On a recent Wednesday morning, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay kicked back on the porch of the home in Sugar Land, Texas, that he shares with his wife and his dog, Taylor. It was a clear day, 67 degrees, and DeLay was relishing more than just the view (a golf course). For the first time since a grand jury indicted him in 2005 on charges of money laundering, DeLay was feeling the vindication he has always defiantly, shamelessly, and cheerfully maintained was rightly his: An Appeals Court had just overturned his conviction.
Washington traditionally demands that, like John Edwards, a scandal-tainted politician disappear. He might return home to "spend more time with his family." He might sink into the plushy comforts of the comparatively low-profile but fantastically well-paid lobbying or consulting jobs available to people who used to do important things. He should, at the very least, try to appear sorry for his sins against the establishment consensus. (Insincere contrition is what finally doomed Anthony Weiner.) DeLay had another idea: Dancing With the Stars. If he hadn't been hip-swiveling in candy-striped shirts and bell bottoms, it wouldn't be difficult to imagine that for the last eight years he's looked exactly as he did in that infamous Travis County mug shot—bright-eyed, perfectly coiffed, and grinning ecstatically while he waited for a court to clear his good name.
Last week, it did. "It's been like drinking from a fire hose," he gushed in his honeyed drawl. He recounted the past six days: first, on his knees in prayer with fellow Christian lawmakers in a C Street house where he was informed that his conviction—and three-year prison sentence—had been overturned. Then, after lunch with colleagues from the Texas congressional delegation, a few members insisted DeLay visit the House floor. "It was a huge lovefest, members just hugging my neck," including some Democrats, he says. The interview requests kept him in Washington for another day, but even after his return to Texas, texts and voice mails filled his phone, and 200 emails arrived daily. "Somebody said to me during all this that this must lift a terrible burden," he sighs. "I looked at him kinda funny and said, 'Frankly, I didn't have a burden. I gave it to the Lord, and he's carried it all.' "
Perhaps that's what kept DeLay zen throughout the ordeal. Ever since he was convicted in front of his wife and daughter three years ago, DeLay never stopped smiling or politely insisting that he was the victim of a liberal hit job from a rogue prosecutor. He appears to have been vindicated, at least for now. The facts showed he helped to raise corporate funds for a PAC meant to elect Republican state legislators, who would redraw the congressional map in his party's favor; and then, to get around a state law banning corporate donations to Texas lawmakers, DeLay sent the money to the Republican National Committee, which later gifted equivalent cash back to the candidates. The prosecution called this money laundering. But the Appeals Court said that the corporate donations to the PAC were legal and were given in an attempt to score some face time with DeLay; it then ruled that if the donations were legal, the swap couldn't be money laundering. Ultimately the case seems to say more about the farce of campaign-finance law than about DeLay, whose ethical troubles were long and well-known.
DeLay points out that history to explain why he knew this charge was politically motivated (and would fail): His persecution at the hands of Democrats, he says, began with an Ethics Committee complaint in 1996—the first of several, at least four of which resulted in rebukes. "I knew this was going to happen," he says. "I've always had a gaggle of lawyers around me. I have to get a lawyer opinion to go to the restroom." Now: exoneration.
Next, DeLay is preparing his inevitable return to public life. The timing is fortuitous. With Jerome Corsi, writer of the book detailing the swift-boat veterans' attacks on John Kerry during the 2004 election, he's writing Shut Her Down, a book about eliminating federal programs and returning power to the states. DeLay's also "trying to develop some national organizations for constitutional revival," though he won't say what those might be. "I'm trying to help the conservative movement," he says. "The only talent I have is being able to develop strategy and implement that strategy. I'm a pretty good community organizer."
Recently DeLay has heard many questions about what might be different if he were leading the House today. In each instance he's taken care not to criticize leadership and to praise its efforts. He still has many ideologically simpatico allies in Congress. Tea-party members have prompted a government shutdown, repeating a GOP tactic from 1995, when he was majority whip. House leaders aren't pleased about this, which leaves an opening for someone with the institutional gravitas of DeLay, inside or outside of Congress, to step forward and validate their deal-making desires.
If DeLay ever hopes to play that role, it will have to be from the outside. Prosecutors are considering whether to appeal the Texas court's decision, and asked if his legal odyssey is over, DeLay says, "Oh, no, far from it." Then, he adds, in a line that seems crafted to enrage his haters, "I'm coming out of the wilderness. And I'm a stronger and better man now. I've even learned to pray for my enemies. I thank them for what I've been through."