The Hammer I knew
Posted on July 19, 2008
This originally appeared in The Washington Post
What I Saw at the Republican Revolution
By John Feehery
Sunday, April 9, 2006; Page B01
It was my first week as Tom DeLay's communications director in late 1995. And we were already in crisis.
On the House floor, DeLay had gotten into a shoving match with a Wisconsin Democrat named Dave Obey. I had no idea what had happened.
While I worked the phones trying to figure out the details, our press secretary, Tony Rudy, wasn't waiting for the facts. He started telling reporters that Obey had called Tom an obscenity too graphic to print in this newspaper. Obey vehemently denied it. Later, I asked Tom if it was true.
No, he said, he had never actually heard Obey utter the alleged insult. I called reporters to tell them we couldn't confirm the rumor. But, of course, it was too late. The rumor had come in part from our own office. And I had my crash course in spin control as played by some members of Team DeLay.
For the next 3 1/2 years, I experienced the Republican revolution firsthand, witnessing the rise of Tom DeLay and the beginnings of one of the more remarkable political downfalls in modern U.S. history. Today, everyone wants to know what Tom DeLay knew and when he knew it. And I can't answer those questions.
But I do know that Tom DeLay achieved great things for the Republican majority, the Congress and for the country. He also created great controversy caused in part by his own aggressive nature, in part by his political enemies, and in part by rogue members of his own staff.
The overwhelming majority of DeLay's staffers were professional, honest and working in Congress for the right reasons. But Tom prized the most aggressive staffers and most often heeded their counsel. As it turned out, three of them went over the line, abused the trust of House members and seemingly broke the law. A former hockey player, Tony Rudy was DeLay's enforcer; he wasn't evil, but lacked maturity and would do whatever necessary to protect his patron. Ed Buckham, DeLay's chief of staff, gatekeeper and minister, constantly pushed DeLay to be more radical in his tactics and spun webs of intrigue we are only now beginning to unravel. And Michael Scanlon, who, in my experience, was a first-class rogue and a master of deception.
People like Rudy and Scanlon pleased DeLay because they were always pushing the envelope; only now that the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff is playing out and both are cooperating witnesses for the prosecution are we beginning to learn how far they went. I don't know if Tom always knew what his staff was doing -- I know that I didn't. But I had my suspicions, and now I have seen them borne out.
I began working in Congress in 1989 as a staffer for Illinois Republican Bob Michel, the longtime House minority leader. Dick Cheney had just left the House to become defense secretary and Newt Gingrich had just succeeded him as minority whip.
Back then, we were a beaten minority. Michel was a gracious leader, but to revolutionaries such as Gingrich and DeLay, he wasn't ruthless enough to seize the majority.
At the time, I was responsible for writing one-minute speeches for various House Republicans. The first speech I wrote for DeLay was a response to a Democratic attack on DeLay and his colleague John Doolittle that played off their last names. DeLay intimidated me; he never seemed to smile. But when I showed him my speech, he laughed, went to the floor and did a great job with it. It was our first time working together.
After Michel announced his retirement in 1994, I took a job with Rep. Denny Hastert of Illinois. When DeLay announced that Hastert would become his campaign manager in the internal race for Republican whip, I joined the effort. Late in the fall campaign, I walked into DeLay's office for a strategy session with Hastert. There I met a bespectacled, balding man: Ed Buckham, the staff director of the Republican Study Committee. He eyed me suspiciously; I sensed he didn't trust me. The feeling was mutual. But by the end of the meeting, it was clear to me that Buckham had Tom's ear: He spoke authoritatively on what DeLay wanted and needed, and seemed to outrank DeLay's staffers.
DeLay ultimately won the whip race and Republicans captured the House for the first time in 40 years. It was a heady time to be a House Republican, but a scary one, too. In 1994, not one House Republican had ever served in the majority. Hastert, then chief deputy whip, asked me to help in the whip office, so I returned and got ready to pass the bills included in the Contract With America.
In the meantime, Buckham had become DeLay's chief of staff. He eventually hired me as Tom's communications director and Tony Rudy as press secretary. But he was brutal in firing some of DeLay's previous staffers. His win-at-all-costs attitude played out in strange ways around the office. He ran a fantasy baseball league that he always seemed to win, even if it meant browbeating young staffers into trading their best players to him. He was also forceful in promoting the evangelical beliefs he shared with DeLay. There were times when he would gather the staff for prayer. And I must admit, at times we needed those prayers just to get through the grueling pace of the Contract With America.
In those early days, Jack Abramoff was not a significant presence in our office; we knew him mainly as a friend of Buckham's. One of my few encounters with Abramoff took place far from Washington -- in the U.S. commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.
I was accompanying Tom on a trip in early 1997 to meet with government officials of Saipan, who were fighting hard to keep Congress and the Clinton administration from imposing minimum-wage and other labor laws. As a former small-business owner, DeLay hated minimum-wage laws and other government mandates, so it was a pretty easy sell.
When we arrived we were greeted by a throng of well-wishers, musicians, elected officials -- and Abramoff. Jack had the Northern Marianas as a client, and acted as a semi-official tour guide throughout our trip. Local leaders seemed to love Abramoff and treated him with great affection.
Later that night, we attended a luau, complete with dancers and a roasted pig. During the festivities, a police officer approached me and pointed to a clump of bushes, where, to my surprise, I would find two "20/20" reporters hiding. They were there to report on our fact-finding trip. We ended up playing cat-and-mouse for most of the five-day visit, until we finally invited them into the factories we were there to inspect and to our New Year's Eve party, where DeLay told the assembled revelers to resist evil, referring to a minimum-wage hike. Needless to say, the story on "20/20" wasn't a positive one.
Later that year, a reporter asked me about another trip -- a $5,000 Concorde flight that Ed Buckham had taken from Paris to Washington after meeting with Russian oil and gas executives in Moscow. (Buckham would later introduce his Russian contacts to DeLay.) Ed asked me to spin it for him, suggesting that I say he had been sick and needed to return home quickly. "Spin it yourself," I told him. "You know the details. I don't."
On the morning of Thursday, July 10, 1997, Tom called a special meeting of his senior staff. He looked shaken and tired. The prior evening, he had spoken with a group of House members who were growing restless under Newt Gingrich's leadership.
"Last night, I think I said some things I shouldn't have said," he admitted.
Not good. "What exactly did you say?" I asked.
"I think they got the impression that I would vote with them to replace Newt," Tom replied.
The failed Gingrich coup had come and gone.
I had first gotten wind of this weeks before, when Buckham approached me at my desk. He asked if I knew much about House floor procedure (I knew a little) and if I would research how members could ask for a new election for House speaker (I wouldn't). I assumed Buckham was worried about members contemplating such a move; the idea of DeLay himself attempting to dethrone Gingrich never dawned on me.
Obviously, however, it did dawn on DeLay -- encouraged, I suspect, by Buckham -- and on other members of the Republican leadership.
Over the weekend, DeLay was questioned on "Fox News Sunday." Brit Hume asked DeLay if he was aware of a resolution to remove the speaker. DeLay said he had heard a rumor to that effect but wouldn't admit complicity. Later that week, the Hill newspaper reported on the meeting, prompting a major firestorm -- and another headache for this communications director.
The most dramatic moment came when Gingrich called for a conference, and all the leaders had to explain themselves to the members. Buckham and I clashed over what DeLay should say: I wanted him to be diplomatic, and Ed wanted him to go all-out after Majority Leader Dick Armey for first backing the coup and then turning his back on the coup plotters. While I was not present, my understanding is that Tom fessed up to his own role while also implicating Armey.
At the end of the closed-door conference, hoping against hope that Tom didn't really intend to lead a coup against the speaker despite the evidence I had seen, I told the press gathered outside: "He was tired and it was late. He may have said he would vote to take the speaker out, but he didn't mean it."
More than a year after the coup attempt against Newt, the Capitol was rocked again, this time by a deranged killer. But to some of DeLay's top staff, the tragedy was just another opportunity to promote their man.
I was sitting in the whip office when the shots rang out. I dove under my desk. Soon, young staffers ran into my office and we shut the door. After the shooting stopped, I saw two bodies in the hall.
I later learned that John M. Gibson, part of Tom's police protection, had been killed while shooting and wounding Russell E. Weston Jr., the attacker. Officer Jacob J. Chestnut was also killed.
After the shooting, we were kept in DeLay's office, where the House sergeant-at-arms called to ask that we not talk to the media. Not long after, however, I looked up and saw that Michael Scanlon was on television, describing the scene inside the building.
Scanlon was DeLay's new press secretary, having been hired after Rudy became deputy chief of staff. I couldn't believe he had disregarded the Capitol Police request. Even worse, Scanlon was describing a scene he had never seen. During the shooting, he was outside smoking a cigarette. It was disrespectful, but in keeping with Scanlon's M.O. -- the spinner who was always spinning for himself.
Bill Clinton was impeached for three reasons: DeLay, Rudy and Scanlon.
Tom had the vision -- he was angry that Clinton lied to the American people, and he was not alone. Early on, as the House was considering beginning impeachment proceedings, the Democrats offered a resolution that could have led to a bipartisan process. But DeLay rejected it. He didn't want to give them an inch.
However, I told Tom that if he were seen as the driving force behind the impeachment effort, it would fail. A partisan impeachment of the president would never win conviction in the Senate. Tom didn't care. He told me he couldn't face his foster children if he did not demonstrate that Clinton's activity was morally wrong.
My stomach wasn't in this effort. I couldn't match the energy of Rudy and Scanlon. They were everywhere, doing the briefing books, leaking to reporters, doing the legal research and whipping the members. They spread rumors that there was evidence that Clinton had raped a woman. I told Tom I was leaving, and he was very gracious. His attack dogs were already on the prowl. He didn't need me.
I left Tom in October 1998, only to come back to work as Hastert's press secretary when he ascended the ladder to speaker three tumultuous months later.
It is often said that Hastert became speaker because DeLay put him there. Not so. Hastert became speaker because of his personal integrity and his ability to accomplish the tasks that members needed. DeLay himself told me two years earlier that he was too radioactive to ever be speaker.
Now, it seems, DeLay is too radioactive even to remain in Congress.
Yet, watching him announce his resignation last week brought me great sadness -- sadness that a politician so gifted could take such a fall. DeLay was an amazing legislator, probably the most talented this town has seen since Lyndon Baines Johnson. But like all great men, Tom DeLay had great talents and one great weakness. In his case, it was some staff members run amok. In the end, that weakness forced him to step down.