DeLay's 'Salute': A Wave Goodbye?

By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

As if things weren't bad enough for Rep. Tom DeLay: Now his friends are planning a tribute in his honor.

Not to be cynical about this, but (oh, what the heck) you know you're in trouble in Washington when this happens.

"The difference between a tribute and a eulogy is that during a tribute there is actually one person who believes every word," says Tom Daschle, who was the subject of his own tribute on March 1 -- four months after he was voted out of office. He is awaiting another tribute next month, this one hosted by civil rights groups.

If form holds, the salute to DeLay, which is scheduled for May 12 at the Capital Hilton, will feature a series of speeches testifying to his greatness and scores of hushed table conversations about whether the Texas Republican will survive as House majority leader and, more important, who might succeed him if he doesn't.

"Tom DeLay has been a stalwart champion of conservative principles in the Congress," reads an invitation to the salute, which is sponsored by the American Conservative Union Foundation. Tickets cost $250, $2,000 per table or $10,000 to be a member of the host committee. "This is a testimonial banquet, not a fundraising event," the invite says, adding that all proceeds will go toward defraying the costs of the dinner.

The invitation includes no mention of DeLay's mounting ethics problems involving his fundraising, his overseas travel and ties to lobbyists, and the indictment of three political aides in Texas on charges of illegally raising money from corporations.

"We appreciate his strong leadership and we think he is the key to the president's agenda," says the Free Congress Foundation's Paul Weyrich, one of the host committee members for the DeLay dinner.

Many politicians are subjected to a tribute during their careers. They are feted, in many cases, when they are at the pinnacle of their powers, or just before they (voluntarily) leave office.

But tributes can also be a mark of peril. "Tribute dinners are how politicians sit shiva for their dead," says Marshall Wittman, of the Democratic Leadership Conference, referring to the Jewish ritual of mourning. Newt Gingrich, for example, was the subject of a "Salute to Newt" luncheon in 1997, a time when he was under intense criticism from a group of conservative House Republicans (including Tom DeLay) for working too closely with the Clinton administration.

In most cases, however, damaged politicians are saluted after their fate has been determined. There was, for instance, another "Salute to Newt" shortly after Gingrich was ousted as speaker of the House in 1999. Speaker Jim Wright was widely saluted a decade earlier upon leaving office in disgrace.

Former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey underwent a serial procession of tributes before he left office in November, after announcing that he is gay and had an extramarital affair with a man. "This was farewell dinner number 42," one New Jersey Democratic official told the Bergen Record after one such ordeal in Hackensack.

Former California governor Gray Davis was treated to a glowing thank-you send-off at the state's Democratic convention in January 2004 -- just three months after he became the second governor in U.S. history to be recalled from office.

Friends of John Tower honored the Texas Republican at the Jefferson Hotel in 1989, shortly after his friends in the Senate scuttled his nomination to be secretary of defense.

"Every once in a while you'll even get a tribute for someone people genuinely like and care about," says Jerry Rafshoon, a White House communications director in the Carter administration. "I only attend them for people I like and care about," he says. "Or a few dinners that I can't get out of."

The organizers of the DeLay event say that they are acting purely out of respect, support and admiration for the embattled majority leader.

"We haven't done one of these for DeLay since he entered the leadership," says GOP lobbyist Charlie Black, a member of the dinner's host committee.

Weyrich adds that there had been plans to salute DeLay "well before all of the troubles came along." He acknowledges that the "troubles" might have hastened things.

"We want to make it clear that we don't leave our wounded lying on the battlefield," Weyrich says.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company