Flying home from Washington for college vacations in the 1980s, I frequently had a congressional traveling companion. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez was as gregarious in flight as he was at the gate. He might have been seated in first class, but once the plane took off, he made a point of walking back and visiting with Texans headed home.
I never cared much for Henry B.'s politics, but there were two things about him I admired and have grown to admire even more with the passage of time.
First, Gonzalez thought, spoke and acted with his heart, which occasionally allowed his passion to overtake his reason.
And second, few politicians spend as much time in Washington as Gonzalez did and don't succumb to the capital's imperial vices. Henry B. served in Congress for 37 years. But his friends and adversaries alike will attest that he was buried in San Antonio in 2000 the same man with the same values who went to Washington in 1961.
I wonder: About how many men and women who have spent far less time in Congress can the same thing be said?
Tom DeLay went to Washington in 1984. And for a long time, the word that often characterized him was "ordinary." That's how some of his colleagues recalled him in the Texas Legislature. It's an attribute that followed him to Congress.
"DeLay provides the ordinariness that is the heart and soul of the House," Paul Burka, senior executive editor at Texas Monthly, wrote in a 1996 profile of the then-majority whip. "Even his appearance is ordinary: average height and weight, a face that looks a little younger than his 49 years, a minimum of distinguishing gestures and inflections, and down-to-earth concerns."
Around the time Burka penned those words, the representative from Sugar Land must have begun to succumb to the extraordinary temptations of Washington. Sometimes, as with Wilbur Mills and Bob Packwood, the imperial temptation is sex. Sometimes, as with Duke Cunningham, the imperial temptation is money. In the case of Tom DeLay, the imperial temptation was power.
DeLay spent 15 years in the political minority. In 1994, he found himself in the leadership of a new Republican majority that pledged to transform Washington. Washington, however, has ended up transforming at least a few Republicans.
Scandals plagued Congress in the years leading up to the 1994 watershed election. Leading Democrats faced corruption charges. Ethics failures compelled the resignation of a House speaker. There was a savings and loan scandal, a House bank scandal and a House post office scandal.
Republicans came to power pledging to do things differently, to as the Contract with America put it end the cycle of scandal and disgrace.
DeLay's announcement last week that he would resign his House seat came three days after his former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and corruption charges. According to the Washington Post, Rudy told federal prosecutors of a "criminal enterprise being run out of DeLay's leadership offices."
Michael Scanlon, DeLay's former press secretary, in November pleaded guilty along with his partner Jack Abramoff to conspiracy to corrupt political officials. A third DeLay staffer, former Chief of Staff Ed Buckham, has now emerged as a central figure in the corruption probe.
DeLay has not been indicted, let alone been found guilty, of any criminal wrongdoing in relation to the Abramoff scandal. But he is clearly guilty of Congress' cardinal imperial sin: believing the rules for everyone else don't apply to him. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who allegedly assaulted a Capitol police officer, offers the latest evidence of how broad and diverse the congregation of congressional sinners is.
Last fall, DeLay came back from Washington to be booked on charges he conspired to evade Texas' malleable campaign finance laws. Those charges, unlike the burgeoning Abramoff scandal, are political puffery.
The telling detail, however, is that DeLay flew home on a corporate jet owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
Henry B. would have flown coach.