the night while they “persuaded” members to change their vote to “yea” -- the mainstream papers take note for two or three days and register their disapproval.

But after those two or three days, it's on to other business. The mandarins of our agenda-setting media would say that they're putting DeLay through his paces, and partisans on the right would more than agree; Robert Novak, in an April 11 column, groused that 18 news organizations now have reporters on DeLay. But putting 18 reporters on DeLay now proves nothing -- or proves only that the press is adept at piling on a story in a way that remains mostly (but not wholly -- there have been a couple good scoops) superficial. Where was this scrutiny when DeLay was de-democratizing the House? It was piecemeal -- thousands of news articles, to be sure, written by dozens of good reporters and edited by dozens of good editors, but somehow adding up to a lot less than those numbers suggest because news organizations haven't focused resources intensely on the story. It was striking that the recently announced 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting went to The New York Times' Walter Bogdanich for a series on corporate responsibility for unsafe railroad crossings. He's a great reporter, it was a terrific series, and, undoubtedly, unsafe railroad crossings are a problem. But isn't the lack of democracy in Congress a bigger problem? Unless I've really missed something important, we have yet to see a major newspaper run an investigative series on the death of democracy inside the very building where our democracy is supposed to be acted out.

The press would argue, with ample justification, that it can only report what people say, which brings us to the second group of DeLay enablers: moderate Republicans. Ever since Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays lit into DeLay during the second weekend in April, calling him an “embarrassment” in a talk with constituents, several more moderates have piled on. But they didn't have much to say about DeLay for years. Yes, they're scared. Yes, he controls money to their districts. And yes, he does let them go off the reservation when they need to (provided he has the votes in the first place). But they have known for years now that DeLay is taking the Republican Party, which does have some admirable traditions, off in directions that are abominable to them. It's a very old axiom that a demagogue can flourish only when the decent people are silent, and they've been way too silent for way too long.

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So now, the stage is set for what might be the final showdown. DeLay could be gone by the time this magazine leaves the stands (although Democrats may be secretly hoping that he's around for next year's midterm elections). Better still, he might even be indicted by the courageous district attorney of Travis County, Texas, Ronnie Earle, who has weathered a ceaseless campaign of accusations and outright lies against him.

But DeLay will fight. The strategy was laid out to The Washington Post's Mike Allen in mid-April: Leak stories that raise questions about Democrats and denounce the bias of the liberal media. Top Republican aides have daily conference calls to plot strategy and decide how to leak and to whom. Meanwhile, a handful of corporations stand at the ready to rush to DeLay's defense, contributing thousands to his legal fund (if you want to know what not to buy, the Web site dropthehammer.org pinpoints American Airlines, Bacardi, Nissan, R.J. Reynolds, and Verizon).

The school of thought holding that DeLay will go looks to recent history as a guide. When Nixon became too much of a liability, it was Republicans who came to him and said the gig was up. By this logic, the same dynamic will kick in at some point; probably sooner rather than later, and for the good of the party, DeLay will step down as majority leader and slither down to the back bench.

But this scenario makes two assumptions that one should be careful about making these days. The first is that recent history is a reliable guide. Nixon was a filthy and venal politician, but he was operating in a very different time, when Democrats controlled Congress and liberals actually did run the media. The second and related assumption is that today's conservatives have some sense of shame that correlates roughly to the shame felt in 1974 by Republicans who thought Nixon had gone too far. Those Republicans -- late in the game, granted -- actually did put the integrity of their party ahead of even power itself.

Today's crop is a very different cast of characters. Hence, the DeLay-will-survive school of thought: There's no source of pressure that can make him go. The media can't do it, unless they find an immense scandal; he and the people who believe in him pay no attention to the media. His fellow Republicans in Congress can't make him go; he has too much power over them (and, probably, dirt on enough of them to enforce their loyalty). The White House -- ah, the White House. The White House can make him go. If DeLay steps down, it will be because Karl Rove decided he became a liability. One shudders when wondering what that would require.

And if DeLay goes, there will be people in Washington congratulating themselves on having been part of a system that, once again, “worked,” fumigating itself of an intruder who went too far and didn't accept the rules.

Nonsense. The system isn't working by a long shot. If the system had worked, DeLay would have been exposed long ago -- first by the media, which would have done far more to reveal the ethical and procedural corruption of his regime, and second by moderate Republicans, who could have made a difference if they'd had the nerve, en bloc, to stand up and say something. It's a shame, and an indictment of what's happened to the political culture, that if Tom DeLay goes down, it will be because of things he did to Tom DeLay (the paid-for trips, the family on the payroll). History will look back and decide -- unless all the historians have been appointed by David Horowitz by then -- that DeLay presided over a grotesque de-democratization of the so-called representative body of the people; that he served two masters only, corporate America and fanatical religious hypocrites, at the expense of regular Americans (and traditional, respectable conservative principles); that he corrupted our politics by giving friends like the amoral lobbyist Jack Abramoff the run of the House; and, most importantly, that a lot of people who could have said something about all this louder and sooner didn't bother to.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor.