DeLay's Texas Model
It is hard to develop much sympathy for Tom DeLay, who resigned last week as Republican majority leader of the House, after his indictment in Texas on campaign finance charges was followed by guilty pleas from Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, two of his lobbyist buddies who now threaten to blow the whistle on congressional corruption.
DeLay's saga appears to be a classic case of pride going before a fall, with a hard-edged, arrogant political operative tripped up by his own tactics. The onetime pest exterminator is not someone for whom one sheds tears.
But for some reason I cannot escape the sensation that DeLay is a man caught in a time warp, the victim of a tradition far antedating his coming to Congress in 1985.
If Tom DeLay was blind to the perils of mixing money and politics, business and government, he was true to the tradition of his state, where the long-dominant Democratic Party plumbed all possible permutations of that intimate connection.
To take but one example, consider the phone conversation between Lyndon B. Johnson and George Brown, chairman of the board of Brown & Root, the construction giant, on Jan. 2, 1964, soon after Johnson became president, as quoted in "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964."
As Michael Beschloss, the editor of the volume, summarized the conversation, "Brown, one of Johnson's earliest financial backers, . . . has asked him on behalf of another old supporter, Gus Wortham, a Houston insurance tycoon, and John Jones, president of the Houston Chronicle, to ask Robert Kennedy's antitrust officials to suspend antitrust restrictions against a merger they are seeking between two Houston banks. As a master horse-trader, Johnson . . . wants a written promise from Jones that the Chronicle will support him as long as he is president."
Brown tells Johnson that Albert Thomas, the Houston congressman who is also working on the merger, thinks that the deal the president wants is "too much of a cash-and-carry thing . . . too much of a trade. . . . It'd hurt you as well as them."
But Johnson won't be deterred. "If they don't want to tell me that they're my friends in writing. . . . I'm not going to do it as long as their attitude's that way. You get me that letter," Johnson orders, " . . . and I'll have them sit down with the Controller of the Currency and we'll override the whole goddamned outfit. And they'll do it, to hold their own jobs."
That is how business was done. Johnson himself inherited the tradition, because, as Michael Ennis writes in the current issue of the Texas Monthly, "the government -- and its shrewd exploitation by generations of enterprising Texas [businessmen] -- has had an essential role in literally raising modern Texas up from the dirt. . . . What saved us from a permanent depression was a powerful presence in Washington," embodied in men such as Vice President John Garner, Speaker Sam Rayburn and Jesse Jones, the Houston banker who headed the New Deal's Reconstruction Finance Corporation.
These men and many others steered government contracts and huge projects to Texas, in turn reaping the campaign funds that not only financed their own races but also allowed them to become donors to many colleagues. That is how Johnson rose to leadership and also how he became personally wealthy.
As DeLay was to do later on, these Texans placed their trusted aides in key corporate, trade association and lobbying jobs, and built a network of Washington lawyers who moved back and forth from government service to handling mergers and contracts on corporate retainers. DeLay's "K Street Project" of moving Republican staffers into similar positions in law firms and lobbies was no innovation; it was simply an adaptation of the old plan.
And his fondness for earmarks in appropriations bills, as a way of securing the loyalty and votes of his members, was, again, simply more of the model that previous generations of Texas politicians had followed. The federal treasury was their favorite tool for building grass-roots political support.
The courts will ultimately decide whether DeLay has broken the law in any of his dealings. Times change, and standards change with them. But Washington has lived with an incestuous relationship between business and government for many decades -- and the Texas model is simply an extreme example of its familiar pattern.
It will take much more than hounding Tom DeLay out of office to change the culture of this city.