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In 1988, a little-known Texas congressman gathered a crowd of reporters in the lobby of a downtown New Orleans hotel housing several state delegates to the Republican National Convention. Clutching a pole topped by a drooping American flag, 22nd District two-termer Tom DeLay launched into a rather implausible defense of Dan Quayle, an Indiana senator freshly picked by George Bush as his presidential ticket partner.
Bill Clinton's draft-dodging efforts would become an issue in his successful campaign against Bush four years later, but now Quayle's own past manipulation of family ties to get into a national guard unit was touching off a classic feeding frenzy among the convention press corps.
DeLay seemed to feel the issue applied personally to him, and perhaps it did. He had graduated from the University of Houston at the height of the Vietnam conflict in 1970, but chose to enlist in the war on cockroaches, fleas and termites as the owner of an exterminator business, rather than going off to battle against the Vietcong.
He and Quayle, DeLay explained to the assembled media in New Orleans, were victims of an unusual phenomenon back in the days of the undeclared Southeast Asian war. So many minority youths had volunteered for the well-paying military positions to escape poverty and the ghetto that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like himself. Satisfied with the pronouncement, which dumbfounded more than a few of his listeners who had lived the sixties, DeLay marched off to the convention.
"Who was that idiot?" asked a TV reporter who arrived at the end of the media show. When he was told the name, it drew a blank. DeLay at that time was a national nobody, and his claim that blacks and browns crowded him and other good conservatives out of Vietnam seemed so outlandish and self-serving that no one bothered to file a news report on the congressman's remarks.
A lot has changed -- and remained the same -- for Tom Delay over the succeeding decade. He still says outlandish things on a regular basis, such as labeling a Nobel Prize committee as "Swedish environmental extremists" and the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo." Tom, you see, does not believe in global warming, even as a side effect of his own rhetoric.
Last January, opponents of labor regulations in the Pacific treated DeLay to an expense-paid junket to the Mariana Islands, where the indigenous garment industry was accused of keeping workers in slave-camp conditions. DeLay returned and promptly declared that industry to be a "free-market success."
The difference between that August day at the GOP convention in New Orleans, when his verbiage went unnoticed, and today is simple: When Tom DeLay talks, everybody listens. His rare combination as legislative backroom brawler and ideological zealot won him a solid political base early on in the GOP right wing. Then came the allegiance of business backers who found that, more often than not, DeLay was the best go-to guy in the Texas delegation to get things done -- or undone -- legislatively.
"For Houston corporate chief executive officers, most of whom are Republican, there are only two names you call to get things done," says a GOP political consultant here. "In the Senate, it's Kay Bailey Hutchison, and in the House, it's Tom DeLay."
Delay also maneuvered well in snagging an appointment to the powerful Appropriations Committee and the key subcommittee on transportation. Through that subcommittee flow billions in cash for mass transit and highways -- priorities for DeLay's district, which stretches from NASA/Clear Lake to far southwest Houston. As a committee member, he became a necessary touchstone for then-mayor Kathy Whitmire, when she was pushing a billion-dollar monorail, and then-mayor Bob Lanier, when he was killing it. DeLay's sentiments on the issue dovetailed with Lanier's.
"He is effective," comments Lanier. "He is dogged, and determined, and he does his homework.... He could make himself felt in that transportation subcommittee and then when it went to conference he'd fight like a lion, and he'd win."
His election as powerful House whip in the new GOP House majority of 1994 made DeLay the Number Three man in the leadership and allowed him to begin building a base of support in Congress. Following a precedent Lyndon Johnson pioneered early in his career, DeLay created his own political action committee. Through that, Americans for a Republican Majority PAC, DeLay doled out millions to aspiring conservative Congressional candidates and built his own political machine.
Then speaker Newt Gingrich resigned after GOP losses in the November elections and speaker-elect Bob Livingston bailed out after revelations of his out-of-family affairs three weeks ago. That made Sugar Land's adopted son the most powerful Republican standing in the House of Representatives. Far from being ignored or laughed at, his every pronouncement is now parsed by friends and foes for intent and innuendo.
Perhaps the biggest thorn in DeLay's side has been the Clinton presidential veto. As the 1998 Almanac of American Politics noted in its profile of DeLay, "His goal has been to change the culture of federal regulatory agencies -- a tall order -- and the way they treat small businesses.... But much of his legislative product was vetoed by Bill Clinton." That would certainly seem to be a motivation, if any were needed, for DeLay's drive to oust the president.