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Absolute Truth
Tom DeLay is certain that Christian family values will solve America's problems. But he's uncertain how to face his own family

By Peter Perl
Sunday, May 13, 2001

Tom DeLay is feeling pretty fine on a sunny spring morning as he slides behind the wheel of a rented Cadillac and pulls away from his spacious Mediterranean-style home. Life is good for him here in a picturesque, prosperous place in suburban Houston called Sugar Land. He loves golf, and his handsome new house is nestled overlooking the beautiful 12th hole of the Sweetwater Country Club. He loves his wife of 34 years, Christine, and his daughter, Danielle, who is 29 and runs his political campaigns and lives only a few miles away. All this in Sugar Land, a place where most folks love Tom DeLay.

And why shouldn't DeLay feel pretty good? He is, after all, one of the most powerful politicians in America. By title, he is House majority whip, or the third-ranking House Republican, although inside the Capitol he is widely considered the most dominant force in Congress and the de facto leader of the right.

Life is especially good for him these days because the Republicans are finally in charge. DeLay has lived for this moment. He was in the minority for much of his 25-year political career and he is reveling in a dream come true of controlling not only the White House and the Congress, but the nation's agenda.

Yet DeLay wants more. Much more. As this day progresses, he tells me "I am still trying to drive the president," George W. Bush, toward a more conservative agenda. Toward a "permanent realignment" that will eternally discredit Democratic Party policies that DeLay considers "socialist." And, most important, toward building a more "God-centered" nation whose government will promote prayer and worship and the teaching of values.

"Our entire system is built on the Judeo-Christian ethic, but it fell apart when we started denying God," he says. "If you stand up today and acknowledge God, they will try to destroy you." His main mission, he says, is "to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."

DeLay is particularly joyful today because it is Sunday and the Cadillac is headed toward the First Baptist Church of Sugar Land, where he will pray to God, as he does every day. He and Christine will warmly greet many church friends. He will call out "Amen" repeatedly when Pastor Scott Rambo delivers a bloody, fervent sermon on the agonies of Jesus on the cross. DeLay will sing vigorously and pray quietly and then when the spirit moves him will kneel down at the altar, eyes closed in silent prayer, as he has so often in a life sometimes troubled by self-doubt and by the pain of alcoholism and dysfunction in his family.

After services, he and Christine will stay to attend an assembly for devoted members to pray for one another's illnesses and families. Then, the DeLays will participate in an hour-long Bible study class. Later that night, DeLay will return to church to teach his weekly adult class based on the writings of former Watergate figure Charles Colson, whose best-selling book How Now Shall We Live? asserts that only Christianity can truly explain the human condition and reform America's government and culture.

As we leave First Baptist, I ask DeLay about the many citizens who would be quite uncomfortable with the idea that he would mold the government in the belief that his religion -- fundamentalist Christianity -- had the only answers to society's problems.

DeLay looks me squarely in the eye and shakes his head sadly. "When faced with the truth, the truth hurts. It is human nature not to face that . . . People hate the messenger. That's why they killed Christ."

And so Tom DeLay makes it perfectly clear that his personal mission is to reshape the moral fabric of the nation, to remake it more in his likeness. But who, exactly, is Tom DeLay and what does he really believe America should look like?

Tom DeLay, 54, dates the start of his rebirth as a Christian to a traumatic insight in his freshman year in Congress, 1985, when he was caught up in the whirl of Washington. A Republican House colleague, Frank Wolf of Virginia, warned DeLay, then 38, about the personal stress of politics and urged him to watch a religious video about Christian fatherhood.

By his own estimate, DeLay was then drinking "8, 10, 12 martinis a night at receptions and fundraisers" and he was beginning to hurt. DeLay watched the video -- in which James Dobson, a child psychologist and noted Christian family guru, preached on the damage done by fathers too busy to love their children -- and "I started crying because I had missed my daughter's whole childhood," he says. "It was awful. My daughter in third grade asked her mother 'if somebody adopted Daddy,' because he was never around."

The truth revealed that day was that "I was totally self-centered. It was me, me, me, me, me. It was golf or my business or politics that came first. It told me what a jerk I really was," he says. "You cannot throw off your self-centeredness. That's the problem of our culture. You can't love someone unless you are loved, and being loved by the Lord changes that."

It is a jarring statement, coming from the man known inside the Beltway as "the Hammer," "the Exterminator" and "the Meanest Man in Congress." When Republicans took over the House in 1994, DeLay was the man who brazenly strong-armed corporate lobbyists for big donations, telling them, "If you want to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules." He is the financial godfather of congressional Republicans, overseeing collection of nearly $30 million in campaign funds in 1999 alone, according to the GOP. The whip -- enforcer of party discipline among 221 House Republicans -- is, in fact, a former pest exterminator who has used his relentless energy, formidable political skill, charm, intelligence and cunning to rise to power.

DeLay, a scrappy man about 5-foot-7 with a dark helmet of lustrous hair, privately enjoys the Hammer nickname. He keeps two large leather bullwhips on display in his Capitol office, occasionally demonstrating his prowess in whip-cracking. He completes the power-themed office decor with a handsome stone replica of the Ten Commandments.

The Hammer-and-whip imagery has served him quite well. "Perception does become reality, and the perception is that he is the 'Dirty Harry' of Capitol Hill, the bad cop," says Marshall Wittman, former legislative director of the Christian Coalition. "Every K Street lobbyist is shaking in their boots because K Street lives on access, and DeLay can shut off their oxygen."

DeLay's agenda has broadened dramatically since he came to Congress, a fresh-faced warrior in the Reagan revolution. As a Texas pest-control man, he was infuriated at the heavy hand of the Environmental Protection Agency, which he still calls "the Gestapo of government." An unabashed champion of business, he has fought hard to hold down the minimum wage, repeal clean-air and clean-water legislation, scrap occupational health measures, protect corporations from consumer lawsuits and otherwise liberate corporate America from government.

But over time the Hammer has come to see the Washington battles in a new light, in a way that seeks to reconcile the brutal business of partisan politics with the gentle teachings of Christ. Now, at the height of his power, DeLay's faith has solidified his political base and fundraising with the Christian Coalition and other religious and socially conservative groups. They love him, because DeLay's America would stop gun control, outlaw abortion, limit the rights of homosexuals, curb contraception, end the constitutional separation of church and state, and adopt the Ten Commandments as guiding principles for public schools.

So the 2000 presidential election was not mere politics to DeLay, but an apocalyptic "battle for souls." In this struggle between good and evil, virtually all man-made government programs, philosophies and "-isms" favored by Democrats and liberals are doomed utopian dreams because they are not inspired by God. As he described the coming 2000 vote in a red-meat speech to the Christian Coalition last fall: "Will this country accept the worldviews of humanism, materialism, sexism, naturalism, postmodernism or any of the other -isms? Or will we march forward with a biblical worldview, a worldview that says God is our creator, that man is a sinner, and that we will save this country by changing the hearts and minds of Americans? . . . We have the House and the Senate. All we need is the presidency!"

The Bush campaign, however, saw DeLay's views as dangerously extreme and quietly insisted he lower his profile, lest the whole GOP ticket be seen as too right wing. DeLay cooperated, but nonetheless continued giving forceful speeches on "cultural renewal." He expounded his view that the proliferation of day care and other influences of liberal culture had devalued the lives of children and eroded the American family -- and this, rather than guns, was actually responsible for horrors such as school shootings. If the Republicans won in 2000, he promised a "very aggressive counterattack" against "fashionable elites" in media and entertainment who, he said, had staged a "cultural coup d'etat" to eliminate religion and moral values from American life.

In the wake of the November election, how does DeLay reconcile his claim of a strong Republican-religious mandate for change with the fact that Democrat Al Gore actually got some 500,000 more votes than Bush? His explanation is not political but theological: A majority of Americans clearly favored Bush, but because people are fundamentally wicked, millions of them sinned by not voting. As he ruefully put it: "Nonvoters. Nonvoters not taking responsibility. We are, by nature, greedy and lazy and sinful."

DeLay, despite his high profile in public, rarely talks about his private life, and he and his staff guard his privacy vigorously. But away from Washington in his home environment, he agrees to talk about his personal struggle to curb his meaner political instincts while trying to emulate the godly life he seeks. These personal conversations -- and interviews with dozens of his colleagues, friends and adversaries -- reveal a much more complex version of the Hammer.

This version is the DeLay who, at his wife's instigation, took in three foster teenagers in recent years and has become an ardent advocate for abused and neglected kids. This is the DeLay who personally intervened to help a Jewish refusenik family escape the Soviet Union, and remains a good friend two decades later. And this is the Hammer whose wife and daughter tease him because at movies like "Titanic," it is not they but he who cries.

For all of Tom DeLay's public espousal of Christian values, particularly his deep commitment to family, he privately has nursed a terrible estrangement from his own mother and three siblings. After the 1988 death of his father and the rise of his career in Washington, DeLay cut off contact with all three siblings, and seven years ago he stopped attending DeLay family gatherings. He has not seen or talked to his mother, Maxine, in two years, even though she lives about 10 miles away from Sugar Land; nor did he invite any of them to his daughter's 1999 wedding or even mention his mother in the published wedding announcement.

All through his roomy home are many photographs of his wife, his daughter and his in-laws -- but not a single one of the DeLays. Throughout our conversations, this rift is the only subject that he adamantly will not discuss.

Tom DeLay grew up in a family dominated by a father who loomed large. Charlie Ray DeLay was a big, tough, gregarious, generous oil-field wildcatter, and an alcoholic. Charlie was raised a staunch Baptist in a teetotaling Texas family, but he took up booze with a vengeance and routinely drank a fifth of Chivas Regal scotch in a night, according to his children.

Tom says he "learned very little" from his father, except the value of hard work. When Tommy was 9 and the family was in financial straits, Charlie hauled them all to Venezuela for a job in the oil fields. Five years later, he moved them back to Texas and eventually built himself a multimillion-dollar business called Storm Drilling, where young Tom learned about hard, dangerous work on offshore oil rigs.

DeLay's older and younger brothers are both alcoholics, as well. Ray DeLay, three years older than Tom, served two years in a South Dakota penitentiary on a second felony conviction in 1993-94 for grand theft. Tom was quoted in 1999 as describing his brother as a "real skid-row type" whose whereabouts were unknown, even though Ray was then listed in the Houston phone book. Ray became an evangelical minister in the Houston jail system and later ran a ministry on the Internet. He was convicted last year of assaulting his girlfriend and served a 60-day jail term in Houston. He currently works for a Christian missionary group in Texas but could not be reached for this story. Randy DeLay, three years younger than Tom, gave up drinking about 20 years ago and is a lawyer and lobbyist in Houston. He had been fairly close to Tom, he says, until 1996, when his lobbying prompted a complaint to the House ethics committee -- later dismissed -- that Tom DeLay might have colluded with him on behalf of clients. Randy DeLay says he never directly lobbied his brother, but the appearance was too unsavory. "Tom said, 'I can't afford you as a brother right now. You chose lobbying over me,' " Randy recalls. Tom then cut him off cold, and has not spoken to him since.

While Tom and his siblings were growing up, their mother, Maxine, was a quiet and attentive housewife who "loved us unconditionally," Randy says. Charlie's love, however, was "conditional" because it depended in part on his drinking and on the children making him proud rather than disappointing him, Randy says. Charlie, for example, assigned career goals to his three sons: Ray would be a veterinarian, Randy a lawyer, and Tom a doctor. Failing at those roles, as two of them did, would be letting him down.

Randy and sister Tena DeLay Neislar both say that their mother was consistently supportive of Tom and that their father, despite his volatility, frequently bailed Tom out of youthful trouble. But DeLay, in his only comments on the topic, remembers it differently and minimizes his parents' role: "I pretty much raised myself. My parents didn't participate in much of what I did . . . I think I've been an adult all my life."

Tom DeLay was always a top student, an athlete and popular with his peers, but also did his share of drinking and carousing. After two years as a pre-med student, DeLay was asked to leave Baylor University for behavior that was partly fueled by booze and that thwarted his chance of fulfilling his father's ambition for him. (He eventually got a degree in biology at the University of Houston.) Later, as a Texas state legislator from 1978 to 1984, DeLay had a reputation in Austin less as a lawmaker than as a partyer and playboy known as "Hot Tub Tom." He roomed with other fun-loving male legislators at a condo they dubbed "Macho Manor."

When DeLay first got to Congress, he says, "I would stay out all night drinking till the bars closed . . . I just did it, and then I got up sober and went to work." He swore off hard liquor a decade ago, DeLay says, and now drinks only wine in moderation.

Tobacco has been his other affliction. DeLay says his daddy caught him smoking at age 6. Charlie made the boy smoke most of a carton of cigarettes, but when little Tommy didn't get sick and kept on smoking, DeLay recalls, he got a whipping. From years of cigarettes, Tom graduated to cigars, which, to his wife's chagrin, he inhaled. Then he moved to years of chewing snuff, a highly potent powdered tobacco that DeLay says he has just given up in the last few months. "A nasty, nasty habit," his wife says. While DeLay was trying to quit, his latest nemesis became cookies and other temptations that recently caused his weight to swell to his all-time high of 194 pounds.

From his first cigarette, it seems, DeLay has always been driven by strong compulsions. Fiercely competitive, he played offensive line on the Calallen High School football team in suburban Corpus Christi even though he then weighed only 140. "I outweighed him by 30 to 40 pounds," recalls friend and teammate Gary Slusher, "but that's when I learned my lesson about underestimating Tommy." DeLay not only knocked down the bigger boys in sports, but brought a killer instinct to high school politics, when his posters and slogans blew away the competition, including him, Slusher says.

It was at Calallen High that Tommy DeLay met Christine Furrh, an attractive cheerleader who came from a hardscrabble south Texas background and rode horses in the rodeo. "It was very sexy," Christine recalls of the first time she saw him. "He had on bluejeans, and a big cowboy belt with a silver buckle, and a western shirt -- a black shirt with blue roses -- sleeves rolled up." She smiles. "Tommy was just about the cutest thing I ever saw. He looked like a smart aleck, stuck up, full of himself," she says. "He acted cocky, but it was because he was nervous."

Christine DeLay lives full time in Sugar Land and hates the culture of Washington, which she calls "a mean town" that has made her fiercely protective of her husband. A former high school teacher, she often verbally tweaks her husband and finishes his sentences. Good friends who've known them a long time say that for all Tom's fearsome reputation, Christine DeLay actually seems the tougher of the two. "If he is the Hammer," says one, "she is the Sledgehammer."

Tom DeLay will be the first one to tell you that there is something about him that just looks downright mean. That is the self-assessment he offers over a lunch of liver and onions with Christine after church at a Luby's Cafeteria in Sugar Land.

"I look mean because I have squinty eyes," he says, "and I get passionate . . . but it comes across as mean" on camera.

Christine chimes in, "It's because when he smiles, his eyes get squintier."

"Yeah, here, see?" DeLay says, and he flashes me a big smile across the table. They're right; it's a mean smile. DeLay's mouth curls toward smiling, but his eyes somehow won't follow. His blue eyes seem cold and almost lifeless.

DeLay says he doesn't enjoy seeming malevolent. Over the years, he has occasionally used a speech consultant to try to make his delivery smoother and more palatable. He also has tried to tone down his rhetoric in line with President Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

"I try to be a little less outrageous," he says. But he adds, "I'm a very passionate guy about what I believe in, and the press catches me in the height of my passion, and I can say anything."

DeLay's critics say he appears mean because he is mean. That was most evident to them when DeLay led his holy war to impeach President Clinton. When other Republican leaders wavered, DeLay attacked relentlessly and sometimes viciously -- on talk radio, on television, in lengthy position papers, in the halls and back rooms of Congress -- calling the president a lying, cheating, sexually immoral disgrace to the office, and even a cheater at golf. He seemed driven by a biblical, visceral hatred of Clinton.

"It's hard for me not to hate Bill Clinton," he says, during an outing in the Cadillac, "and I've had to work hard on it." When Clinton's name comes up, DeLay gets so agitated that both hands briefly leave the steering wheel as he gestures and shakes his head vigorously. "The hardest thing for me is to love my enemies."

As he says this, DeLay seems a man struggling with himself. The political Tom DeLay, the hard-core vituperative partisan, would revel in the humiliation of his detested adversary. The religious Tom DeLay, however, the man he would like to be and is working to be, would be forgiving even of Clinton and would never tolerate vindictiveness.

When DeLay launched his impeachment jihad, he convened about 20 of his staff and had them join hands, heads bowed, in an emotional prayer session, according to The Breach by Washington Post reporter Peter Baker. "We need to pray for strength," DeLay said then, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Please know that we're not happy about doing this. We see this as our responsibility."

But the book documents an altogether different attitude behind the scenes in a contemporaneous

e-mail exchange about impeachment between two top DeLay staffers: "This whole thing about not kicking someone when they are down is BS -- Not only do you kick him -- you kick him until he passes out -- then beat him over the head with a baseball bat -- then roll him up in an old rug -- and throw him off a cliff into the pound[ing] surf below!!!!!"

When I ask DeLay about this memo, he smiles. "It's not from me," he says of the staffer's e-mail. "That's his philosophy. That's not Tom DeLay. You'd have a hard time proving that I have done anything to destroy people personally." He is correct about that. Because DeLay the politician long ago learned the art of not leaving fingerprints.

Another Saturday morning at First Baptist of Sugar Land: Tom DeLay and four other middle-aged family men sit facing one another in comfortable chairs in the office of Pastor Rambo. There is the pastor, a physician, two small-business owners and the congressman, gathering as they have for more than two years for their "men's accountability group." It is here that DeLay often tries to reconcile the contradictions between the gut-punching political fighter and the man of God and family that he aspires to be.

In often-emotional sessions, the five men ask and explore deeply personal questions. Have you followed the teachings of Christ? Are you spending enough time with your family? Are you behaving honorably toward your wife? Have you been honest in all your financial dealings? Are there problems you want to share? Have you looked at a woman in an improper way? Have you been an effective minister in spreading the Gospel? And finally -- have you lied to us in answering any of these questions?

"It keeps me honest," DeLay says of the hour-long talks, which were inspired by the Promise Keepers evangelical movement. "You can't lie. You can't look your brother-in-Christ in the eye and lie to him . . . and you go through the week and think about having to face them on Saturday, and it makes you reassess." The sessions occasionally get heated, but DeLay won't discuss any further details because they are confidential, except to joke about one of his brethren who can't kick his addiction to HBO's "Sex and the City."

Peacemaker and compromiser, the roles that his faith would most encourage, have not always been DeLay's strengths. Now, he is feeling his way toward a new relationship with George W. Bush, who has never been an ally. As leader of the conservatives, DeLay could hurt Bush's efforts to appeal to the middle. DeLay in 1990 led a bitter attack on Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, for backing down on a pledge not to raise taxes. And last year during the campaign, when the younger Bush had harsh words for House Republicans, DeLay publicly dismissed it as a reflection of Bush not understanding Congress.

Yet DeLay now says he thinks he and the president are actually close, ideologically. "George W. is really saying the same things we are," DeLay says, "only we are saying them differently."

"Yeah -- W. doesn't use words like 'Gestapo,' " says Christine, arching her eyebrows and frowning at her husband. His infamous Gestapo comment was not an isolated incident. Sometimes, Christine notes of Tom, "he does pop off without thinking, but not as much as he used to. The thing is, he was not used to people paying attention to what he said," because he was usually in the political minority.

When the new president addressed a joint session of Congress in February, some television viewers were quick to note that while Republicans repeatedly jumped to their feet to applaud Bush's speech, DeLay alone several times remained seated. Some Republicans said it appeared disloyal. DeLay says he stood up when he was moved by the president's words, and sat it out at other moments. "Some of this jumping up and down, it's just silly. It's childish. All the standing, up and down, and bouncing around. It is a silly political exercise."

DeLay says he is comfortable with the fact that Bush, not he, sets the agenda and leads the party. But then he adds, "I am still trying to drive the president. I am not gonna sit back and let things happen."

"You really don't mean 'drive the president,' " Christine says, frowning.

"Not in a confrontational way," DeLay adds, with a sort of half smile that doesn't seem mean, but only mischievous. "I just hope that he hears us more than other people."

In a more expansive moment, Tom DeLay once proclaimed himself "the best weasel killer in Houston" and described his pest-control company as "the Cadillac" of exterminators. DeLay no longer advertises that -- his official biographies describe him only as former owner of an unspecified small business.

Indeed, a closer examination of his company, Albo Pest Control, suggests it was at best a struggling operation, and the public record raises questions about DeLay's business ethics, truthfulness and the lengths to which he will go when someone crosses him.

His first job out of college was at a pesticide company, mixing, among other things, large batches of rat poison. He went solo in 1973 and purchased Albo, which quickly ran into problems in Houston's boom-bust economy, says Christine DeLay, who helped run it then. "He was borrowing money to make payroll, which was a stupid business decision. Tommy said [his five technicians] were loyal, honest men and should not be laid off, so he borrowed money to keep from layoffs," she says. "So he got behind on payroll taxes."

DeLay was hit with tax liens three times by the Internal Revenue Service, in 1979, 1980 and 1983, because he was not paying payroll and income taxes. In addition, he paid court settlements twice to business associates who claimed he'd cheated them.

DeLay, while still in the state legislature, had signed a deal to buy out a small exterminator, Robert Bartnett, for about $40,000, but only paid him an initial $8,000, Bartnett recalls. DeLay claimed he stopped paying because Bartnett sold him a failing business. "When I was able to go look at his records," Bartnett says, "I learned that a great number of customers had quit because they didn't feel they were being serviced properly." The court ordered DeLay to pay Bartnett the $32,000 he was owed.

Says Bartnett, a lifelong Republican and a conservative: "I didn't like his tactics. But as a person I'd thought he was okay. I'd probably vote for him, but I just wouldn't loan him money."

DeLay was also sued by another lifelong Republican, Bob Blankenship, who in 1986 had agreed to DeLay's offer to merge his exterminating company with Albo. Blankenship sued in 1994, asserting that DeLay and a third partner, Darrell Hutto, were trying to sell Albo without his knowledge and that company funds were being used to pay off personal debts of DeLay and Hutto. Blankenship regrets merging, saying he learned too late that Albo was a poorly run "Mickey Mouse operation." Albo could not afford to buy trucks, he says, so technicians used their own vehicles and therefore were rarely fired.

On February 5, 1994, DeLay gave a sworn deposition under questioning by Blankenship's lawyer, Gerald DeNisco. It included this exchange:

"Are you presently still an officer or director" of Albo?

"I don't think so. No."

"You're still an officer, are you not?"

"I don't think I am."

"Did you resign as an officer?"

"Not written. It was sort of an agreement . . . Two, three years ago. It wasn't anything formal. I haven't had much to do with the company since I got elected to Congress."

What Blankenship and DeNisco did not know then was that DeLay, as a House member, had filed financial disclosure forms for 1991, 1992 and 1993 identifying himself as Albo's "chairman of the board." The 1993 form was dated May 10, 1994, three months after DeLay's sworn testimony.

"He unequivocally lied in my deposition," says DeNisco, who is also a lifelong Republican.

Blankenship received a cash settlement from DeLay, but both sides are under court order not to divulge the amount. DeNisco says, however, that if he had known of DeLay's disclosure form, he would have demanded a much larger settlement and also would have sought a perjury charge against DeLay. Says DeNisco of Albo's treatment of his client: "They told him they couldn't pay him. They canceled his health insurance without telling him. They were really slimy people."

When I ask DeLay about the Albo saga, he says, "I did not have much to do with the company except for large, major decisions. I have to admit my service in the state legislature had a detrimental effect on my ability to run the company. I took too much time away."

I then ask him about the allegation that he was evasive or even dishonest in sworn testimony -- misleading his questioners in much the same way as DeLay had accused Clinton of misleading. DeLay says, "I may have seemed evasive, but it's the truth. I didn't remember if I was president or chairman or secretary of the board. I didn't know which, and it was hard for me to answer. I had nothing to do with the company" by the time of the deposition. (DeLay later filed a formal statement with the court in Houston to clarify his position.)

Hutto backs up DeLay's version of events. "Tom DeLay is a good and honorable man," Hutto says. "I can't say the same about Mr. Blankenship," whom Hutto and DeLay accused of stealing, although they never pressed charges. DeNisco calls this charge "bogus nonsense."

After the settlement, DeLay convened a special meeting of Fort Bend County Republican officials and played a videotape of Bob Blankenship's deposition, which had been taped at DeLay's request. In the tape, Blankenship acknowledged that he sometimes used Albo equipment to do small outside jobs, as a favor to a few old friends. DeLay says now he publicly showed the video to document this "stealing" and to combat "gossip and innuendo and backstabbing."

DeLay's main target, though, was Blankenship's wife, Jacqueline, a prominent local Republican, whom DeLay blamed for instigating the lawsuit. DeLay's message to the Fort Bend County Republicans was essentially that the Blankenships were thieves and liars who should be purged. Soon after, Jacqueline Blankenship, who for years had been a GOP precinct chairman, phone-bank organizer, election judge, poll watcher and officer in Republican women's clubs, was dropped from her party posts.

Jacqueline Blankenship, who had previously campaigned for DeLay, also was a paid political campaign consultant. A DeLay staffer called the incumbent Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright to demand that he dismiss Blankenship from his reelection campaign -- or face DeLay's opposition.

Sheriff Wright, a former Texas Ranger, refused and conveyed this message to DeLay: "He can kiss my ass." When the news later broke locally that DeLay had not only tried to get Blankenship fired but had also poured $70,000 into a Republican primary to defeat Wright, the sheriff called DeLay a small man, "5-foot-7, if he's wearing high heels." The sheriff, in an interview, says he does not want to stir up anger by discussing the DeLay-Blankenship dispute, except to say of Blankenship, "I have always known her as a truthful person. I believe what she says is all documented."

Jacqueline Blankenship, a mediator and administrative assistant, says she has lost both paid and volunteer political jobs in Fort Bend because of DeLay's clout. In an interview, she begins to sob, and laugh. "I am the poster child for 'Victims of Tom DeLay' . . . He is like a street bully, and he can do stuff under cover, or does it where people are so afraid of him, they won't admit it. And it makes me sound paranoid."

When DeLay is asked about his effort to get her fired, he says, "Nobody did that." Told that the sheriff said otherwise, DeLay says, "I didn't talk to the sheriff." Asked whether his staff did, he says, "Not from my direction." His only interest, DeLay says, was to elect a better candidate in the GOP sheriff's primary.

When I ask several prominent Fort Bend County Republicans about the entire DeLay-Blankenship episode, they privately describe it as one of the most bizarre affairs they've ever witnessed and voice support for Blankenship, while declining comment about DeLay. Except for Beverly Carter, a Republican who publishes the local weekly, the Fort Bend Star. Carter hired Jacqueline Blankenship when nobody else would, and she says of DeLay, "He is one of the reasons why I am ashamed to be a Republican anymore. I don't buy a lot of his hypocrisy and I can only categorize it as hypocrisy. He talks to the Christian Coalition one week about the need to elect faith-based politicians, and intimating that he is one, by virtue of his being there. And he has just returned from a fun-filled trip to Las Vegas with a planeload of lobbyists."

Carter is referring to news reports last year that DeLay sponsored a Las Vegas trip in which his daughter, Danielle, who earned $60,000 in consulting fees through DeLay-backed PAC, was partying with a group of lobbyists, one of whom poured champagne on her while she soaked in a hot tub in a bathing suit. Says Carter, "The hypocrisy, to me, reeks."

"I wanted to be speaker. My ego did," Tom DeLay says. "And God did not want me to. It took me three or four days of praying and really thinking."

After a decade in Congress, his driving ambition brought DeLay to the brink of becoming speaker of the House in December 1998, when the office was virtually his for the taking. Newt Gingrich had stepped down, and Gingrich's designated successor, Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, abruptly resigned over the disclosure of marital infidelities.

As majority whip -- responsible for piloting an impressive winning streak of key House votes -- DeLay had built a formidable organization of 67 loyal deputies and assistants -- nearly one-third of the entire GOP House membership. DeLay presided over the most effective congressional vote-counting and patronage machine in recent memory. He had an uncanny knack for winning every vote, even by the smallest of margins, and knowing when to call off a vote on the rare occasions where it seemed he might lose.

After Livingston's demise, DeLay could have easily activated the powerful whip machinery for his own benefit. But he says he realized his impeachment crusade made him too polarizing, "too nuclear." He decided the best alternative was his deputy whip, Dennis J. Hastert, the amiable former wrestling coach from Illinois.

"And so I pulled Denny aside and told him that he had to run for speaker," DeLay recalls. "And he turned white as a sheet."

DeLay understands and uses power so well that he really doesn't have to be speaker to reach his goals. He also doesn't always have to be the bad cop either. His money, large staff and legions of supporters can see to that. The core of his congressional clout lies primarily in DeLay Inc., as his vast fundraising operation is informally known. This is a network of intertwined direct-mail and phone-bank operations run by DeLay allies that includes Americans for a Republican Majority, (ARMPAC), the U.S. Family Network, Americans for Economic Growth and the Republican Majority Issues Committee.

"The appearance he has created is that he can raise as much money as he has to -- either for you or against you. And he has access to Christian talk radio and the grass roots of the party. If you take him on, you will have the whole machine turned against you," says Rep. Peter King, a Republican moderate from New York who refused to follow DeLay on impeachment. The Hammer never openly lifted a finger or showed a mean streak, King says. Instead, one of DeLay's staffers ominously warned King that "the next two years will be the longest of your life." King says he later learned that DeLay had tried, unsuccessfully, to strip him of a subcommittee chair on the Banking and Financial Services Committee.

Democrats are so outraged by DeLay's financial activities that they took the unprecedented step last year of suing him in federal court, charging him with rack-eteering, extortion and money laundering. That suit was settled in a political cease-fire last month, and DeLay remains eager to lead the battle against the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill because he sees money as the "lifeblood" of his struggle to change America.

DeLay's influence, despite the tough-guy reputation, is not based on hammering and whipping balky Republicans to toe the line. Rather, he and his many minions use a close personal touch -- helping members with pet projects, with family problems, even with jobs if they are defeated. DeLay is a full-service whip for House members, acting as their friend, their concierge, pastor or travel agent. He counsels them on their marriages, their affairs, prays with some of them, puts them in touch with clergy or a good lawyer when needed, or, in a pinch, hooks them up with a corporate jet for a plane ride home.

"These are not people you can strong-arm. These are people you cajole and coax, and Tom knows how far you can push them. This is not a job for a sledgehammer approach. It takes sophistication," says former Republican representative Bill Paxon, a close friend. "He really understands how you move people." And DeLay cements the relationships with his constant attention to their care and feeding. On virtually every night when House members must stay for late votes, DeLay's office is the gathering place for spreads of pizza, barbecue, fried chicken or Chinese food. This servicing of members reached its most excessive level during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia when DeLay arranged for corporate limos for each GOP House member, along with a relentless business-sponsored smorgasbord of lavish food, drink and nights on the town.

Those who know DeLay best say the Hammer image is an effective camouflage for a man who is by nature warm and softhearted. "Tom would hate that I say this," says former Republican representative Susan Molinari, Paxon's wife and also a close friend, "but he is a sensitive guy, a very sensitive guy."

Another of DeLay's close friends is Michael Feinberg, a former math professor whose Jewish refusenik family was trapped in the Soviet Union for a decade until DeLay personally intervened in 1987 at the urging of Jewish activists in Houston. The DeLays and the Feinbergs, now living near Boston, keep in touch and have stayed at each other's homes, says Feinberg, vice president of a high-tech firm. "I have heard all about the negative side of him," Feinberg says, "but my experience is purely personal and I know him as a very warm person . . . [With Tom and Christine] once someone's pain gets to them, they do everything they can."

DeLay shows this compassionate side most on the issue of abused children. His involvement began after Christine became a court-appointed volunteer in 1994. When Christine, after repeated efforts, could not find a home for a 16-year-old abused girl who was a chronic runaway, she convinced Tom that they should become foster parents. The DeLays took a mandatory parenting class and welcomed the girl -- against the advice of several friends, who warned about damaging political gossip that could flow from housing an unstable teenage girl. The girl stayed about five months, reacted poorly to their discipline and ran away again.

Despite that difficult experience, the DeLays took in two more wayward teens, a sister and brother, who stayed nearly two years. Both are now in nearby public colleges and keep in touch with Christine. The burden of foster parenting fell more on her, since Tom spends half his week in Washington, but her husband remains powerfully committed to helping troubled children, in fundraising, in legislation and in strong public advocacy.

"Her passion became his passion," says Linda Shultz, executive director of Child Advocates of Fort Bend County. "He talks from his heart," says Shultz, who has become a family friend. "When I thank him, his eyes tear up."

Last month, DeLay and his wife hosted their first golf tournament to benefit the DeLay Foundation for Kids, an event that netted $417,172 toward Christine's dream of creating a $5 million model community for foster parenting. DeLay, who hits up the same big-time lobbyists who make political gifts, had already raised more than $1.5 million for Fort Bend County children's programs with annual golf outings costing up to $10,000 for each foursome.

Christine talks excitedly about building a new "values-based" foster community in which "families" of up to six abused kids would live with a pair of foster parents in a new home, part of a cluster of homes on a 50-acre site in nearby Richmond that is already being donated by a local foundation.

The goal is to do it with no government funding. "I think the community will support this," she says. "We have to do this. Abused kids don't have -- or give -- money. They don't have a lobby." Faith-based programs are better than government because "it's biblical. It is one-on-one," says Tom. "If you become dependent on government, a child becomes a number and not a name."

Regarding abused children, "he is the real thing," says Kimberley Shellman, executive director of the D.C. Children's Advocacy Center. "And I was skeptical of him because of what I'd heard of him and the Republicans in general, that they'd be inclined to take money away from us." Her organization coordinates investigations of child sex abuse cases, but faced closure last year because it could not get District government funding. Says Shellman, "If it were not for Tom DeLay," who quickly pushed through federal funds, "we would have closed."

DeLay has inserted himself further into District affairs, pushing for a revamping of the child welfare system and for formation of a Family Court. But unlike other members of Congress, he is not angering city officials who are highly sensitive to such intrusions, says D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. "His commitment is sincere, and it's deep, and he has special credibility because he and his wife have had foster children," Norton says. She calls him "impatient" for change, but says he has respected the principle of home rule.

DeLay is particularly stirred by reports of child abuse and has shown up at several hearings into the D.C. government's mishandling of Brianna Blackmond, the 23-month-old toddler killed last year after being returned from a foster home to her mother. Shellman remembers one vivid confrontation at a hearing between DeLay and city bureaucrats: "Tom DeLay sat up there and matter-of-factly said that 'children are beaten, battered, burned, sodomized and bruised! I would like for us to treat each of you like that and not respond to you for a while, and see how you feel.' It was such a powerful statement," Shellman says. "There is no leader in the District of Columbia who would step up and talk like that, but he is not afraid . . . I wish we had a District leader like him. He is a true advocate."

Coming out of DeLay's home, we spot several small mounds of dirt in the center of his driveway and a swarming colony of ants. I suggest the DeLays need a good exterminator. "Fire ants!" DeLay exclaims, disgustedly. "You can thank the EPA for those!" Christine and I dig our heels into the tiny mounds but DeLay says, "Nothing you can do. The EPA banned Mirex and now there's not an effective product!"

DeLay asserts the EPA never had sufficient evidence to label Mirex a suspected carcinogen. He broadens his standard EPA tirade to include Rachel Carson and her 1962 Silent Spring, which he believes was a wildly exaggerated indictment of pollution, and to the Nobel Prize committee that has on occasion honored environmentalists. "The Nobel Prize is liberal, and extremist, to the extent that these people are super-liberal and have a political agenda."

After church, as we are waiting in line at the Luby's Cafeteria, DeLay is eager to rejoin the attack, saying America should not need an EPA. The Bible "charges us to be good stewards of the Earth and to have clean air and clean water," he says, and while some government intervention occasionally may be necessary, EPA has been criminally excessive.

He says the historic 1972 banning of DDT -- a pesticide blamed for killing massive numbers of fish and birds -- "was a political thing, not scientific." He says the DDT ban has also caused a great increase in Third World malaria because it was the best killer of the mosquitoes that carry the disease.

"That's not the way I've heard it," says a middle-aged bespectacled man standing behind us. He introduces himself as Carl Albers, a chemical engineer who lives in Sugar Land. He says banning DDT has saved eagles, hawks and other animal species that have made dramatic comebacks, and says he's never heard it proved that the ban increased malaria.

"Well, you should check your science," says DeLay. He says most people don't know the full story of such issues. "That's why they think I'm crazy."

Albers, 52, a mild-mannered fellow with a wife and two kids, spars briefly with DeLay: "I use pesticides. I'm not a tree hugger. I'm in the petrochemical industry." But Albers says he's never heard of DeLay's claims.

"Check it out," DeLay says, growing slightly more perturbed by the challenge.

Then Albers, a Republican who has voted for DeLay, asks the congressman if it is true that he wants to stop teaching evolution in the public schools. Albers, who calls himself an observant Lutheran, says he is concerned about teaching "religious theories" instead of science.

"I don't want to teach religion. I just want good science," DeLay says, emphatically. He tells Albers that recent discoveries about DNA suggest that its infinite complexity shows "intelligent design . . . and if you have that, you must have a designer . . . God."

Albers is shaking his head. "What about the Big Bang?" he asks.

DeLay shakes his head vigorously. "Give me one example that proves evolution. One example! You can't."

The tone is getting decidedly sharper as DeLay continues, "God is perfect, so He would not make something imperfect" that needed to change via evolution.

"You don't believe in natural selection?" Albers asks.

"Study your science!" DeLay says, by now a bit flushed. "It is proving intelligent design."

Albers shrugs. He gives up.

As we go to sit down with our cafeteria trays, Christine DeLay lets her husband have it: "Tommy!" she says sharply. "You violated your own teachings! You were supposed to ask him questions and not just talk at him."

DeLay sighs. "Yes. Yes. You're right," he says, shaking his head and looking disappointed with himself. "You're right."

Every week DeLay has been reminding his adult-education church class that the way to evangelize and spread the Christian gospel is to ask probing questions, but never be heavy-handed.

That evening, he stands in front of his class of 18 adults at First Baptist. "Heavenly Father, we thank You for this day. Heavenly Father, we ask You to help us understand . . ." Then DeLay opens with a confession: "Today at Luby's, I did exactly what I've told you guys not to do." He explains the evolution argument and says, "I did exactly the wrong thing. I told him he was wrong."

The class laughs at him, supportively.

DeLay grins sheepishly. "I did it in a loving way. I didn't tear his head off," he says, but his expression shows his regret.

Still, local Republicans worry that DeLay's heavy-handedness and perceived extremism may have started to chip away a bit at his support here, as his home county is becoming more diverse. In the 2000 election, his Democratic opponent was an 80-year-old political novice who said she ran because God spoke to her at a traffic light. She nonetheless won 40 percent of the vote.

Curious about Albers's reaction to DeLay, I called him the next day. "I'm afraid he oversimplifies the heck out of everything. His world is black and white," he says. "I can't understand his orientation, other than he is a fundamentalist Chris-tian. My God is not that small. I don't have to believe that Hebrew poetry has to be interpreted literally. Genesis is a poem."

"He was somewhat friendly, but you could tell he is pretty closed-minded," Albers says. After initially supporting him, Albers says, he recently voted against him. Now, he adds, he is quite concerned about the mixture of government and fundamentalism, and would like to become more active in local politics, to unseat DeLay.

When I first asked Tom DeLay about his rift with the DeLay family, he simply shook his head and pursed his lips, suggesting no words would be forthcoming. Then, he said, "It's never pleasant. You would like to have a family. But my family is Dani and Christine, and that is enough for me." He was visibly uncomfortable, and when I asked his reason for not speaking to his mother, he looked at Christine and said, "Am I supposed to answer that?" He started saying something about his parents, then stopped and said, "Strike that."

After my first visit to Sugar Land, DeLay and his staff knew I'd been unsuccessful in trying to interview his brothers. When I located his sister, Tena DeLay Neislar, a registered nurse in Michigan now married with three children, she had never given an interview about her brother. Now she spoke extensively about her love and sadness for him.

She dates the unraveling of her family to the 1988 death of Charlie DeLay, who was killed when a hillside tram that he designed and built himself at his south Texas ranch lost its brakes and plunged off the track. After his death, "I expected Tommy to be the backbone of the family, and he wasn't," says Neislar, whose first husband was then dying of cancer.

Neislar says she still does not understand why Tom broke off contact. "I can't touch him. I can't get to him. The family has tried," she says. "It's a shame. We miss him. We miss the family we had before. We try to respect his decision. We don't know what else to do."

The next evening, I got a phone call at home from DeLay's press secretary, Emily Miller, who burst into a scathing tirade. "You lied! . . . You betrayed him! You twisted his words! . . . We don't know you. You don't exist . . . You are dead to us . . ." I grabbed for a pencil to take notes, but she was speaking faster than I could transcribe. I was being shunned and cut off, with a sort of biblical finality. It was also the only time that Miller neglected to specify that her comments were for my background information, not for publication.

It turned out that Tena Neislar had been so stirred by her conversation with me that she called her brother at the Capitol to speak to him for the first time in six years -- in an unsuccessful attempt to patch things up. After his sister's call, DeLay had hit the ceiling. "Tommy got very upset," Christine DeLay tells me several days later, "but he has calmed down a lot." As to the DeLay family rift, Christine says, "It's about me. They think I have Tommy brainwashed . . . It's a very dysfunctional family. It's very sad. I still would love to see them reconcile."

So would Tena Neislar. When I contact her again, she agrees that Christine is an obstacle and says her brother will not speak to his mother unless Christine is present. "My mother doesn't want to come between them, and if she has to sacrifice her relationship with her son, for his happiness, she will do that. It is pitiful and it is sad . . . Hopefully, someday, Tommy will forgive. Life is too short and maybe his heart will soften."

A week later, Randy DeLay contacted me, saying he had prayed on the subject and decided he wanted to talk about his brother in the hope it could end the split. He had initially refused several requests to discuss the family unless Tom DeLay approved, which he would not.

"All of us love Tommy tremendously and we don't want to create more trouble for him. He has enough," Randy says when we meet in Washington. He looks remarkably like Tom, with the helmet of naturally black hair, even at age 50. His eyes well up with tears three times during a lengthy interview. Randy says that during his own lengthy struggle with alcoholism, he has come to believe alcoholic behavior was the root of all the family tensions and conflicts. But Randy believes his brother is still angry at his parents, instead of at the disease.

"Dad would say and do things that he didn't mean. Demeaning things. Manipulative things," Randy says. "That wasn't him talking, it was the disease. That was not the real Charles DeLay. And in the same way that Charles was a deep, loving, caring man, Tom DeLay is, too -- but just don't be his enemy."

He believes his brother's fiery aggressive side is driven largely by unresolved anger. "Tom's compulsive behavior, it's a way of life," he says. All four of the DeLay siblings have become deeply religious, and Randy thinks that is not a coincidence. "Through alcoholism, I believe God has made us dependent on Him. I believe the pain of alcoholism brought us all to Christ. That's the way God works."

Randy says it's sad that his brother doesn't really know his nieces and nephews, but he is particularly saddened about his mother, who is 77. "Eventually, I know Tom will be sorry for this, what he is doing to Mom," Randy says. "Mom watches C-SPAN just to see him walk across the floor. She'll say, 'Did you see him?' and I'll say, 'No.' " Randy says his mother describes her shunning from her granddaughter's wedding and the announcement as "like a dagger in my heart. It was like I never existed."

Tena believes her brother decided to throw himself even more into his career after his father's death. "He got involved in politics. The power these people have or think they have," she says. "I think they get screwed up and paranoid, and their priorities get messed up. He's so busy. His immediate family and his politics are the most important things to him."

In my last talk with Tom DeLay, I tell him I am still puzzled about why, given his faith that includes a strong emphasis on family, peace and forgiveness, he cannot reconcile with his own family. At first, he again just shakes his head, indicating he won't respond. DeLay betrays no emotion, but Christine, later that day, tells me, "Tommy was very upset you brought that up again."

DeLay, though, finally ventures an explanation: "The family thing is, is, uh, 54 years now, developing and, and at some point in time when you have a dysfunctional family, you either succumb to that dysfunction or you decide -- it's not alcoholism; it's, it's a whole bunch of stuff -- and you decide that you need to be doing something else. I, you, you can, uh, and what I have reconciled what I believe in, and I am constantly maturing and certainly nowhere near where I would like to be in my walk. But at some point in time you just move on and, uh, try to create those relationships with other people, and keep moving forward. It's the way it goes."

My last conversation is with Maxine DeLay, Tom's mother. She is home alone and has to stop for a minute to take her lunch off the stove before talking. She has a firm policy of not giving interviews to the media, she explains in a warm, thick Texas twang. But she doesn't mind talking just a bit about her family, particularly her four children. From oldest to youngest, from wayward to famous, she makes it clear that they are all equally precious to her. "I'm proud of all of them, and love every one of them," she says.

As for the family's long rift with Tom, she has often shared her pain and regret with her other children. But she always tries hard not to dwell on it. She says she is not entirely cut off from her celebrated son. "I get to see him. I see him on TV, and it helps," she says. "I keep all the tapes."

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