The Reaganest Republican
Rep. Tom Feeney Stands Out From Other Conservative Devotees
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page C01
Even by the canonizing standards of recent days, Rep. Tom Feeney's testimonials to Ronald Reagan have been striking in their loftiness.
"He was our Plato, he was our Moses," the Florida Republican says of the 40th president. "He was our Washington and our Churchill, too."
Feeney, 46, is sitting in his Cannon building office, echoing remarks he made about Reagan earlier in the day during a brief speech on the House floor. He is wearing a black ribbon on his lapel and waiting to leave for Wednesday night's ceremony to honor Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda.
When Feeney says "our" Plato and Moses, "our" means "contemporary conservatives," for which Feeney is a self-described "gladiator." Ever since Reagan died Saturday, conservatives in and beyond Washington have strenuously touted their piety as "Reagan Republicans." The tributes take on a can-you-top-this quality, the truest of true believers staking claim to an icon's reflective glory.
Feeney is emblematic of this rhetorical arms race, which hardly means he's insincere. He is an ambitious first-term Republican who keeps a plastic card in his wallet imprinted with five guiding principles of conservatism (less government, lower taxes, personal responsibility, individual freedom, stronger families). It is against these tenets that Feeney weighs his decisions on domestic legislation. This ideological orthodoxy has annoyed the Bush White House at times. Feeney has broken with the administration on several issues on the grounds that they betray these principles -- Medicare, spending, immigration, among others.
Earlier this year, President Bush called Feeney from Air Force One to lobby his vote for the Medicare prescription-drug plan, but Feeney said no, saying it would send costs soaring. According to a report in the Hill newspaper, Bush hung up on Feeney. Feeney disputes this, calling their exchange "firm but respectful."
"I'm a philosophical, movement conservative," Feeney says. "I am not a pragmatic politician. I take the long view of things."
Feeney speaks with a calm, affable voice, and in clipped cadences that evince a sense of certainty. He has a bright pink face and the beefy build of the former hockey player he is. He learned of Reagan's death Saturday during a brief vacation in Hilton Head, S.C., with his wife and two boys, age 12 and 5. Feeney cried when he heard.
"It was very emotional," he says. "My kids are not used to seeing me like that."
Feeney is fond of mentioning his exhaustive reading list and his overall learnedness on notions conservative. "I may be the only congressman on the Hill who's read a good portion of Gregory Mankiw's textbooks," he says. He is re-reading Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind," he says, as well as part of Reagan's speeches.
"I was hardly a Johnny-come-lately on Reagan's philosophies," Feeney says. "I wish I was as prescient with the stock market. I'd be a wealthy man today."
Feeney has been striving for conservative purity from an unusually young age. The son of two retired public school teachers, he spent his boyhood in the Philadelphia suburbs playing hockey, reading the National Review and appreciating Richard Nixon -- until he became disillusioned with Nixon in 1972.
"Nixon said we were all Keynesians," Feeney says. "He enacted wage and price controls. I was no Keynesian. I knew I was no Keynesian."
Feeney was 14.
By 1976, Feeney had become wholly fixated on the former California governor. Feeney could quote from Reagan's speech in support of Republican nominee Barry Goldwater before the 1964 election -- a kind of manifesto for a generation of American conservatives that Feeney and his friends call, simply, "the speech." As an undergraduate at Penn State, Feeney ran, unsuccessfully, to be a delegate for Reagan in his 1980 campaign for president. Feeney says Reagan's campaign and his victory led the party out of its ideological desert. That is why Feeney dubs Reagan "our Moses."
After graduating from law school at the University of Pittsburgh, Feeney moved to Orlando, Fla., where he practiced real estate and business law and became active in local Republican circles. He won a seat in the Florida Legislature in 1990 and quickly established himself as a fervent and outspoken conservative. His reputation was animated by a series of hard-line proposals: He called for Florida to secede from the United States if the national debt ever exceeded $6 trillion. He sponsored an amendment to an education bill that required students to get their parents' permission before they could learn relaxation techniques such as yoga in public schools. He proposed, unsuccessfully, the creation of a database that listed every woman in Florida who had an abortion (this would be for "demographic purposes," he said, and no personal health data would be released).
In 1994, Feeney gained an unexpected statewide platform when gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush picked him to be his running mate. Lawton Chiles, the incumbent, called Feeney "spooky" and "dangerous" during the campaign, as well as "the David Duke of Florida politics." Former Gov. Claude Kirk dubbed Feeney a "walking mental paraplegic." Even Jeb Bush said he "may be a loose cannon."
Bush and Feeney lost in a close race. But the campaign solidified Feeney's status as one of Florida's rising conservatives. He was elected speaker of the Florida House in 2000, and he entered national consciousness during the post-presidential election mess of that year. After the state's Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount, Feeney led an effort to have the legislature name a new set of electors that would vote for George W. Bush.
As Feeney watched Al Gore's concession speech at a party, he was overheard by a reporter calling the vice president a "loser."
"It was foolish locker-room talk for which I apologized the next day," Feeney recalls now, with a wry smile.
Reclined on a couch in his office Wednesday afternoon, Feeney is discoursing on Reagan's appeal to middle-class voters, how he wouldn't miss Reagan's funeral "for the world," and how Reagan's death could "replenish the batteries" of modern conservatism. As he awaits the arrival of Reagan's casket in the Capitol, Feeney seems every bit ensconced in reflection, even nostalgia.
Until this reflection is broken by an alarm blaring over the Cannon intercom. Everyone is told to flee the building, fast, and suddenly Feeney is out in the hallway thronged with rushing members of Congress and staffers.
People are running. Several women shed their high-heel shoes. One uniformed security guard shouts, "This is not a drill, this is not a drill," and another says something about an "air attack."
An unidentified plane has entered restricted airspace and is approaching the Capitol.
It takes Feeney 10 minutes to navigate crowds and descend from his third-floor office. He doesn't seem overly concerned; it appears as if there's a false alarm every week, he says. But this level of urgency is unusual.
By 5:08, Feeney is out on the street. He gets about 20 yards from the Cannon building when he learns that this, too, is a false alarm. The errant plane is identified -- a twin-engine turboprop carrying the governor of Kentucky -- and is escorted to the airport by Black Hawk helicopters.
And after this intrusion from the new century, Feeney returns to the mourning of Ronald Reagan.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company