'He's Forked Himself'

Our Full conversation with Louis Dubose about '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 South Texas oil fields to small pest-control businessman, to Texas state representative, to eventually become 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 Louis 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 at www.austinchronicle.com. – Michael King

Austin Chronicle: You've followed Tom DeLay's political career for a long time. How has your opinion of him changed, after the intensive research you and Jan Reid have done for this book? Is there any central lesson or accumulation of lessons about Tom DeLay that you think you've learned?

Louis Dubose: Watch out! [laughs] 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 [Lyndon Baines] Johnson did. He has an extraordinary understanding of the institution, and what we all saw over the last year, he recognizes no limits as far as 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: The common response is that this is politics as usual, but your book suggests that DeLay's practice has taken this sort of politics to a new level. Is that what you think?

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. I had some idea – [David] Maraniss and [Michael] Weisskopf at The Washington Post had done a terrific job. What I didn't understand is how completely institutionalized it is.

AC: Let's talk about the lobby. You write that DeLay has reversed the traditional role of the lobby, that the Party determines lobby activity – that it's the tail wagging the dog. In the past, the lobby came and tried to influence Congress; DeLay saw that rather than doing it that way, it would make more sense just to make the lobby a division of Congress.

LD: 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 company industry, 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 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 who she hired – that he 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.

In fairness to the Republicans, Democrats had been in power for 40 years, so they were outnumbered, and [for example] some redistricting was reasonable in this state. But you cannot have access to the Republican leadership – DeLay, Hastert, and Blunt – unless you have a lobbyist that they have vetted. And then, the most extraordinary thing to me was, this trade association president told me, his Grover Norquist guy had a soccer tournament or something, so he drew the assignment – and the guy said, "Oh, just go in there, you can do it." And when he went in there, he was 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 what, that comes later."

I was really fascinated by this. This guy, he's frustrated, he's shut out, but he said what really bothered him was that under this system, he's no longer working for his client. His first client is the Republican leadership. Jerrold Nadler, one of the few Democrats with the courage to speak out against these guys – because the Democrats are the biggest cowards up there – I mean they're just way too prudent. Nadler said, "He is working for them, because if he doesn't perform for them, his client is screwed." It's just a Tammany Hall.

And then, the next year of that, was pointed out by that left-wing Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute, the way the system is so finely tuned now, that they push these guys through their congressional staffs – like [DeLay aide] Mike Scanlon, who's involved in this Indian scandal – they push these guys through their staffs into the lobby with the clear understanding that they're going to max out with $25,000 [in campaign contributions] to Republicans, every year. The understanding is, "We get you this $250,000 or $300,000 job" – which Ornstein called "mid-level" or "low-level" jobs – by our pay scale, good level – and then they max out with those contributions. They've built an extraordinary machine.

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 whips' operation, of 66 deputy whips – one Republican congressman said, "There were two of them to watch every one of us" – when he built that, he did it, and with the lobby, that didn't happen until 1995 (under Gingrich of course), but 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: Has there been any significant backlash from the business side to say, "Wait, this is not what we signed up for?"

LD: It's starting. After I left D.C., there were a couple of stories. Bob Livingston, the guy who but for the fact that he was a normal, healthy American Congressman, intimate with 18 women whom he met at Tortilla Flats – Livingston was saying, "The contributions they're asking from us are outrageous." This is Bob Livingston, former chair of Appropriations, DeLay's first choice for speaker when Gingrich went down – I guess he forgot to ask the question, "What have you been doing in that piano bar, Bob?" I think Denny [Hastert] was OK – but he had to ask Denny, "Hey, where you been lately, buddy? How are things at home?"

Yes, there is some, and I think there's a lot of chafing, but they have no choice, because these guys are such bastards. I mean, they pulled a bill off the floor of the House, in 1998, DeLay himself, ordered a business, intellectual property rights bill pulled from the floor of the House to protest the hiring of a Democratic lobbyist, Dave McCurdy. This is an official act, taken by a congressman for partisan reasons because he didn't want the electronics industry association [Electronics Industry Alliance], because he didn't want them to hire McCurdy. He wasn't going to kill the bill – he was flexing his muscles – pulled this bill off the floor of the House after it was reported out of conference committee, going to the president's desk, everybody wanted it, the business community wanted it – a few computer wonks, people of principle didn't want it, but they don't matter, people who care about intellectual property rights in an intellectual way, not a commercial way – but so once you do that (he got reprimanded by the ethics committee, that was the first reprimand). And now we've got two [more admonitions] back-to-back from a committee that is essentially moribund.

AC: You retrace the personal and intellectual history of DeLay, and then finally the religious conversion and so on. What do you identify as the main strains that made Tom DeLay into this particular sort of politician? What's your sense of what made him what he is?

LD: I don't know – I think the crucible of right-wing Texas politics, and the fact that he was nobody here, and yet you have to admire him. Would that the guys on the Democratic side did the same thing. He stuck to his ideological principles when they were loony here, by the time they came around to being validated by the Reagan election, then his moment arrived.

Much of the Republican character of that caucus was shaped by being out of power for so long. Now as they see it, he talks about a permanent majority, they're never going to be out of power again. I don't know that you could say Texas had a great influence on him. In Texas he came to understand that if you work for the lobby they'll feed and care for you. He was a trucking de-reg guy.

That's a tough one. I guess I don't know.

AC: It just occurred to me, how do we create these political monsters? What is it about American culture that churns these guys out? He's unique, but he's managed to make Congress the expression of his political will.

LD: Absolutely. I do think that a lot of it, when he was here at the back of the House, the Democrats chanting, "DEE-lay, DEE-lay, DEE-lay!" He was an ideologue out of power for a long time, but he never wavered – I don't know how principled he is – but he never wavered from his ideological convictions (Tony Blankley said I had to refer to him as a "conviction politician," not an ideologue – oh, yeah). It's just a guy who's ideologically driven and finally got power. I also think that he understood immediately where the power came from, and it was all driven by money.

[Former Democratic Congressman] Tony Coelho did this stuff also. They didn't invent this, I don't think. But this woman who had been involved with the Democrats, a Democratic staffer for 35 years, she just retired, and she said, "God, it took us 40 years to get this corrupt. These guys have done it in three sessions."

I don't think they have a lock on corruption. The Democrats had a lot of corruption, but they had a small left wing of the party, like the Barney Franks of the party, that kept them from completely giving themselves over to what these guys are given over to.

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 Michels playing golf with his 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.

DeLay has an article in The Ripon Society magazine – can you believe that still exists, I thought he'd stamped them out – he has an article there about the permanent Republican majority; that's what he wants, and whatever dissent occurs happens inside the Party. Now he's saying it. They talk about this all the time. 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 go 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, one, you create a real right-wing bill to take to the Senate, and two, you let everyone know that the Democrats had no part in it and are irrelevant.

McCain said, we better fear the day when these guys are in power again, after watching his counterparts in the House right now. Watch out when the Democrats come back.

It's unprecedented. Go back to some of those speakers like Longworth and Cannon. They exercised enormous power, but they recognized the rights of the minority. Sam Rayburn, at the end of every work week, there was a bipartisan gathering of men drinking bourbon and branch water. They sat around and talked. These guys never do that. They never meet. Staffs don't meet. [Steny] Hoyer and [Roy] Blunt, the two whips, talk a little bit, but there's no relationship. They don't talk to each other, they don't ask them anything.

AC: That even affected your reporting. DeLay is peculiar in that way, this sense that, "I don't have to talk to Democrats, I don't have to talk to the press, I don't have to talk to anybody." He does seem to me imperious in this way, and not like one of these guys who get elected because they want their face out there.

LD: Imperious is the right word. Those DeLay press conferences, you would think that the president was going to walk in. Long table, everybody has be seated before he comes in, everybody at a long antique table in the dining room, 50 reporters, and if you come late you can't get in – DeLay comes in and the door closes. You don't stand, but other than that it's like a presidential press conference, and equally as controlled as a Bush press conference. There's an agenda that DeLay puts out, and you're not supposed to vary from the agenda. A few brave reporters, who are better women than I am – Maria Recio of the Star-Telegram and Suzanne Gamboa [Associated Press] – once the Texas story started breaking, they broke protocol and they did what reporters are supposed to do. They made him address the issue as much as he was willing to address it. At a certain point he had to. I just though that they were stalwarts.

He would answer the questions hostilely. He's a master of intimidation, very intimidating for a short, paunchy guy. This sort of stare, the "I-don't-believe-that-you-are-so-stupid-that-you-would-ask-me-that-fucking-question" stare, he just looks through people, he fixes a grin on them as he's asking a question, he's a master. Helen Thorpe [Texas Monthly] came back in '98 and said, "Boy, that guy's so smart," and I said, "Oh, he's not smart ..." He's probably never read Joyce.

I think it's a huge mistake. Progressive, left writers sort of poke fun at these guys, I think it's a real mistake. It tends to diminish how incredibly powerful and smart they are. DeLay's a smart guy. He's a super high-functioning institutional politician. And he's working with a caucus of cowards. What were the 24 Republican moderates who were Northeast? – the Patrick Shays Republicans, the Peter Kings, they had a bloc that could have controlled the Congress, but this guy cowed them. Like Marge Roukema, she wasn't as tough as these guys, but DeLay went out and recruited [a primary opponent], gave money to the Club for Growth, $50,000, encouraged someone to run against her, denied her a chairmanship. So you sort of make a sacrificial lamb out of the weakest member of what is the so-called mainstream caucus, the Wednesday Caucus, the Lunch Bunch – Ornstein calls them the "Wuss Caucus," which they are, they're cowards. They had the power – Jim Leach, the independent from the Middle West, from Iowa – even though he voted against the war, in the end they do DeLay's deals. Kind of like [Former Texas House Speaker Pete] Laney let happen with the Democrats, let the Republicans pick them off one by one. I admire Pete Laney a lot, but I just don't think he was mean enough.

So these guys let the members of their moderate Republican caucus get picked off one by one, until they are now irrelevant. DeLay makes it clear to them – at one point in 1995, he said, "I need hard-right votes, I don't need these guys." When he failed to dismantle the EPA, he said, I don't have 218 hard-right votes, now I need 240, and they need to be hard-right, real right-wing votes. It was a signal to them, and he's gradually gotten rid of them. The caucus as a whole has gotten much more reactionary.

AC: Let's talk a little bit about his religious conversion, which came rather late as these things go. You seem a little uncertain just how deep it is – obviously it's there on the surface. What do you make of it?

LD: He walks into this Congressman's office, and he's been a drunk. I think the lesson is, beware of drunks who find Jesus. Here we got George Bush, who got an upmarket conversion with Billy Graham, and then you have this guy, who got James Dobson/Focus on the Family – which a lot of people, Peter Pearl who did a great piece on him in The Washington Post magazine – Peter Pearl, the subtext of the article, Pearl thought Focus on the Family was a little unusual, since DeLay has destroyed his own family. He won't talk to his mother ...

But he 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! OK, so he was a drunk, but the conversion story is better, the greater the sin the better the conversion. How can you find Jesus – it did clear his evenings out, in that he stopped drinking, mostly, he still drinks red wine although he tries to hide it, except occasionally he brags about his knowledge of wine. But how can you find Jesus, and then fly to American Saipan? [The U.S. territory is a base for low-wage offshore garment industry, mostly employing female guest workers from Asia.] We don't get pissed off enough. We've been doing these book talks and saying, "Oh, this is not good." They created a goddamn gulag, an American gulag, where women were locked in cages – and I met the guy who did some of the litigation, from UT Law School, he was the expert witness for OSHA in a private cause of action. When they took the photos [of the barbed wire fencing], that they used as evidence – they said it was to protect the women, so the counsel for the plaintiffs asked, "Then why was it pointed inward?" They locked these women in, they worked 84 hours a week, they were paid no overtime, 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.

Stalwarts like the government of Philippines – known for the defense of human rights and labor standards – would not let their women go work there. They forbade it, they stopped issuing work visas to the American Protectorate of Saipan, because women were being forced to have abortions, they were forced into prostitution, they were paying $5,000 contracts to go there. Jesus, these guys were not duplicitous, they created a human rights atrocity, that is worthy 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.

I heard Poppy Bush calling Michael Moore "slime." This is slime. When you can do that sort of thing with impunity, like Abramoff, then you can go shake down Indians for $66 million. I hope there's a criminal cause of action in Louisiana, and I hope that Abramoff and Scanlon end up in Angola Prison, locked up with guys named "Bubba." These people are evil.

And that goes to the core of Christianity. So it's a crock. It's ass-covering – which they might need if they end up in jail in Louisiana. It just pisses me off, it really does. You know, you talk about this stuff, and you do these book talks – Jan told this story about Saipan. This is a large-scale human rights violation.

AC: Armey comes at it from the intellectual economics side, that the minimum wage is a crime against labor, because it means people can't get jobs that they could work at for 50 cents an hour.

LD: They got them there, for three dollars an hour. They got all the work they want. That's a wonderful abstract term. This woman in Belzoni, Mississippi, when I was doing this Bush book, I said, "Well, Eugene Scalia, the son of the Supreme Court justice, says these worker protections are not necessary." And she says, "Well, send him down here and put him to work in the fish house like me."

That's fine for Professor Armey. But these guys are criminals.

AC: And DeLay's background, first in the oil field and then in the exterminator world – he seems like that guy you meet on the line somewhere, whose notion of the way the world works from the very day he arrived was, "Fuck all these other people, I'm doing what's best for me." And he's done that spectacularly well.

LD: I think that goes back to the other question. What shaped this guy? Kicking around the oil field with an alcoholic family – this is another question I'm going back to. Roughneck culture at the bottom is tough, but at the mid-level it's these tool-pushers who make these hard-ass men get up and go to work every day. Maybe that's it – they don't care a fig about the environment, because the environment is there to be exploited, they don't give a shit about workers' rights, that's one segment of the economy that's never been organized – refineries were, but roughnecks weren't – and I think that's part of it, that and the pest-control industry. So you take that guy and you make him a small businessman, where he's running his own show, and his own show is failing, and then you give him a show that he can make succeed, and it's his deal. It's his show.

I've only gotten really pissed off after we did a couple of book talks, and we're talking like nice people – fuck nice people, these guys are criminals. Sixty thousand dollars at least, from one Indian tribe [in campaign contributions to DeLay] – well the solution is simple: Write a check, and mail it back. If it was wrong, and he says now, "No one should be trading on my name," and now that he knows they were, he needs to write a check and mail it back to the health, education, and welfare fund of the Coushatta Indian Tribe. That would be a wonderful gesture. He didn't give the Enron money back either. I'm really more pissed off – I need to write about gardening.

AC: The born-again background spills over in a weird way with this alliance of convenience with the Israeli right wing. There's the scene at Rev. John Hagee's church in San Antonio – 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." I heard George Carlin on Bill Maher the other day, and he said, "Well, I just don't believe that a big man in the sky watches everything that I do for my entire life, and he loves me, but he's going to put me in a place and let me burn." But that's essentially American Christianity.

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, in Israel, while Sharon was flying here to meet with Bush, after Sharon delayed his departure from Israel to meet with DeLay.

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 anti-Christ, 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 OK for these people to believe in their temples, but this is foreign policy? Jesus Christ!

AC: It recalls to me about what you said jokingly about DeLay never reading Joyce. You've got an intelligent but ignorant man – that is also a real American strain – so then what rushes in when it is available is this kind of false knowledge, the same kind of nonsense behind anti-Semitism, millennial pseudo-scholarship that says everything is falling in place, read the Bible and it's all there. You understand when some man on the street takes it up out of religious fervor, but when it's a political ideology as well, it's hard to separate what's the madness from the calculation.

LD: And there is calculation in it. The one smart thing in this belief is that they're going allow 144,000 Jews to live – because as my friend Simon Green told me, "Well, you know, these Christians are ignorant, and they don't believe in education, so you've got to have dentists, stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, to run civil society" ...

But the calculation is that today you here, for the first time in Florida, more Jewish voters are in play for Republican votes. So the day that DeLay shows up to receive his, I don't know, Lion of Zion award, his man of the year award from the Zionist Organization of America, which defines the fringe of American Judaism in terms of even policy towards Israel – and that's a fringe of its own – that same day, I'm sitting at the table with young Jewish leaders. They were all talking up the fact that DeLay had been driving all over New Jersey that morning raising money, for his own PAC, with the promise that if we get Bush in for four more years, the Arabists are out of the State Department. And when you mention the State Department at such a gathering, they are universally booed. So there is a calculating side to this – they can work the Jewish community for its money, and for support of Israel.

I asked Mort Klein, who runs this organization, what about the fact they want to destroy, they want an apocalyptic war, they only want to allow 144,000 Jews to survive, he said, "They can pray all they want, as long as the policy is right. I don't believe that." And he's as calculating as them. "I don't believe that their praying for the end of the world is going to bring it about, nor do I believe that their praying that only 144,000 of the world's Jewry is going to be allowed to live – I don't think that's going to happen. Just as long as they do their deal." That's the calculated politics that goes on.

AC: Do you think DeLay has finally overreached himself?

LD: He won't be Speaker. Yes. Put a fork him in – 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. Dist. 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, McCain is giving him a proctological examination up in Washington, Ronnie Earle, I think the indictments point to Washington. As does an attorney working the civil litigation, he told me – they're looking to be indicted. 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?

So I just think that there's just too much accumulated scandal for his designs on the Speakership to finally be realized. And also, you have Zach Wamp saying last week, "I don't know that he's going to achieve this, being Speaker, and I might take a look at a leadership position myself." So once you have a few brave souls in the Republican caucus start talking, I think that he's in trouble.

He'll probably win his election, I don't want to discourage the Democrats in that district, but it's tough to win. It might happen – there may be a backlash against the guy because there's so many negatives. But then, there's just so much scandal that one person can stand. What congressman who is not incarcerated has had two admonishments by a dead committee that hasn't done anything in seven years? And on two of those occasions, acted on its own initiatives, without a complaint? Chris Bell broke the truce, but in 1999, DeLay's conduct was so egregious, that they admonished him of their own initiative.

On the Medicare vote – how is it that $100,000 bribe disappeared? [Michigan Republican Congressman] Nick Smith remembers it the next day, and five months later, he says that didn't happen? I would trust his memory then. He gets in trouble with the committee because he recanted the truth – so he gets admonished for telling the truth and telling a lie about the truth.

So he might be able to run the show from behind the scenes, but I think that you lose some of that power too. And if he's indicted, he's got to step aside, according to the Republican House rules. And if he steps aside, I don't think he ever comes back. And I don't think Ronnie Earle would have any reservations whatsoever about indicting DeLay, if he could document it. It's sort of a classic prosecution – you get the smaller guys, let them look at the jail time – and criminal discovery is huge.

The Washington Post discovered his $100,000 request to Enron, in corporate and private money, $100,000 beyond the regular tributo that they pay to the Republican Party – to use in the Texas redistricting work. The Post turns that up – you can split hairs and say, well, we only wanted the hard dollars to be used in Texas. But that only goes so far, because they can only account for using so much hard money. Incidentally, the woman that he leaned on to get that money was a lobbyist that he tried to get fired – Linda Robertson I think was her name – because she's a Democrat who'd been working with the Clinton administration. When she was hired by Enron, he called and said, "She's a Democrat, you can't hire her." What they did, was what many of these people did, was they hired to compensate a Republican of equal stature. So she stayed in, but they gave DeLay his due – but when she was useful, and it was time to come asking for money, then he wasn't so particular about her politics.

AC: They seemed really desperate to turn Texas, having missed their opportunity in 2000, so they seemed willing to do anything to get that done.

LD: His deniability is just not plausible. Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post – she followed him around, July of two years ago, he and Ellis had been driving around in the car, deciding how Gaul was going to be divided up, and then how are we going to do it? We're going to do it by getting corporate money, and we're going to recreate ARMPAC in Texas, and going to raise corporate money. And then, after that, they claim they didn't do it, and no, that never happened. But she got the story out of Ellis, how they decided to do it, and in the context of the story, Ellis says, once we do this in Texas, we're going to take it to Florida and other states.

It's just all about impunity with these guys. And I guess Ronnie Earle's about punity. Give me punity. And I think they thought Ronnie Earle just wouldn't have the chops to stand up to them.

I'd been hearing that he might not issue indictments, but when I talked to him he sounded just steadfast. I'd call his office, and he wouldn't tell you anything, but what he would say is, "I don't want to convey this to another grand jury." That, to me, meant that there was something coming, but I was astounded by what came down. By the eight corporations and all three of those guys, and he said he's not finished. This is another grand jury, and he's still got TAB [Texas Association of Business].

So now, Macho Manor [DeLay's residence with other reps when he served in the Texas House] looks like a house full of unindicted co-conspirators: Bill Hammond, Bill Ceverha, Tom DeLay, and the other Tom, Uher, the decent Democrat who went along with these guys and voted for tort reform year after year, when they ran campaigns against him until they finally got him. I once did a database search, and I told him, the same guys that are running the campaigns against you are also doing the tort reform, and they're the same funders – look, from the [Texas] Ethics Commission. And he said, "Well, that never did really occur to me." Well, retire him. That's what's wrong with the Democrats – moderates who kind of believe in this stuff, that trial lawyers are what's wrong with the health care system. They're in the wrong tent.

AC: How did you and Jan divvy up the work on the book?

LD: It was just by accident that I ended up in Washington. I started out in Washington, because Jan was finishing up this Texas book. We were going to rotate back and forth, which once I got started, and after two months no one returned my phone calls, then I thought, oh well, maybe I better stay for three. A reporter from the provinces working in Washington is nobody. Even the sort of thing that we do with success here, they don't call you back, grab them in the Speaker's lobby or somewhere – you can do that, but they just walk by. There's no incentive. Adam Clymer said, "Well, I never have any problem, I call them and say, 'I'm Adam Clymer from The New York Times'" ... Yeah.

But once one of us got really invested in the sort of protracted ass-kissing that is involved with getting someone to talk to you, it didn't make sense to flip back and forth. So Jan did Texas, and called Harvey Kronberg "Harvey Kronenberg," and I stayed in Washington and made my own mistakes. My response to that is if you can write a book in nine months and not make any mistakes, you're Garry Wills – and I'm not him. I'm way not him.

As for access to DeLay, I just showed up at his press conferences early and stayed to the end, I followed him to various speaking engagements, I asked him numerous questions he didn't answer, but there was enough there to get something. You know the nature of this reporting, ask a politician a question – what's the point, often? But I did feel I needed to develop some sense of the man and how he worked, and I got a pretty good sense of that by watching him and by watching the people he hires. Stuart Roy is the sort of quiet, steady presence, and Jon Grella, who looks like he ought to be working as a bouncer at Emo's, all he needs is a change of shirts, give him a black T-shirt. So you have the muscle and the smart guy.

And I watched DeLay work the crowd at the ZOA, just following him, driving out to see his house in Arlington, unimpressive, same neighborhood as Ron Paul. They both live in a nondescript condo in Arlington. DeLay has a pretty nice house on the golf course in Sugar Land.

So we basically split it up geographically, and Jan did the Saipan story, although he didn't make that trip.

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. I'll stick with Wavy Gravy, or as they would say in the Dallas Morning News, "Mr. Gravy."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

congressional politics, Tom DeLay, Louis Dubose, Jan Reid, Grover Norquist, Hilary Rosen, Jack Abramoff, Mike Scanlon, Saipan, Dick Armey, Ronnie Earle, David Maraniss, Michael Weisskopf, Juliet Eilperin, Wavy Gravy, Tony Coelho, Bob Michels, Maria Recio, Suzanne Gamboa, Helen Thorpe

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