A Heaping Helping of Devotion

The Hammer in the evening: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, center, at the dinner in his honor.
The Hammer in the evening: House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, center, at the dinner in his honor. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

His name is being preceded these days with words like "embattled" and "beleaguered." But he was the "beloved" Tom DeLay last night as 900 fervent conservatives -- activists, lobbyists, think-tankers and lawmakers -- feted the House majority leader at the Capital Hilton. It was Tom-apalooza from the outset, with streams of testimony in support of the Texas Republican from the podium and a running video tribute from party leaders such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert and conservative icons such as Jesse Helms, among others.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a celebration of the vast right-wing conspiracy," declared the dinner's emcee, Cleta Mitchell, a board member of the American Conservative Union, which organized the $250-a-plate dinner (proceeds going to defray the cost of the tribute). On the way in on 16th Street NW, guests passed several clusters of protesters, some of whom handed out small bars of soap. "This signifies the need to clean up Congress," explained Gordon Clark, for those who missed the symbolism.

Inside, the mood was defiant if not entirely festive. One conservative after another touted allegiance to DeLay, vowing to support him in the face "of this whole sorry inquisition," as L. Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center said during a brief speech.

"Tom DeLay is the most effective leader the House has seen in 50 years," Rep. Tom Feeney, a Florida Republican, said as he stood outside a pre-dinner reception. Feeney was one of about 30 House Republicans (and at least one senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky) counted among last night's guests.

Liberals and the news media served as the evening's recurring boogeymen and foils, no surprise given that DeLay and his defenders have repeatedly blamed this unholy duo for the ethical issues that loom over him. DeLay has been dogged in recent months by questions relating to his ties to lobbyists, his foreign trips and the hard-driving leadership style that accounts for his nickname, the Hammer.

The love shown DeLay was matched by the invective against "hysterical paranoid liberals," in the words of commentator Phyllis Schlafly. And there was plenty left over for the media. "None of these folks get it, and none of them ever will," said ACU Chairman David Keene. At various points, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Dan Rather, Frank Rich and Bob Woodward were singled out and duly hissed, to varying degrees, by the audience.

Amid the rhetorical red meat, guests dined on filet mignon and salmon, topped off by frosted marble cake with chocolate hammers. At one table, diners grabbed for the edible hammers like kids at a birthday party. "Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats and it will facilitate the serving of our hammer desserts," implored Mitchell. When no one listened, she shushed into the microphone and asked, "Where is the Hammer when you need him?"

DeLay sat to the right of the podium, between his wife, Christine, and Keene. His mouth was stuck in a tight, horizontal grin as those paying tribute praised his leadership, conviction, vote-counting ability and effectiveness. He was introduced to a sustained standing ovation -- his third of the night -- and wiped a tear from his left eye. He thanked the hosts of the event, the speakers, his family and Christine, his high school sweetheart. She stood by him, he said, "even back in the days, 20 years ago, when I made a lot of mistakes and was a self-centered jerk."

DeLay made only passing reference to his ethical problems, remarking that the media missed a foreign trip he made to Moscow two decades ago. He was there to help bring a Jewish family from the former Soviet Union to the United States. A member of that family, Ena Feinberg, now of Boston, spoke in praise of DeLay earlier in the program.

But the majority leader's speech consisted largely of a laundry list of GOP achievements during his tenure. He said the Democrats have "no ideas, no leadership, no agenda . . . and no class."

He spoke for 18 minutes, declared the evening "humbling," vowed to stand up for what he believes in, no matter what happens and left to another standing ovation.

On his way off the dais, DeLay wiped his cheek again -- whether tears or sweat was not clear.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company