Friday, June 09, 2006

Bidding Farewell
to 'The Hammer'

'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Though it's been scheduled for weeks, and in certain ways has been in the works for months if not years, today is the official date on which Texas Congressman Tom Delay, a.k.a "The Hammer," finally leaves public office. We wish him well in his many future endeavors, chief among which will be trying his best to avoid a prison term.

Perhaps only in America do stories such as this unfold. The one-time exterminator became the third-most powerful man in the capital (after the president and VP), effectively operating as Speaker of the House through his hand-picked guy, an amiable former wrestling coach named Dennis Hastert, who technically occupied the office. Denny got the title, while Delay called all the shots. It was a good strategy at first: the sneering Texan had studied the career of Newt Gingrich, and knew that by becoming a widely known figure, he would also become a juicy target for reformers, which might hasten his fall.

What happened next was almost unprecedented in American history, the kind of blatant pay-to-play government corruption that turns your stomach. Delay unashamedly went about merging the lobbying industry with the Congressional leadership, keeping lists of party donors on his desk, telling industry groups to hire Republican buddies or be shut out of the legislative process.

Like Newt Gingrich before him, his influence will of course not suddenly end because he leaves office. This piece in the Nation focuses on his explicit successors, but his larger legacy of deep, unapologetic corruption is a wider problem for the entire Republican establishment and for the right. It will be remembered, and dredged up again and again by the opposition, for a very long time. As well it should be.

There are many heroes behind his ouster, but let me focus on just the two most important.

From his perch as chairman of the obscure Indian Affairs subcommittee, Senator John McCain used that uniquely effective lever, the power of subpoena, to pry open this story. It took some courage to do so for a Republican, peering into the slimiest corners of his own party. But then, after being held prisoner for years in a Vietnamese cell, this was a walk in the park by comparison. And the bruising his image took from his role in the so-called Keating Five case had left McCain forever attuned to the importance of cleanliness on this issue.

The linchpin of this corruption, the public face of it all, was a bizarre man named Jack Abramoff, a well-oiled lobbyist with a weird past. McCain and his staff began to pull on the thread of impossibly large federal lobbying contracts from Indian tribes, and from there the larger tale of this network of corruption slowly seeped, and then gushed, out. The outrageous Abramoff emails, berating Indian clients as "monkeys" even as he was bilking them of millions of dollars in fees, forever stamped these people as cretins in the public's mind.

Abramoff had old ties, through the College Republicans, to a uniquely influential figure on the right, Grover Norquist, the onetime anti-tax crusader, later turned buckraking lobbyist. His weekly Wednesday meetings became a master planning session for right-wing political strategizing. And that in turn put him closely in touch with both Delay and with the White House, through Karl Rove, for whom he served as a key bridge to movement conservatives. Norquist, a grim, bearded and bespectacled revolutionary who once famously said he wanted to cut the federal government in half over 25 years, "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathroom," apparently had no qualms against doing personal business with that same government before he drowned it.

He formed a lobbying partnership with a man named David Safavian, who had been the Bush Administration's top administrator for federal procurement policy, as well as a former lobbying colleague of Abramoff's. (Safavian was later arrested for obstructing the ongoing probe by allegedly lying to investigators). Throw in Ralph Reed, the telegenic, smooth-talking onetime political director for Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition (and later a buckracking lobbyist for the likes of Microsoft), and this tight little group was nicely set to engage in a massive feeding frenzy at the public trough.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a one-time Eagle Scout, was following the trail of political money-laundering by Delay fundraisers. He pulled on that thread until it became apparent that it led right to Delay himself. He ultimately won indictments, which eventually made it all but impossible for the Republican party to keep Delay in the leadership.

The Hammer didn't sit still for this two-bit local investigation, of course. He threw everything he had at the local-yokel prosecutor. But the veteran Earle knew how the game of power politics was played, anticipated many of Delay's slime tactics, and never let the pressure stop him from continuing his patient investigation. When Delay and his henchmen threatened to intervene with the state legislature to get his budget removed, Earle calmly informed everyone that wouldn't stop him. Even without a staff or a budget, he'd continue to investigate the case, even if he had to issue subpoeanas through the media (like McCain, he' s always been popular with the media, which loves a maverick. Earle almost pursued a journalism career himself, as this piece notes).

In an especially telling observation, Earle once told Texas Lawyer magazine: “There is a basic rule that the Mafia follows. And it is used as a template by most politicians that I have investigated: Deny the allegation and attack the allegator.” (I can't wait to see this documentary, "Big Buy," which chronicles the face-off between Earle and Delay. It's been in the works for several years, and should be a doozie when it's finished).

For their crucial role in helping to document and ultimately bring down this unfathomable corruption, these two guys are heroic Americans in my book, the kind (as I've written before) of people who, like Sam Ervin during Watergate, tend to appear at key parts of our national narrative, and perform heroically. A round of drinks on the house for both of them.


At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece on Tom Delay in a recent Texas Monthly, too.

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Daniella said...


I read this post and thought this can't be it others should be indicted. Will Rove ever get his just deserve and GWB and our evil VP?
Great writing, I noticed a real bite in your style lately very sharp.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sarah, glad to learn that you read Texas Monthly, one of just a handful of regional magazines still remaining in America that have national-class aspirations. They prove that you don't always need the biggest budget to do the best journalism. Here's hoping Northern Ohio Live takes those lessons to heart.

And Daniella, I share your outrage over how few of the real ringleaders are likely to be prosecuted for all this corruption. But then, history will deliver its own cruel fate upon these folks that's almost as damning in its way as the justice system is.

On this topic, I always reflect on the example of Lee Atwater, the political strategist of choice for the first President Bush (and something of a mentor to Karl Rove). On his deathbed a few years ago, he repented his many political sins and asked forgiveness from various targets for all his political dirty tricks. You can bet that Rove, Cheney & Co. will have their own similar personal accounting to do sometime before they die.


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