The Passion Play of Tom DeLay

Usually Washington ne’er-do-wells vanish after a scandal. But the former majority leader stuck around — and eventually a court vindicated him.

DANCING WITH THE STARS - "Episode 902" - It was a night of Quickstep, Jive and Tango, as "Dancing with the Stars" welcomed Baz Luhrmann to the ballroom as a guest judge during Week 2 of the competition, MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 28 (8:00-10:02 p.m., ET). () TOM DELAY, CHERYL BURKE
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Oct. 3, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

 

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.”

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