It was my first week as Tom DeLay's communications director in late 1995. And we were already in crisis.
On the House floor, DeLay had gotten into a shoving match with a Wisconsin Democrat named Dave Obey. I had no idea what had happened.
While I worked the phones trying to figure out the details, our press secretary, Tony Rudy, wasn't waiting for the facts. He started telling reporters that Obey had called Tom an obscenity too graphic to print in this newspaper. Obey vehemently denied it. Later, I asked Tom if it was true.
No, he said, he had never actually heard Obey utter the alleged insult. I called reporters to tell them we couldn't confirm the rumor. But, of course, it was too late. The rumor had come in part from our own office. And I had my crash course in spin control as played by some members of Team DeLay.
For the next 3 1/2 years, I experienced the Republican revolution firsthand, witnessing the rise of Tom DeLay and the beginnings of one of the more remarkable political downfalls in modern U.S. history. Today, everyone wants to know what Tom DeLay knew and when he knew it. And I can't answer those questions.
But I do know that Tom DeLay achieved great things for the Republican majority, the Congress and for the country. He also created great controversy caused in part by his own aggressive nature, in part by his political enemies, and in part by rogue members of his own staff.
The overwhelming majority of DeLay's staffers were professional, honest and working in Congress for the right reasons. But Tom prized the most aggressive staffers and most often heeded their counsel. As it turned out, three of them went over the line, abused the trust of House members and seemingly broke the law. A former hockey player, Tony Rudy was DeLay's enforcer; he wasn't evil, but lacked maturity and would do whatever necessary to protect his patron. Ed Buckham, DeLay's chief of staff, gatekeeper and minister, constantly pushed DeLay to be more radical in his tactics and spun webs of intrigue we are only now beginning to unravel. And Michael Scanlon, who, in my experience, was a first-class rogue and a master of deception.
People like Rudy and Scanlon pleased DeLay because they were always pushing the envelope; only now that the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff is playing out and both are cooperating witnesses for the prosecution are we beginning to learn how far they went. I don't know if Tom always knew what his staff was doing -- I know that I didn't. But I had my suspicions, and now I have seen them borne out.
I began working in Congress in 1989 as a staffer for Illinois Republican Bob Michel, the longtime House minority leader. Dick Cheney had just left the House to become defense secretary and Newt Gingrich had just succeeded him as minority whip.
Back then, we were a beaten minority. Michel was a gracious leader, but to revolutionaries such as Gingrich and DeLay, he wasn't ruthless enough to seize the majority.
At the time, I was responsible for writing one-minute speeches for various House Republicans. The first speech I wrote for DeLay was a response to a Democratic attack on DeLay and his colleague John Doolittle that played off their last names. DeLay intimidated me; he never seemed to smile. But when I showed him my speech, he laughed, went to the floor and did a great job with it. It was our first time working together.
After Michel announced his retirement in 1994, I took a job with Rep. Denny Hastert of Illinois. When DeLay announced that Hastert would become his campaign manager in the internal race for Republican whip, I joined the effort. Late in the fall campaign, I walked into DeLay's office for a strategy session with Hastert. There I met a bespectacled, balding man: Ed Buckham, the staff director of the Republican Study Committee. He eyed me suspiciously; I sensed he didn't trust me. The feeling was mutual. But by the end of the meeting, it was clear to me that Buckham had Tom's ear: He spoke authoritatively on what DeLay wanted and needed, and seemed to outrank DeLay's staffers.