From hot tub to stranglehold

Tom DeLay rose to power the old-fashioned way: he grabbed it

How did a radical, insignificant backbencher from the Texas Legislature become the most powerful man in the United States Congress? Lou Dubose and Jan Reid set out to answer that question in, The Hammer, Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of The Republican Congress. Following the threads of opportunism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and corruption they spin the tale of DeLay's rise to power.

"Hot Tub Tom," as he was called when he arrived in Austin in the late 1970s, was better known for his partying skills than for politics. Democrats laughed when DeLay rose to speak in the Texas Legislature, chanting his name derisively as he spoke, "Dee-lay, Dee-lay, Dee-lay," recall Dubose and Reid. "`He` never achieved much in the Texas Statehouse `and` no political oddsmaker in Austin would have put any money on `him`." Yet, it was in Austin that DeLay honed his vote-tallying skill and learned the value of money in politics. Both would serve him well in the future.

The Hammer, Tom Delay:
God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress

By Lou Dubose and Jan Reid
Perseus Publishing
$26, 320 pages
ISBN: 1586482386
DeLay sailed into Congress in 1984 on Ronald Reagan's coattail, determined not to remain a back-bencher in D.C. Sometime during his first term "a colleague observed DeLay's stress level and urged him to watch a video by the conservative evangelist James Dobson," write Dubose and Reid. While George W. Bush was being reborn in private with Billy Graham, "DeLay, the quintessential suburbanite, found God while staring at a TV screen." When, in his second term, DeLay secured an appointment to the powerful Appropriations Committee, God and money met and there was congress between them.

After the massive Democratic Congressional defeat of 1994, the Republican revolutionaries gathered to elect their new leadership. Tom DeLay was prepared. Before the 1994 elections he set up a candidate's school, and plowed money into colleagues' races. He accumulated a great deal of loyalty from many freshmen; loyalty DeLay would use. Showing off the skills he learned in Austin, DeLay beat Newt Gingrich's handpicked candidate for Majority Whip by a hefty margin. The transformation was complete: "Hot Tub Tom" became "the Hammer."

When the Republicans overreached with their impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, first Gingrich and then his successor, Bob Livingston, succumbed to the same crime for which they were prosecuting the president. DeLay, like a modern Robespierre, forged ahead, utilizing his well-honed skills. He destroyed any attempt at a compromise. He arranged for his former Deputy Whip, Dennis Hastert, to become Speaker of the House. He threatened fellow Republican Congressmen, telling some that if they didn't vote his way they'd get "primaried." (DeLay would later use this tactic, of running hard-line opponents against moderates in primaries, to eliminate any trace of moderation in the House.)

Following the unsuccessful impeachment process, DeLay threw his energies into the "K Street Project." Directed by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, the project changed the way K Street lobbyists do business on the Capitol Hill. In the past lobbyists donated to campaigns to influence legislation - a kind of open, but tolerated corruption. For DeLay this wasn't enough. "No longer was the old Sicilian practice of 'paying tributo' sufficient," write Dubose and Reid. "Lobbyists would `now` need resumes and references that established their party bona fides." The consequences, say Dubose and Reid, "will last for at least a quarter of a century."

Meanwhile DeLay has climbed to the position of House Majority Leader. Having ascended the heights of power by gaining control of the party machinery, not unlike Stalin or Chicago mayor Richard Daly Sr, the only question now is: what next?

By Sean-Paul Kelley

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