By Peter Perl
Sunday, April 9, 2006
Tom DeLay may look as though he's finished because he is quitting Congress, facing a trial on felony political corruption charges in Texas and being targeted by federal prosecutors in the Jack Abramoff scandal. But that would be dead wrong: DeLay recently told one of his pastors that God wanted him to leave Congress in part because He has bigger plans for DeLay. That pastor, the Rev. Rick Scarborough, introduced DeLay to a Christian conference just last week, saying, "This is a man, I believe, God has appointed . . . to represent righteousness in government."
So mark those words. DeLay may be leaving Congress, but he will be back with a vengeance, in a new and potentially more powerful role, because he is a ferociously determined man who believes he is on a politico-religious mission from God.
I say this as the only journalist whom the former Republican House majority leader allowed to profile him in depth during his triumphant years after the GOP took control of all three branches of American government. In an intense series of interviews at his suburban Houston home, at his church and at his office during the spring of 2001, DeLay shared with me his hope to "drive the president" to a more conservative agenda that would result in a "permanent realignment" of American politics.
DeLay spoke with a passion about his goal to make us all into one "God-centered" nation. "Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God. If you stand up today and acknowledge God," he said, "they will try to destroy you." Five years later, that is also the argument DeLay is deploying to portray himself as the victim of prosecutorial persecution. He is suggesting that his legal salvation is linked to the salvation of the Republican Party, of Christianity itself.
And DeLay's crusade will not be sidetracked by the acts of mortals such as states' attorneys, crooked lobbyists and disgraced former staffers who are poised to testify against him. In DeLay's world he answers only to a higher power, and his personal Armageddon has only just begun. He will artfully squeeze a load of money from the Christian Right as he makes his thunderous argument from multiple pulpits in the weeks and months ahead. The new Tom DeLay will combine aspects of the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, and Lee Atwater, the late right-wing political consultant with the legendary killer instinct.
Looking back, I see DeLay as a somewhat pathetic figure. He'd started his professional life as a pest exterminator in Houston. His business eventually went under, but not before the IRS had sued him three times for not paying income and payroll taxes, and he twice lost court judgments to ex-partners who claimed he'd cheated them. From that base, he launched his unlikely political career in Sugar Land, Tex., in 1978 as part of the Reagan revolution. As a professional pest-killer, DeLay came to believe that government threatened the very existence of small businesses and made a career of speaking for the little guy; he likened the Environmental Protection Agency to "the Gestapo." As a state legislator, he did little of note, except develop a reputation for partying that earned him the nickname "Hot Tub Tom."
What struck me as truly pathetic, though, was his shambles of a family life. His late father and two brothers were alcoholics; DeLay himself, when first elected to Congress in 1985, "would stay out all night drinking till the bars closed," he told me. He swore off hard liquor after he was "reborn" as a Christian, he said.
The scars of family dysfunction cut deep. When I profiled Delay, he was touting his commitment to "family values," but had ceased attending family functions and had not spoken to his mother in two years, even though she lived 10 miles from him.
DeLay dates his Christian rebirth to his alcohol-hazed first year in Congress, when he saw a video by James Dobson, the Christian family guru, on the dangers of putting career ahead of family. "I started crying because I had missed my daughter's whole childhood," he said. "It was me, me, me, me. It was golf or my business or politics that came first. It told me what a jerk I really was."
In the next 20 years, DeLay came to develop a single-minded vision of how America should be. DeLay's America would acknowledge that the Constitution was inspired by the Bible; it would promote prayer and worship, and would stop gun control, outlaw abortion, limit the rights of gays, curb contraception, end the constitutional separation of church and state, and adopt the Ten Commandments as guiding principles for public schools.
One Sunday in Sugar Land, I knelt alongside DeLay as we prayed at the First Baptist Church, then listened to the fiery preaching of DeLay's friend and minister, whose name was Rambo. I went to Bible study and the Sunday school class DeLay taught. Afterward, I told DeLay I was somewhat troubled by the idea that he essentially wanted to remold the government to meet his fundamentalist Christian worldview. I told him I thought a good many Americans would share my reaction.
He looked me squarely in the eyes and shook his head sadly at the fate of us nonbelievers. "When faced with the truth, the truth hurts. It is human nature not to face that," he said. "People hate the messenger. That's why they killed Christ."
And now, DeLay says he prayed long and hard before God made clear to him that He no longer wants DeLay to represent Texas's 22nd Congressional District. Instead, DeLay says, his God wants him to be a messenger -- on a much broader scale. And we will see DeLay constantly smiling as he delivers his message because in his heart he knows that we hopeless sinners will always hate the messenger.
Peter Perl, director of professional development for The Post, profiled Tom DeLay in The Washington Post Magazine in 2001.