A conversation with Louis Dubose about Tom DeLay and 'The Hammer'
Last month, PublicAffairs published The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress, by Austin authors Lou Dubose and Jan Reid. The book recounts the life and career of U.S. House Majority Leader DeLay, R-Sugar Land, who rose from the South Texas oil fields to small pest-control businessman, to Texas state representative, to become eventually the most powerful member of the U.S. Congress. Authors Dubose, a former Austin Chronicle politics editor, and Reid have been longtime observers of Texas politics and have followed DeLay throughout his career, but this has been an extraordinary year for DeLay watchers indeed. Their subject has been much in the news lately, for ethics "admonitions" from his fellow House members, and for campaign finance scandals involving his close associates in Texas and D.C. It's a timely moment for a political biography, and Dubose and Reid are making the rounds, appearing on the talk shows and promoting the book. Last week Reid was en route to Washington, but we sat down with Dubose in his home, a couple of blocks above Deep Eddy, and talked about DeLay, his political and ideological history, and his remarkable hold on the Congress. The following is a brief excerpt from that conversation. The full interview is available here.
Austin Chronicle: You've followed Tom DeLay's political career for a long time. How has your opinion of him changed, after this book?
Louis Dubose: Watch out! [laughter] No a real appreciation for his intelligence. The guy comes across like a coarse Texas exterminator, which of course he is, but I think that we unfortunately underestimate the right wing. I really do. You might want to make fun of them, but the guy just understands the institution [of Congress] as well as [Lyndon] Johnson did. He has an extraordinary understanding of the institution, and what we all saw over the last year, he recognizes no limits in the use of power. And also, I think, he's the icon for the corruption of the system he's carried it farther than anyone.
AC: Your book suggests that DeLay's practice has taken this sort of politics to a new level.
LD: I think that there's a lot new. I had no idea of the level of control he exercises, for example, over K Street lobbyists. ... Much as the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] has captured organized labor in Mexico and made it a part of the party, these guys have captured what's in power now here, and that's the lobby. The way they've done it is amazing brazenly. Hilary Rosen, who worked for the recording industry and is a Democrat, told me that you have to have on your staff a Grover Norquist lobbyist from the Americans for Tax Reform you have to have someone who [the Republican leadership] will talk to, and they have to vet the person, before you can have access to the leadership. She couldn't go to meetings that Mitch Glazier a Republican whom she hired could attend, meetings in which the leadership was involved. That's astounding to me. Every shop, every lobby shop, has to have a Grover Norquist or a corporate right-wing Republican lobbyist. That's pretty remarkable. And then they were told that they could not hire Democrats any more ...
[Lobbyists were told], "You're here because you're loyal Republicans, and your job is to pass the president's tax bill." This was a room full of 100 top-shelf, high-dollar lobbyists, called in by the leadership and the bill had not been written yet. They said, "Work your community, get your trade association or your client, get them on board, talk to the members of Congress that you work with, and pass the bill." When they asked, "What about the content of the bill?" they were told, "You pass the bill." This is Tony Soprano, you know? And then they said, "Add-ons come later what your clients want, that comes later."
AC: And you attribute this machine primarily to DeLay?
LD: Very much. [Former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich was a bloviating egotist, a guy with big ideas and a big ego. DeLay [the Majority Whip under Gingrich], when he built that whip's operation, of 66 deputy whips one Republican congressman said, "There were two of them to watch every one of us" when he built that ... it was DeLay who called [the lobby] in and said, "Here's the book. Look, you're on the wrong side of the book, your Democratic contributions are far higher than your Republican contributions. That has to change immediately." I think that's stunning. Al Gore thought he was "reinventing government" this guy did it. He's tremendously smart, and he's ruthless.
AC: It does seem to me a new flavor in American politics, in that the Democrats, hardly the bulwark of revolution, are identified by the dominant wing of the Republican Party as virtually enemies of the state, not as part of the government.
LD: I don't think that existed before [when the Democrats controlled Congress]. You had [former House Republican leader] Bob Michel playing golf with his [Democratic] counterpart; you had these guys sitting down and negotiating for something, with the Democratic Party, for what they could get. Gingrich and DeLay said it was for the crumbs left over on the table, but there was something; they were speaking to one another. There are a couple of stories in Roll Call about Republicans who have never sat down and had a cup of coffee or a beer, or shared a meal or a conversation, with their Democratic counterparts. It's this whole class of '94 that came in. ...
That's part of the reason for the lock on the lobby. If you can shut off the money, and shut off the influence, then the other party does become irrelevant. A source in [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi's office described something he'd never seen before a bill going to the floor where they tried to keep Democratic votes off, by adding right-wing amendments to push the bill farther to the right, because they didn't want any sense that there was cooperation on the bill. And if you do that, 1) you create a real right-wing bill to take to the Senate, and 2) you let everyone know that the Democrats had no part in it and are irrelevant.
AC: Let's talk a little bit about his religious conversion, which came rather late. What do you make of it?
LD: DeLay walks into the office of Congressman Frank Wolf, and Wolf gives him a Focus on the Family tape, and he says he wept, he fell to his knees, he realized he'd been remiss as a father, and he stopped drinking 12 martinis a night. Twelve martinis a night?! He was a dead man! Okay, so he was a drunk, but the conversion story is better, the greater the sin the better the conversion. ...
But how can you find Jesus, and then fly to Saipan? [The U.S. territory is a base for low-wage offshore garment industry, mostly employing female guest workers from Asia.] They created a goddamn gulag, an American gulag, where women were locked in cages. ... They locked these women in, they worked 84 hours a week, they were paid no overtime, [and] before DeLay got really involved in defending the rights of the exploiters, they were fined $9 million as restitution for 1,300 employees. He goes in and he defends this. ... Women were being forced to have abortions, they were forced into prostitution, they were paying $5,000 contracts to go there. Jesus, these guys ... created a human rights atrocity that is unworthy of a nation, and they were just three people well, four, let's give Dick Armey credit. Tom DeLay, [lobbyist] Jack Abramoff, [former DeLay aide] Mike Scanlon, and [DeLay's fellow Texan and former Majority Leader] Dick Armey, and a horde of junketeers, who come back and talk about "the left-wing agenda of the Clinton administration" when all it wanted to do was apply labor standards to these companies. They're egregious human rights violations, and I don't think we get pissed off enough about this. These people are evil. ... And that goes to the core of Christianity.
AC: The born-again background spills over in this alliance of convenience with the Israeli right wing. DeLay is now so far right on these issues he's far to the right of the Bush administration.
LD: He's far to the right of Ariel Sharon. A deputy for a right-wing party in Israel said, "We could never get away with saying this stuff. This guy's to the right of us." ...
This is a particularly virulent strain of American Christianity, this premillennial dispensationalism. It's this belief that certain biblical prophecies must be fulfilled in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ. Among those are the rebuilding of the Temple you're going to destroy the most sacred mosque, the Dome of the Rock, to rebuild the Temple the way Armey said on a talk show, well, the Palestinians are just going to have to go regather the world's Jews, in biblical Israel, which means all of Israel with Judea and Samaria. DeLay openly talks about Judea and Samaria, which Bush and Clinton and Poppy Bush and Carter have designated as a Palestinian homeland, he has defined that as a part of Israel. ...
Then we have to have all these things happen, biblical Israel is reunited, all the world's Jews return to Israel, you've rebuilt the Temple, you've destroyed the most sacred site in all of Islam, and then, you have the battle of Armageddon and the Antichrist, and Christ defeats an apostate Jew who is Satan who knows who that is? and then 144,000 Jews will be allowed to survive because their interpretation of Scripture says this.
This is okay for these people to believe in their temples, but this is foreign policy? Jesus Christ!
AC: Do you think DeLay has finally overreached himself?
LD: He won't be Speaker. Yes. Put a fork in him he's finished, at least, as Speaker. And he forked himself. There's just too much accumulated scandal. You've got a grand jury in Washington looking into the Abramoff/Scanlon deal with the Indians $66 million in lobbying fees [collected from various Indian tribes], $3 million of which we now know went to a think tank in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, that was run by a former yoga instructor and a lifeguard. At least the lifeguard remained in his profession. Three million dollars [went] to something that didn't exist.
AC: But can they bring that back to DeLay? He'll jettison those people.
LD: He has. But they're his guys these are his longtime associates. I don't think he'll be convicted on that, but I think there will be a lot of his dirty laundry aired by [Sen. John] McCain and by this grand jury. So that's one. The other, you've got [Travis Co. District Attorney] Ronnie Earle looking at him I found a letter in the civil pleadings that said, "Dear Congressman DeLay, enclosed are the $25,000 for the TRMPAC, that we promised at the June whatever fundraiser." So, you put this woman, the corporate officer for government affairs for the Williams Companies, on the stand they're one of the [indicted] Texas Eight you start putting these people on the stand and ask them who was raising the money. Maybe he gets off. So there's that, the grand jury in Washington, and McCain is giving him a proctological examination up in Washington; Ronnie Earle, I think the indictments point to Washington. ... Are these guys going to go to jail for Tom DeLay? And in the course of doing so, are they going to perjure themselves to protect him?
AC: Anything else you want to say about The Hammer?
LD: In the words of that great American public intellectual Wavy Gravy, "This guy sucks." Or at least his public policy and politics suck. I mean, is this what we want in terms of the most powerful person in the House? Is this man who is a guy who will not just countenance, but create, support, the gulag in Saipan, and call it his "petri dish of capitalism." That stands out as much as anything. These women being shipped in as disposable women if someone can go do that, I don't want that guy running the Congress. He does it with impunity, along with all the other stuff. That says a great deal about his Christian convictions and about his sense of decency as a human being.