Bill Paxon's Awe in the Family
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 1998; Page B01
Rep. Bill Paxon was furiously working the phones from his home in Alexandria last Friday afternoon, calling Republican colleagues to solicit surreptitious support for his challenge to unseat House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
While her father was talking, Susan Ruby Paxon -- the 21-month-old daughter of the rising Republican star and his wife, former representative Susan Molinari -- toddled over to declare, "Tape! Tape!" She wanted him to put her Winnie the Pooh video into the VCR and watch with her.
Paxon watched, and intermittently kept making phone calls for the effort that he envisioned would eventually take him to the speaker's chair next year, assuming that Newt Gingrich runs for president in 2000.
Susan Ruby, meanwhile, announced: "Walk!" -- it was time for Daddy to go outside with her to walk George, the Labrador mutt named for George Bush.
It was then, after three sleepless nights, and shortly after "Tape! Tape!" and "Walk!," Paxon says, that he finally decided not just to drop his campaign against Armey, but to chuck a remarkable 21-year political career and quit the business altogether.
Bill Paxon had lost his taste for the fight and for staying in the Congress. His announcement yesterday that he was retiring was a stunning turn for a political couple that once seemed to embody the future of the Republican Party.
He was smooth, politically savvy and conservative. She was moderate, supported abortion rights and was a third-generation politician. They were both young and telegenic. Just 18 months ago, they captivated the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Molinari left the House seven months ago to host a CBS News show -- and by year's end, Paxon will be gone, too.
Paxon made his announcement knowing full well that many in Washington would suspect an ulterior motive. Nobody that close to power could just walk away. But Paxon knew, too, the value of staying "on message," and he repeated again and again and again -- at a closed meeting of House Republicans, at a Capitol Hill news conference, in a six-hour whirlwind trip to Buffalo and to Rochester -- that he was leaving politics because of his little girl.
His whole life has been politics: Paxon's father was a judge and his mother a Republican activist. He has spent his entire adult life in office since he won a seat in the Erie County, N.Y., legislature in 1977 right out of Canisius College in his native Buffalo area. Then on to the state legislature in Albany. Then to Congress in 1988, winning the seat of his idol, Jack Kemp, for whom he'd campaigned as a teenager.
Paxon rose quickly under the mentorship of Gingrich. He chaired the National Republican Campaign Committee from 1993 to 1996 and was widely credited with helping to craft and finance the historic GOP takeover of the House in 1994. But last July, Paxon was forced to quit a Republican leadership post after an aborted plot to topple Gingrich and install him as speaker.
Over the weekend, Paxon had told only his wife, his mother and a few of his closest friends and aides, all sworn to secrecy. After 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Paxon, 43, broke his news to his staff, assembling them on the plush leather couch and chairs in Room 2412 of the Rayburn House Office Building, while staffers in his two New York offices listened on speaker phones:
"Umm, I don't know where to begin, but I think you'll understand what I am going to say. This is very difficult. I have always planned to be in politics. It's been 21 years. I have been running around the country and it comes to the point I have to make a decision. The choice is to run for majority leader -- or leave. I have taken a lot of time and I have realized something has changed, and this is my family. . . . My decision is to put family first. . . . I have decided not to run for reelection."
The room was silent. Tears welled in the eyes of several staffers. Paxon sat rigidly behind his desk, across from the playpen -- littered with plush toys -- that Susan Ruby occupies when she visits.
"I decided last week to run for majority leader, and after that it was hell," he continued. "This is a tough decision. We have been through a lot together and it's very difficult." His voice cracked and trailed off. He began to cry. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes. "I love you all, and you are like family, and this hits me hard. . . .
"I will never run for public office again. I just have to tell you, it became clear as could be last Friday. It was clear to me my heart wasn't in it anymore. . . . I just want to say thank you. Thanks for being such good friends."
As the stunned staff got up to leave, Chris Downing, a 28-year-old legislative aide, turned to Paxon: "If it means anything, I think it's the best decision you ever made."
Just before, Paxon had called one of his closest political friends, Tom Reynolds, the Republican minority leader of the New York state assembly. "Tommy, I feel strongly I can run and win this. But my heart isn't in it," Paxon said. If he won a leadership post, Paxon noted, "it's four to five years on the road. I did this for 21 years, Tom, and I don't have it in my heart anymore. . . . Thursday and Friday I'm home alone with the baby and I realize that's what I wanna do. . . . It's out of pure joy I'm doing this. . . . Every time I've been going out on Saturdays, I'd rather be home.
"I could run for majority leader and I think I would win it, and then a year from now the speakership. . . . You are making a commitment to be on the road, working every weekend. It's not fair to my 21-month-old daughter. Last Wednesday, I'd decided to run and I just felt like [expletive]."
In an interview before he went public, he continued to stress his family over politics. "Twenty years from now, my daughter won't give a hoot if I was speaker or majority leader or on a highway crew," he said. "She wants to know if her daddy's there." After Molinari left Congress, "she never looked back, and she is happy with being home with her daughter, and that inspired me too," he said.
"Maybe it's because I am 43 and my dad died last year, and my dad was 42 when I was born and he was always the oldest father among my friends. . . . I wanted to be around for my daughter. I was asking myself, 'How do you possibly do justice to this child and still do the job?' "
Paxon said he knew his motives would be questioned. "I am sure we will see stories that say, 'You have a fatal flaw' and we will see stories with people saying, 'You must have something wrong with you,' that 'You have to be crazy to give this up.' "
Indeed, Paxon himself had been struggling with such feelings. Since Susan Ruby was born, he has been more torn between work and family. And as he worked the phones last week lining up support, he felt his enthusiasm ebbing. "By Friday, I was finally saying what my heart has said for the last two years. . . . Friday, I spent the day on the phone, and people were enthusiastic, but I had no spark. . . . I had been thinking, 'Maybe I'm like an old war horse; if the bell goes off, I'll do it, I'll run for it,' " he said. "Well, the bell went off, and this horse wanted to be in the stables, with the colt."
Still, he said he has no regrets. "I got to do exactly what I wanted for 21 years. I did exactly what I wanted and had fun doing it, and the next 20 years will be based on 'How does it affect my family and my time with my daughter?' . . .
"Susan was great. She said she would make allowances in her schedule" if he ran for leadership, Paxon said. "But particularly because we want to have more children -- and I am 43 and she will be 40 -- the question is,'Who is going to raise the babies?' "
Bringing Up Baby
Susan Ruby, who became a 3-month-old TV celebrity during the 1996 Republican convention when her mother gave the keynote speech while her father bounced her on his knee, has been going to day care in the House child-care center, but has caught repeated colds and ear infections that may require the insertion of plastic tubes in her ears, her father said. The family would prefer to keep her home, with the help of a babysitter.
He said he considered staying in Congress without seeking a leadership post. "This place and this profession is like a narcotic. . . . It's also like a fraternity, and some people are afraid to leave it," he said with a laugh. "Do they give methadone for political withdrawal?"
In the end, though, he concluded that "it is still very hard to have a young family, with Susan going off to New York for her work. . . . It was either move up or out, and at a certain point in life, you gotta say, 'Been there, done that.' "
Yesterday morning, after keeping strict secrecy about his decision, Paxon had 600 letters delivered by Federal Express to members of Congress, his friends and supporters, announcing his decision and saying of his daughter, "This little girl has helped me turn what has always been unthinkable, leaving office, into an easy choice."
Then, after telling the Republican leadership at a closed meeting, Paxon -- a black cross on his forehead from Ash Wednesday Mass -- faced skeptical Washington reporters in his office. Was Newt Gingrich really behind his departure? Was Armey? Was he quitting because he realized he couldn't beat Armey? And wasn't this really the fall of a glamour Washington couple, since he and Molinari had both been rising stars?
"This is not a fall. This is a rise," Paxon said. "This is what we want to do for our family. . . . This is not a fall. This is a rise. A lot of families do this" in making career sacrifices.
Paxon said he did not have any plans for his future and was not even sure when he would decide what he would do after his term expires next January. He might go into business, he might teach -- he didn't know. He might leave Washington, perhaps for New York.
At times during his first news conference of the day, he seemed dazed. "What was the question? . . . I'm sorry. I only had four hours sleep. . . . Sorry, I lost my train of thought."
Afterward, Paxon, Molinari and the baby they call Suby took off in a chartered seven-passenger Cessna jet for Buffalo and Rochester. Molinari, smiling and hugging her husband when they met at the airport, said she had already received several calls at home from reporters expressing disbelief.
"They could not believe he was just leaving," she said.
Molinari herself acknowledged she was "in shock" when Paxon told her Saturday of his decision. "Bill has loved government. I thought he'd be in Congress for the rest of his life. As an American I am sorry" he is leaving, she said. "As a wife and mother, I couldn't be happier."
The Cessna took off at 11:40 and immediately encountered sharp turbulence, frightening the baby and making both parents cackle -- "Whee! Whee! Pony ride! It's like a pony ride! Juice! Juice!" -- until Suby calmed down.
When they touched down in Buffalo, Suby's diaper needed changing. Molinari, rather than Paxon, did the honors because his technique is "too methodical and slow," she said.
Suby, a political baby staying on message, attracted much of the attention at news conferences in Buffalo and Rochester, laughing, cooing, tugging on the American flag and reading aloud some of the letters on a big sign bearing her father's name. At both stops, Paxon basked in her antics. At both stops, he choked with emotion.
And at both stops there were skeptical questions. "A lot of people are asking the question, 'Is there something else behind this?' " a reporter in Buffalo asked.
Paxon smiled and said, "I am done having to justify my life." The crowd, consisting largely of his staff and friends, burst into applause.
Nonetheless, Paxon felt a continuing need to get his explanation out. In his van between stops, the congressman made a series of phone calls to politicians and journalists, including conservative columnists Robert Novak and Fred Barnes.
The 1,000-mile jaunt was carefully planned so the media-conscious Paxon could get back to Washington by late afternoon, in time to appear live on CNN's "Inside Politics" and give his version of why he was leaving Congress.
"You have to tell your story, otherwise other people's spin gets ahead of you," Molinari explained.
Moving Up, and Out
A year ago, Paxon and Molinari were becoming the hottest ticket in the GOP.
Molinari was No. 5 in the House GOP leadership, which is dominated by white males from the South. She was the leading weapon in the party's effort to broaden its appeal among women and voters in the Northeast -- where the party suffered its worst losses in the 1996 elections -- as it sought to enlarge its House majority and capture the White House in 2000.
Gingrich had picked Paxon, a protege and loyal supporter, to preside at meetings of GOP leaders and oversee long-range planning, making him the highest appointed member of the leadership. And Paxon had worked unflinchingly to coordinate the effort to save Gingrich's speakership after he acknowledged House ethics rules violations.
Then in May, Molinari, frustrated that her support of abortion rights limited her ability to advance in the leadership and win plum committee assignments, announced she was leaving Congress to anchor "CBS News Saturday Morning."
But the biggest blow to the Republican power couple came in July, when dissident House Republicans discussed toppling Gingrich and installing Paxon as speaker. Paxon declined to detail his role in the events beyond saying it was not his intention to try to become speaker.
"I never wanted the speaker to leave," he said in a recent interview. "Honest to God, I didn't want it to happen. I didn't encourage it. But it happened and that was my fate."
When Paxon met with Gingrich, the speaker was prepared to ask Paxon to quit his leadership post. But before he could, the New York lawmaker offered to resign. Gingrich accepted the resignation the next morning.
A week later House Republicans met behind closed doors and many feared the mutual hostilities could spin out of control. Paxon helped calm the session by rising to declare: "If you want a head, you've got mine."
Exiled from the leadership, Paxon set about to rebuild his base of support among House Republicans. As the two-term head of the House GOP campaign committee, Paxon had a hand in the election of nearly half of the chamber's 227 Republicans, winning him some degree of loyalty of each. He crisscrossed the country, raising money for GOP candidates. In preparation for these appearances, his staff sent copies of a Weekly Standard article headlined "Speaker Paxon?" to be distributed to those attending. At the same time, he moved to beef up his political action committee, which he intended to use to help yet more Republican candidates -- all moves to build support for a leadership bid.
As the year began, he and his staff talked openly of challenging Armey, vulnerable because of his lackluster organizational skills and stumbling manner, to be majority leader. Paxon canvassed his colleagues, gauging his support, at the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this month.
At the same gathering, Gingrich pulled him aside to ask if he could count on his support to be speaker in the next Congress, if the Republicans maintain control. Paxon replied that he could.
What about for Armey? the speaker asked. Would Paxon support him to be reelected as majority leader?
Paxon replied he couldn't commit; he was still weighing his options.
Beginning today, those options no longer include elective office. After all this, Paxon said, "I quickly fade into oblivion. There is nothing deader than a dead politician. They bury you, and don't even embalm the body."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company