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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Dick Armey's Divided Ranks

    By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page B01

    GAAAAAAAAAWWWWWD, what a night!

    Dick Armey never, ever, thought it'd go down like this on Nov. 3. He'd started off the evening with Larry King on CNN, honking about another Republican victory, more seats for the Freedom Revolution, more conservative movement types to shore up the ranks, more, more, more . . .

    Then the Republican House majority leader starts hearing about friends falling. Word comes that young Rep. Mike Pappas is taking an electoral bullet in New Jersey -- "He was like a younger brother to me, he was."

    And Christian Right shock-trooper Rep. Bill Redmond does a header in New Mexico. "M'heart was breaking for him," he says. "I'd campaigned for him. I was hurting."

    It's late, real late, before this big hulk of a man begins the drift into a bummer of a sleep. Then one of those early-morning biorhythmic epiphanies intrudes: Hey, they could come hunting for me next. The party lost five seats that night and his fellow Republican revolutionaries aren't known for taking defeat well.

    Beware the ides of November.

    Just two weeks have passed since that night and Caesar is already dead: House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave his own funeral oration before the Republican faithful last week as Cassius -- the impeccably groomed speaker-to-be Rep. Bob Livingston -- grinned and applauded in the audience. Now the revolutionaries are conspiring in the Capitol corridors, fingering more victims.

    Armey, the armadillo-boot-wearing, 100 percent pure beef conservative with the flying-buttress eyebrows is their number one target. Rep. Steve Largent, the former football wide receiver cum conservative true believer from Oklahoma, has declared his intent to take out Armey. And Washington's Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a former Gingrich protege of conservative pedigree, is in the race, too.

    None of this makes much sense to Armey. The man -- an affable Texan by way of North Dakota -- is a true believer. He pulled a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union this year, he's popped off to the president's face, he's dressed down the first lady, and he's near enraptured with the flat tax. Live flat or die, he often says.

    What's not to like?

    Armey, 58, leans forward on the couch in his handsomely appointed office, spreads out those big hands of his, and pleads for a little rationality here.

    "The election's a heartbreak," he says. "But we have to learn to manage our disappointments."

    However much its political denizens might imagine themselves a quaint village of homespun values, these past two weeks represent Washington at its purest. Nothing is as it seems. No word of assurance is taken at face value. Knives are sheathed in smiles.

    The vote for majority leader is a secret one. And that means no member's pledge of support is certain. So Armey is dialing-dialing-dialing for his political life, reminding this congressman of a favor done, that congresswoman of a consideration shown.

    Some members say flat out, "Nope, won't support you." But many more purr right back through the phone receiver.

    Armey's no naif; he came to Washington in 1985 as a votary of the "politics of confrontation." He roasted former Republican minority leader Bob Michel for practicing appeasement politics and successfully battled his colleagues to close military bases and cut sugar subsidies (he titled an article on subsidies "Moscow on the Mississippi"). Nor is he above a little fabrication in service of La Causa. He often used to invoke the case of a retarded janitor who lost his job because of a minimum-wage hike, but a little checking found that the janitor more than likely never existed.

    And he was a featured player in an attempt to overthrow Gingrich last year. But it's a bit disorienting to find yourself on the buying end of such intrigue.

    "Armey's problem is that, like Newt before him, he can't count on what people say and he can't count on gratitude," says John Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and a chronicler of the Gingrich revolution. "Gratitude has a very short shelf life in Washington."

    Then there is Armey's television problem. The screen just haunts the big guy.

    Consider election night. Even as other Republicans conceded that it was not the best of nights, Larry King helped the majority leader weave and custom-fit his own noose.

    King: "Would you say you're disappointed . . . ?"

    Armey: "Quite frankly, no. . . . We're going to have a larger majority. . . . The American people are very concerned about moral decline in this country. . . ."

    King: "But it has not been a good night, you would agree . . . ?"

    Armey: "You wait -- tomorrow morning, you're going to be looking forward to a far more prosperous nation, with more well-educated children and happier parents. . . ."

    King: "We're going to hold this tape, Dick."

    Armey: "All right."

    Oops.

    The political bill of indictment against Armey holds three or four counts, but many members begin with his untelegenic mug and manner. Here is a leader, they argue, unsuited for the 24-hour, 57-channel, cable-driven mud wrestle that modern politics has become.

    The new breed -- Largent, Dunn, J.C. Watts, Lindsey Graham -- are adept at the nine-second bite, the rhetorical pivot-and-spin. Armey's voice, by contrast, pitches upward from somewhere deep in that gravel factory of a throat. He tends, on television, toward throat-clearing expressions that slow down his cut-and-slash rhetoric. Transcripts of his television appearances are larded with Armey warm-ups: "Well, let me just say, and this is very important, that . . . "

    "It's definitely an issue," says Rep. Dave Weldon of Florida, who nonetheless supports Armey. "Largent is a bright shining face. But you need a manager as majority leader, and Dick's got the personality and the brains for that."

    Armey's opponents are a bit blunter.

    "His ability to articulate a message is just about nil," says a prominent Republican congressman. "You don't want him out there."

    Humor too can be a strange weapon in Armey's hands. He's an affable man, whose folksy witticisms and pop culture analogies can draw chuckles from pols of varied stripe. But his public displays of wit tack toward the ax-in-the-forehead variety. That earns him toasts in right-wing circles but moderates locate him in his party's oaf wing.

    When he talks to Democrats, he refers to Bill Clinton as "your president." During one budget negotiation, he famously critiqued the president's proposals as junk economics and told him that "you're ruining a lot of people's lives with your scare rhetoric."

    And when the first lady testified about the proposed health care plan several years back, his riposte caused a few heads to snap 'round.

    "I have been told of your charm and your wit," he told her. "The reports on your charm are overstated and the reports on your wit are understated."

    That said, he rarely hesitates to aim blunderbuss jokes at his own head.

    Armey passed some years as chairman of the economics department at North Texas University, a posting that left him an adjective away from academic greatness. Or as he put it: "I was a bush league professor at a bush league school." (When he left the school after losing some internal political battles, he walked into his send-off meeting with his fellow chairmen with a audio player blasting playing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It.")

    As he mucks about for support now, Armey fields more prosaic complaints as well. As second in command to a mercurial leader, Armey found himself scheduling and rescheduling votes, forever pulling members back from their districts early on Monday or sending them home late Friday night. Once Armey even came out of a meeting with Gingrich and hinted that proper revolutionaries shouldn't blanch at working Christmas Day, if necessary.

    Wrong move. There were no proles in this leisure-class revolution. "Dick had to march to the tune set by Newt and nobody gave him more grief than I did," says Rep. Joe Barton. "I live in Texas and, by God, I want to be on my plane by 3 p.m. Friday. He took a lot of heat.

    "But it wasn't his fault. It was Newt's style."

    It's a measure of the ideological temperature of Republican politics that many revolutionaries now blame Election Day on Gingrich, the Closet Moderate. Their litany goes like this: Gingrich didn't pick enough battles. Or he picked the wrong battles. Or he wasn't willing to pitch himself over a cliff to win the battles he picked.

    Armey was supposed to be the ideological sentinel, a conservative true believer in the speaker's aerie. Largent and others argue that he compromised the revolution and should step down.

    Armey assays an I've-heard-that-one shrug. He knows what it's like to think that victory is just a Big Government-decapitating tax cut away. In the heady days of 1995, he predicted that Newt's Nasty Boyz would roll Clinton into a fetal position.

    "We kind of felt the president was so comfortable with the I-feel-your-pain '90s role of the sensitive man that he'd never be able to get in touch with a fellow like John Wayne," Armey said.

    That was then.

    This is now: "We were in negotiations with the most powerful man in the world: the president of the United States," Armey explains this week. "It's unrealistic to think we're going to come out ahead."

    But Armey's chastened realism doesn't travel well. Republican Jacobins, even those who support Armey, are no less convinced of their cause; only the faint of heart entertain the possibility that they lost a few races on substance.

    So they preach a return to fundamentalism.

    "The prevailing wisdom that we need to move to moderation is a recipe for suicide," says Weldon, a doctor who left the medicine he loves to serve on the ideological ramparts. "We need to talk about limited government, more personal responsibility . . . and I would pick a big fight with Clinton on abortion . . . .

    "I just want to see us put out the conservative agenda against their liberal agenda, and let's have a big brawl next year."

    Perhaps. But that sounds a bit like a World War I general flashing his swagger stick and insisting that the troops need only buck up and make another frontal charge into the barbed wire and the war is theirs.

    Where Armey now stands on strategy is unclear, although tax cuts and more tax cuts seem likely to explode from his mortars. He loves the role of enfant terrible. He slept in the House gym his first year in Washington, until the then-Democratic House speaker served him an eviction notice. Then he hauled the cot into his House office for another year.

    And the aphorism posted on his "Freedom Works" Web site -- "You can't put your finger on a problem when you've got it to the wind" -- suggests an unyielding temperament still.

    But Armey has seen five of his colleagues fall in electoral battle this month. He furls those eyebrows and talks of thinking a bit before racing back into battle.

    "The Democrats, frankly, did a good job," he says with the tone of one making a rather large and unexpected concession. "We need to understand what they did. We've got to digest it."

    And, he might add, not simply eat their majority leader.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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