The Reaganest Republican

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004

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.

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