Considering that the hammer had just fallen on the man known as The Hammer, Rep. Tom DeLay looked oddly cheerful yesterday. Not the kind of look that one expects from someone on the day he gets indicted and is forced to quit his post as House majority leader.
But that was the prevailing expression on DeLay's face, a grin that conveyed cheerful defiance. He beamed through the hallways of the Capitol, past media stakeouts and shouted questions.
"How you doing? Any news today?" DeLay asked, cackling to himself before a crammed-in crowd of reporters at a mid-afternoon briefing in his leadership office -- or at least it was still DeLay's office as of late yesterday.
He sat before a pile of tape recorders with a prim schoolboy posture. Then he read a statement harpooning the "rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle," the man who had charged him with conspiring with two political associates to violate state campaign finance laws.
DeLay called Earle "a partisan fanatic" and "an unabashed partisan zealot" and said Earle was peddling "frivolous accusations" and leading a "hollow investigation."
He read for 5 minutes 47 seconds and then broke back into a grin.
"Mr. DeLay, are you gonna stay in Congress?" a reporter yelled. DeLay left the room without answering.
This was one of those days when Capitol Hill crackles with a scalding piece of news that turns the political culture on its axis. It allowed Washington to return to its essential Washington-ness after weeks of real-life horror in New Orleans and Biloxi.
Indeed, there's nothing like a political fall from grace to get the town buzzing again. There was even a bounce in the step of GOP lawmakers as they no-commented their way into a special meeting of the House Republican Conference at 3 p.m.
"I got nothing, sorry," said Rep. Ric Keller of Florida, looking serene.
"Why don't you call my press person?" suggested Sam Johnson of Texas.
"I'm just going in there," Tom Davis of Virginia announced pleasantly as he rushed past.
Tom Feeney of Florida called Earle "a political hatchet man" and left us with this nugget of wisdom: "We are where we are."
And then he was gone, into the meeting, where a standing ovation was in progress -- for whom it wasn't clear.
"I don't take any pride in this news at all," said Colorado Republican Joel Hefley, referring to the indictment. Hefley headed the House Ethics Committee until he was asked to step down early this year. He and others have suggested that he lost the post because his committee admonished DeLay three times last year for alleged political and financial improprieties. There's no feeling of vindication at all, Hefley said. It was a sad day.
"I wouldn't do anything to bring this on anybody," he said before walking away.
"Our hearts and prayers go out to him," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of DeLay during a quick meeting with reporters. His words were funereal, but he looked oddly upbeat.
As did Rep. Roy Blunt, who was elected to fill DeLay's position temporarily. "Our members express great regret that Tom DeLay is going through what he's going through," Blunt said before tacking on a gracious nod to DeLay. "He'll continue to be an important member of this House," he promised.
Earlier, DeLay's spokesman Kevin Madden stood in the outgoing leader's office lobby and parried questions about DeLay's demeanor.
Per the conventions of damage control, Madden naturally said DeLay is "very determined" and that "he fully expects to return" -- to the majority leader's position -- "when he's exonerated."
Madden dubbed some questions "premature to answer," said he "couldn't speculate" on others and vowed that "this office will go about its normal course of business."
Except that someone else will be moving into this office, presumably.
Madden wasn't sure how the logistics of succession would work.
"Normal course of business," he said again.