The case for pardoning Tom DeLay

By Tom Campbell
Friday, January 28, 2011

Tom DeLay was the poster child for what Democrats called the "culture of corruption" when the Republican Party dominated Congress five years ago. Although he was admonished on multiple occasions by the House ethics committee, no one in the Republican power structure would stand up and say the hard things because DeLay, as majority leader, could crush any opposition.

As an outsider, I could and did say the hard things. When I ran for the Republican nomination against DeLay in 2006, my campaign included three simple messages: that DeLay's ethical conduct had fallen below the standard acceptable for an elected official; that, under his leadership, our political debate had become unduly divisive and we needed to return civility to our political discourse; and that under his leadership our party had become fiscally irresponsible. Shortly after the primary, DeLay resigned from Congress. Understandably, I am not on his Christmas card list.

Democrats took control of the House and Senate that year, but little seems to have changed overall. Eventually, Charles Rangel replaced DeLay as the personification of the Culture of Corruption. Rangel stepped down as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee last year and was censured by his colleagues for 11 rules infractions related to unpaid taxes, undisclosed financial assets and fundraising from corporations with business before his committee. His fall is similar to DeLay's with one stunning exception: DeLay may well spend three years in jail.

No one would call me a fan of Tom DeLay, but I will say that three years in prison is manifestly unfair. I carefully reviewed DeLay's background when I ran against him, and people were only too happy to tell me of his shortcomings. But what I found in DeLay was a zealot willing to blur the line in pursuit of what he thought to be a good cause, not someone using his office to seek financial gain. There were no personal slush funds, no house remodeled by a lobbyist, no unreported vacation home. He was only trying to build our party.

His was the mistake made by so many before him: He felt that the ends justified the means. What he didn't understand was that the means become the end. By raising money for Republicans in the ways that he did, he destroyed the public's opinion of the party he sought to build.

DeLay is not a bad man. As someone who lost his way in pursuit of what he thought was right, he is a mirror of our country's politics over the past 20 years. Partisan foes on both sides have engaged in trench warfare, seeking to achieve their goals by any means necessary. In an effort to "save" our country, we have torn the fabric of the very institutions that have preserved our freedom from generation to generation.

Civility does not mean capitulation. Truth is a hard thing: hard to find, hard to state and hard to hear. That is why in our collective search for truth, we need to be as civil and careful as possible. Our debate must be true to our principles but stripped of vitriol and rancor.

In many countries, it is not enough to defeat opponents. Politics is a blood sport in which you must destroy them if you can. Do we wish to descend to that level? I don't think so.

That is why DeLay should be allowed to retire to private life with what he has left. He has been punished enough. He lost his position as majority leader and his congressional seat. He lost his place on the national stage. Prison will satisfy the vindictive desires of some but will trigger in others a desire for revenge. It is the same cycle that some say began with Richard Nixon, others with Bill Clinton. Something significant needs to break the pattern.

Perhaps the tragedy of Tucson can be a landmark in the progress of our political process. The courage, hopes and ideals captured so eloquently in President Obama's eulogy can set a tone for American politics for this decade or be forgotten as our actions belie our pleasant rhetoric.

We are at a crossroads where a grand gesture - an extraordinary olive branch extended over the partisan divide - could cement the gains we appear to have made and take us one step closer to becoming the United States idealized by 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green.

To that end, Mr. President, please join with Texas Gov. Rick Perry in pardoning Tom DeLay.

The writer, a lawyer in Texas, was general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the George H.W. Bush administration. He was defeated by Tom DeLay in the 2006 Republican primary for Texas's 22nd Congressional District.

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