Exit, stage right


    Ever disciplined, Tom DeLay even stage-managed one of the lowest moments of his life.

    Summoned to a Texas court last fall, DeLay was fingerprinted and photographed like a common criminal. But what a mug shot.

    Immaculately
    groomed in jacket and tie, DeLay grinned from ear to ear, looking more
    like he had just won the lottery, rather than someone who was facing
    charges of money laundering.

    That was the point: control the message and your enemies can’t use it against you.

    Democrats
    gleefully have sought to make the Texas Republican the poster boy for
    bad Republican behavior. They sorely will miss DeLay’s departure from
    the national stage.

    DeLay often operated close to the ethical edge in his ascension to the powerful job of House majority leader.

    Relying
    on political prowess, arm-twisting and devotion to his GOP majority,
    DeLay tightened the Republican grip on the House in his seven years as
    Republican whip, the party’s No. 3 leadership post. And he delivered
    for President Bush. The fellow Texans were political partners, but
    never were close.

    DeLay first harnessed his acrimony for
    government regulations in the late 1970s and rode it into the Texas
    House and Congress. During his stint in the Texas Legislature, he was
    known as “Hot Tub Tom” for his partying ways.

    Now he is a
    born-again Christian whose skill as a tenacious political strategist
    has allowed him to outmaneuver Democrats, pack Congress with more
    Republicans and push through some major pieces of Bush’s legislative
    agenda.

    When he rose to majority leader in 2003, DeLay sought to
    soften his image. He dumped his “wet look” hairstyle, filled a gap in
    his teeth and opened up more with the media.

    Called “the Hammer”
    for his hard-nosed approach _ his Capitol office has two leather
    bullwhips _ the 58-year-old former pest exterminator has ensured House
    passage of much of Bush’s legislative agenda, including tax cuts, trade
    agreements and a Medicare prescription drug plan.

    His brass-knuckle tactics drew the ire of Democrats, Washington lobbyists and good-government types.

    The
    House ethics committee admonished DeLay on three separate occasions in
    2004. In addition to the Texas charges, a federal investigation is
    pursuing DeLay’s ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

    DeLay
    has denied any wrongdoing, telling fellow House Republicans in a letter
    Saturday, “During my time in Congress, I have always acted in an
    ethical manner within the rules of our body and the laws of our land. I
    am fully confident time will bear this out.”

    In an April letter
    to supporters, DeLay borrowed a phrase coined by a long-ago besieged
    President Clinton, arguing his opponents’ only agenda “is the politics
    of personal destruction.” To which DeLay added, “and the
    criminalization of politics.”

    DeLay has come through for Bush
    even though DeLay once assailed the first President Bush for breaking
    his pledge not to increase taxes in 1990, and took heat from George W.
    Bush in the 2000 campaign for House efforts to disperse earned income
    tax payments to low-income families monthly instead of in one lump sum.

    If
    DeLay has to hold a 15-minute vote open for the better part of an hour
    to twist arms, he will do it, as he did in securing House approval of
    Bush’s Central American Free Trade Agreement in July by a razor-thin
    margin of two votes.

    Lobbyists do not escape his version of hardball politics.

    DeLay
    complained to the Electronic Industries Alliance over its hiring of
    former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma as its president. DeLay
    subsequently was rebuked by the ethics committee for badgering a
    lobbying organization.

    To win passage of the Medicare
    prescription drug bill, DeLay promised a lawmaker that if he would vote
    for the measure, DeLay would back a run for Congress by the lawmaker’s
    son. The lawmaker refused, but DeLay was admonished again by the ethics
    committee for making the offer.

    “His devotion to the cause has
    led him to push the envelope as hard as possible and not hold back,”
    said Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science at the
    University of California at San Diego.

    DeLay has worked
    tirelessly to increase the Republican majority in the House since the
    GOP swept out the Democrats in 1994. He has raised tens of millions for
    Republican candidates and used his own leadership political action
    committee to shower cash on GOP hopefuls.

    In 2002, he helped buck
    the historic trend of midterm congressional election losses for the
    party controlling the White House; instead Republicans gained in the
    House.

    He strong-armed a redistricting plan for Texas that led to
    the defeat of five Democrats in the state in 2004. The ethics panel
    rebuked DeLay for using the Federal Aviation Administration in the
    search for Texas Democratic lawmakers trying to avoid a vote on the
    redistricting proposal.

    DeLay was unabashed. “I’m the majority leader and we want more seats,” he said.

    Elected
    to the House in 1984 from the Houston suburbs, DeLay chafed under
    Democratic rule for a decade before the GOP seized control. Then, in
    1998, he led the charge in impeaching Clinton over the sex scandal
    involving a White House intern.

    He might have been House speaker
    in 1998 after Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., stepped down and Rep. Bob
    Livingston, R-La., stunningly bowed out, but DeLay acknowledged that he
    was “too nuclear” to take the top job. He instead ensured that his
    deputy, Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., became speaker.

    A fierce
    conservative, DeLay energized the Republican base last year when he
    pushed for Congress to intervene in the case of a brain-damaged Florida
    woman, Terri Schiavo, in a direct challenge to a Florida court’s
    authority. For the most part, the general public questioned the
    congressional action and the GOP took a hit in opinion polls.

    DeLay has raised one daughter and three foster children with his wife, Christine.

    © 2006 The Associated Press