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The Changing of the Guard
Flash back to the spring of 1994. Between then and now, a vast chasm yawns across the political surface of Texas. It's hard to believe, but what seems like an aeon of political change took place in little more than a decade. But change it did.
Back then, Texas was a different place.
This was the political landscape of Texas as the 1994 election cycle loomed: The state house of representatives was Democratic; the state senate was Democratic. The state supreme court and most of the lesser state courts were Democratic. All these too were Democrats: Governor Ann Richards; Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock; Attorney General Dan Morales; and Land Commissioner Garry Mauro. It was a deep bench the Democrats fielded — and an ambitious one. Some among them dreamed of being governor themselves; others dreamed of the Senate; one, at least, might have had higher ambitions still. None of their dreams were to be fulfilled.
The Texas congressional delegation stood at twenty-one Democrats and nine Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Among these were some of the most powerful and senior members of Congress, led by the veteran Judiciary Committee chairman Jack Brooks of Beaumont.
Only in the U.S. Senate were the Texas Republicans dominant. And the two serving senators from the Lone Star State were widely accorded to be among the least impressive of its members: the thin-lipped, whiny-voiced Phil Gramm, his native, nasal Georgia accent never having left him, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, elected only the year before in a special election to replace the long-serving mandarin Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Gramm, with his delusions of grandeur unabated, yet with his presidential aspirations fast going up in smoke, was among the least liked by his fellow senators, while Hutchison, for all her personal charm, was a very junior senator. Neither had more than limited influence. Neither was ever going to be a major presence in the U.S. Senate.
How then is it possible that such cataclysmic change came to Texas — and in such a short time?
True, Texas had had a Republican governor in its recent past — the first since the post-Civil War age of Reconstruction, millionaire oilman William P. Clements of Dallas. Clements served two nonconsecutive terms as governor (1979-83 and 1987-91) and was widely judged a failure both times. Arrogant to the point of abrasiveness, Clements made few friends in Austin and proved a poor public face to put on the rise of Texas Republicanism, but he was colorful.
The football-loving Clements had also served as chairman of the Southern Methodist University trustees. There, he helped preside over one of the worst scandals in NCAA history. Players on the SMU Mustangs football team — 52-19-1 between 1980 and 1986 — had, it turned out, been paid thousands of dollars from a slush fund run by boosters. The NCAA responded by handing SMU the so-called death penalty, barring the team from bowl games and television appearances for two years and reducing football scholarships by fifty-five over four years — and mandating an entire year's absence (1987) from the playing field.
Ironically, Clements's political comeback could be traced to football. His pallid successor as governor, Democrat Mark White, following the advice of Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, had rammed a "no-pass, no-play" law through the state legislature — and had lived to pay for it with his political hide. Football-loving Texans of the Clements variety were horrified to learn that high school athletes would be barred from playing when the only sin they had committed was earning a failing grade or two in class. Largely on the basis of public resentment over no-pass, no-play, Mark White found himself bounced from office.
After his second term, Clements called it a day. His handpicked successor, multimillionaire Texas oilman Clayton Williams, running a well-financed, "good ole boy" campaign, was expected to cruise to victory. At times, Williams held as much as a twenty-point lead over his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Ann Richards. But then "Claytie" Williams self-destructed, first by refusing to shake hands with Richards, then by equating a sudden Texas thunderstorm to rape, joking with reporters that "as long as it's inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it." That was the day that the bumptious Williams lost the emerging "soccer mom" generation of middle-class, suburban Texas women — and with it the 1990 gubernatorial election as well.
Even so, Richards squeaked to victory, with less than 50 percent of the vote. The argument could be made — and has been made — that Ann Richards's 1990 electoral win was a fluke, merely putting off by four years Republican rule in Texas. That argument, however, fails to consider the widespread popular support enjoyed by Richards for most of her governorship. In truth, the state had never had a politician quite like her. She was neither overbearing (like Clements) nor bland (like Mark White). Richards, the former wife of a legendary Texas labor and civil rights lawyer, was, instead, spunky and outspoken, humorous and energetic.
Richards's keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention had been a sensation. Referring to Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, Richards had uttered the memorable line "Poor George, he can't help it....He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." She had also earned a lifetime of enmity from the Bush family and their followers.
The Richards governorship was notable for more than mere acerbic wit. The long-stagnant Texas economy, stimulated by the new governor's economic revitalization programs, began to grow again. Aggressive audits were said to have saved the state some $6 billion in the same period. As governor, Richards took on problems that other Texas governors had passed on, beginning with an attempt to reform the state's notoriously overcrowded prison system; a very un-Texas-like attempt to reduce the sale of semiautomatic weapons; and, most problematic of all, an effort to reform the way in which public schools were funded. The so-called Robin Hood plan sought to channel money from the state's richest school districts into its poorest districts, most of them black and Latino in population.
Ann Richards was liberal, without being too liberal — her pragmatic progressivism masked by the thick and distinctly Texan accent in which she set forth her latest program. Richards always had a narrow pathway to walk politically. Many of her programs were controversial — none more so than the Robin Hood plan — and Richards made many friends and many enemies along the way. It did not help that Richards was a tough taskmaster, known for driving her staff hard, nor that she refused to make kindly with some in the local media. In the words of the spouse of a high-ranking Texas Monthly editor, "Ann was never very inviting." Richards's attitude was, the spouse added, in studied contrast with that of her successor, who made a point of having the panjandrums of the press "over to the mansion."
But govern Ann Richards did — and in a state where the governor's powers are derived as much from personal persuasion as from statute. She was surely bigger than life.
Her Republican opponent in the 1994 election was anything but. Indeed, apart from bearing a famous name and a reputation for having helped rescue the Texas Rangers baseball team from its notoriously cheap (and wildly right-wing) owner, Eddie Chiles — and making himself a multimillionaire in the process — George W. Bush was a virtual unknown.
At the time, Eddie Chiles, though never a candidate for office, was a bigger presence on the Texas political scene than Bush. Chiles, in the great right-wing tradition of H. L. Hunt, had paid good money to espouse his reactionary views on spot radio ads. The ads, remembered by a generation of Texans, began with the exhortation "I'm Eddie Chiles, and I'm mad!" Usually it was taxes that Eddie Chiles was mad about, taxes written up there in Washington, D.C., by a bunch of tax-and-spend Democrats, not a few of them Texas Democrats.
George W. Bush inherited the message — but not the style — of an Eddie Chiles. At first glance, he seemed, if anything, to be a mild-mannered fellow. A listener too, if for no other reason than he sure didn't want to be seen to be a talker.
The story has been told before — often and well, in, for example, Bush's Brain, by Wayne Slater and James Moore — but the gist of it is that the brilliant Austin-based Republican strategist Karl Rove found in the young Bush the perfect candidate, virtually a political tabula rasa. Governor Richards and her strategists expected — not entirely without reason — that the younger Bush would, like Claytie Williams, self-destruct in the campaign. Rove, however, kept the candidate "on message," and, as much as possible, away from the media.
Bush ran on only four issues — among these, school financing reform and tort reform — and the same themes, encapsulated in easy-to-remember sound bites, were repeated constantly whenever he spoke. Rove saw to it that the candidate received a series of tutorials designed to teach him the rudiments of Texas state government. Moore and Slater call it "a crash course on Texas civics." The veteran legislator Bill Ratliff, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee and an expert on school finance, was flown in twice for daylong sessions with Bush in a small conference room in Dallas. The candidate, Ratliff discovered, "didn't know much." Nor did he take notes, preferring to try to absorb the "stream" of information Ratliff poured out. If an aide is to be believed, the candidate didn't even know the difference between Medicaid and Medicare. "Now, I hear these two," Bush explained. "They're different. What's the difference between the two?"
Probably the most important of Bush's briefers was Mike Toomey, a former Republican state legislator who was by now one of the leading business lobbyists in Austin.
Toomey had belonged to the celebrated "Class of 1983" in the Texas state house, along with fellow Republican Tom DeLay. Now he was tutor-in-chief to the presumptive Republican candidate for governor. Besides trying to guide Bush through the ins and outs of the state's $70 billion budget, Toomey was also expected to give him political advice. About one issue, Toomey was emphatic. The next governor, Toomey told Bush, would need to reform the state's antiquated, pro-plaintiff tort laws. That would be Job One.
Needless to say, Toomey found Bush a receptive listener. He was already preaching to the converted.
And on election day 1994, George W. Bush prevailed over Ann Richards in an upset, garnering 53 percent of the vote.
Current Houston mayor Bill White, widely regarded as the standard-bearer of his state's party these days, was chairman of the Texas Democratic Party in 1994. In retrospect, he says, it's clear that 1994 was "the watershed election."
Tall, slightly awkward in manner, his bald pate shining under the lights of his art deco City Hall office, White would seem a most unlikely savior for the state's Democrats. But he also exudes an air of confidence, considerable intelligence, and, above all, competence. A University of Texas-trained lawyer, White is a self-made millionaire, an entrepreneur and investor, and, in the words of one of the city's top lawyers, "truly the smartest guy in town." White is also, says a female Democratic lawyer, "the absolute un-W."
What you have to understand about 1994, White explains, "is that it was the first election in which talk radio turned the tide." Traveling around Texas, putting countless miles onto the odometer of his car, raising money, and speaking on behalf of local and statewide candidates, White was amazed to find that "whether it was in the Panhandle or in West Texas, Dallas or Houston, Rush Limbaugh was the most listened-to guy on the airwaves."
With the sole exception of the twelve counties of far South Texas ("the Borderland") and in largely Hispanic Bexar County (San Antonio), says White, the election was "all about guns and gays — the social issues." (Other observers add a third g to the litany: they say the election was "all about guns, gays, and God.")
Party chairman White had assured his fellow Democrats that "we'd keep the base in East Texas," but there too he was wrong. There too "it was all Rush, all the time."
It hadn't helped that Richards, rather than her inexperienced opponent, had made the most important verbal slip of the campaign — referring in public to the younger Bush as a "jerk." It also hadn't helped that an old-fashioned, anonymous campaign of innuendo had been run against Richards in rural, Baptist East Texas. The governor, the whisper campaign went, was a lesbian. That East Texas had traditionally been a populist stronghold — well suited, one might have thought, to Richards's message and her I'm-just-a-good-old-girl persona — mattered greatly. Yet, come election day, Ann Richards lost East Texas — and with it, some would argue, the state.
It also hadn't helped that other, equally strong currents were at work in the election of 1994. These were powerful, national currents that carried with them a host of seemingly lesser Republicans in Austin — and in Washington. Among these was one Thomas D. DeLay.
The story of the man named Tom has been told often and in detail, never better than in the words of the talented Texas reporters Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, in their books The Hammer and The Hammer Comes Down. The short version of it goes like this: The son of an itinerant roustabout named Charlie DeLay, young Tom had grown up in many places, the Borderland brush country of South Texas, for one; the oil fields of Venezuela, for another. Aged twelve, Tom along with his family returned to Texas, making their new home in the Gulf Coast city of Corpus Christi.
Suffice it to say that DeLay married young (to Christine); had a daughter, Danielle (known as Dani); graduated from the University of Houston; and went to work in the pest-control business — hence his subsequent political nicknames (the Exterminator and the Bug Man) — and settled in suburban Sugar Land near Houston. DeLay's career enjoyed a strange and unexpected trajectory: from that of a distinctly small, semisuccessful businessman to ardent conservative of the most virulently right-wing variety, to obscure Republican state legislator. In Austin, as a junior minority member of a Democratic-controlled legislature, DeLay was little more than "furniture" on the floor of the house.
While in Austin, DeLay had earned a well-deserved reputation — practically the only reputation he developed there — for being one of the legislature's most active "party animals," drinking, carousing, and, in general, enjoying life's favors. Along the way, though, DeLay had found Jesus. And, in doing so, the suddenly abstemious DeLay found himself with an entirely new constituency: the religious right, with which he would for three decades closely be identified.
Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a suburban Houston district in 1984, DeLay continued to toil in obscurity as a minority backbencher. For much of his first ten years in Congress (1984-94), DeLay occupied a lonely place in the House, the object of Democratic scorn, and an outsider within his own Republican ranks.
In this, DeLay was following in the footsteps of the recently retired Dallas congressman Jim Collins and fellow Houston congressman Bill Archer.
Collins's mere presence before a microphone in the well of the House had been enough to set off a wave of hoots and jeers, so outrageously right-wing was he. The gawky, supremely inarticulate Collins, his voice rising to a high pitch, his face flushed crimson, had long been a favorite of Democratic derision.
Archer, the congressman from Houston's silk-stocking district (once represented by George H. W. Bush), was a more serious character, if only because of his seniority. Eventually ascending to the position of ranking minority member on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Bill Archer was the House's leading opponent of the federal income tax, both personal and corporate.
Less wacky than Collins, less serious than Archer, "Bug Man" DeLay completed the Texas trio. House Democrats laughed on, knowing they had nothing to fear from such as these.
How wrong they were.
By 1994, Collins had long since left the House; but Archer and DeLay had remained — and risen to power. The congressional Democrats in Washington were about to discover what it was like to be on the losing side of the aisle.
The Republican Revolution — fueled by new Speaker Newt Gingrich's cleverly publicized Contract with America, conservative anger over gays in the military ("don't ask, don't tell"), and widespread dissatisfaction with the Clintons' failed effort to reform national health care — had led to an unexpected GOP sweep in the 1994 midterm elections.
With the House Republicans newly resurgent, Tom DeLay — by defeating the conservative Pennsylvania firebrand Robert Walker, the close friend and candidate of new Speaker Gingrich — was elected majority whip of the House of Representatives in January 1995. Winning the post made DeLay the third highest-ranking Republican in the House, behind only Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Armey. From then on, it was all blue sky for congressional right-wingers. The much maligned Tom DeLay was now, suddenly, a very big cheese indeed.
If Gingrich was the architect of Republican House ascendancy, DeLay was soon to emerge as its financier, and therein lay his claim to power. The day before Republicans were to organize the 104th Congress — the first time in forty years that they were the majority party in both houses — DeLay opened the doors of the majority whip's office for the purpose of setting in motion the innocently named Project Relief. The not-so-innocent goal of Project Relief was to cut corporate taxes and loosen government regulation over big business. The name given the project was a pure piece of advertising (like Contract with America) — but full of irony, foretelling an ominous future. The "victims" awaiting relief turned out not to be the country's many millions of poor and indigent, but were instead a handful of America's richest citizens and biggest corporations.
While Tom DeLay cracked the whip in public, his chief of staff, Ed Buckham, lurked, ever present, in the shadows. That no one outside Capitol Hill knew his name mattered little. For Buckham, elected to nothing, exercised the power that his boss had seized — exercised it ruthlessly too.
Buckham was, like most of DeLay's senior staffers, an experienced hand on Capitol Hill, a Republican operative who had spent years toiling in the political vineyard on behalf of conservative GOP House members, most recently as executive director of the Republican Study Group (RSG).
John Feehery was for a time DeLay's communications director, working closely with Buckham. Feehery would later write that he thus "experienced the Republican revolution firsthand" — and watched as Tom DeLay began to consolidate his power over the House. DeLay was notably assertive — "ruthless" and "obnoxious" were the words Democrats often used to describe the majority whip — but Buckham went well beyond even his boss in this regard.
From behind the arras, Feehery watched as Buckham pushed DeLay to be more radical in the tactics he used against his Democratic foes. In this, Buckham exemplified the men and women who made up DeLay's inner circle. Tony C. Rudy, press secretary and later deputy chief of staff, was a Brooklyn native and amateur ice hockey player. Rudy, a graduate of the George Mason Law School, affected a taste for expensive cigars, but he exhibited all the sensibility of a punishing winger in a brutal contact sport — an elbow in the ribs here, a stick in the chops there — as he stalked the halls of Congress. A GOP lobbyist once described Rudy as DeLay's "harder edge," adding, "It was always push, push, push, pressure, pressure, pressure." Rudy, the same person said, "was someone who was very aggressive and on the edge, [yet] who had Tom's complete trust." Capitol Hill reporters soon learned that Rudy was not someone you wanted to cross. Rudy was, in the words of his former boss Feehery, "DeLay's enforcer."
Another of Rudy's tasks — one that might at first glance have seemed menial to outsiders, but which actually brought with it significant power — was to oversee the whip's "member maintenance" operation. This amounted to running a concierge service that provided Republican House members with private town cars and expensive meals — at no charge — during late-night votes. "The whole purpose of this," Rudy boasted, was "to treat members of Congress as kings and queens."
Buckham, however, wasn't content to be a concierge or even a gatekeeper. His boss, DeLay, had already shown the way. Where Gingrich was obsessed with ideology and with his personal place in history, for Buckham, as for DeLay, it was — 24/7/365 — all about the benjamins.
Among the host of Republican hangers-on who showed up in January 1995 to reap the rewards wrought by the Gingrich Revolution was a former College Republican leader and sometime lawyer, Hollywood B-picture producer and full-time schemer named Jack Abramoff.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Abramoff, aged ten, had moved with his family to Beverly Hills. There, the teenaged Jack played football and became a high school weight-lifting champion. He would later tell the story of how his life turned around when, as a boy of twelve, he sat in the audience of Fiddler on the Roof. As a consequence, said Abramoff, "I made the decision that I would become religious in order to preserve the faith in our family."
By the time he had finished college, Abramoff was well on his way to being one of the best-connected young Republicans of his day. Among the friends of Jack Abramoff in those days were Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, and Ralph Reed. Each would, in time, play a key role in his rise.
Abramoff first met Norquist in 1980 when Abramoff was an undergraduate at Brandeis University (class of 1981) and Norquist was a student at the Harvard Business School. Both were active in the College Republican National Committee, and both worked that year in the Massachusetts campaign of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
Reed's and Abramoff's paths first crossed in 1982, when the then chairman of the College Republican National Committee (1981-85), Abramoff, hired Reed to be his executive director (1983-85). Reed, who arrived in Washington as a nineteen-year-old Senate intern, soon became close to Abramoff, so much so that he could sometimes be found sleeping on the boss's couch. It was close pal Reed who introduced Abramoff to his future wife, Pamela.
Abramoff, Norquist, and Reed would eventually prove a formidable trio in Republican Party politics, but in 1982-83, they were just a bunch of young politicos on the make. The trio broke the College Republicans budget with a 1982 national direct-mail fund-raising campaign that ended up a "colossal flop," in the words of the then Republican National Committee (RNC) deputy director, Rich Bond. It fell to Bond to banish the trio from GOP headquarters. "You can't be trusted," he told Abramoff.
In Hollywood, Abramoff achieved minor renown as the producer and coauthor of Red Scorpion, a 1989 "Cold War classic" starring Dolph Lundgren. The Los Angeles Times called Red Scorpion "a numbskull live-action comic book," while Frank Rich of the New York Times tersely dismissed it as "seriously God-awful."
Columnist Peter Carlson of the Washington Post later satirized Abramoff's Hollywood career thusly: "He Was No Run of De Mille Movie Mogul." Not with the kind of chillingly right-wing baggage the movie and its producer carried. Red Scorpion had been filmed not on a Hollywood sound set but in South Africa using soldiers and military equipment lent by the white, apartheid government. Which did not make Red Scorpion or its sequel, Red Scorpion 2 (1994), popular with American liberals. Imagine, Carlson wrote, if those same liberals had "known that the International Freedom Foundation, a right-wing group founded by Abramoff, was secretly bankrolled by the South African army."
Or imagine if Jack Abramoff's new colleagues at the Preston Gates law firm had known as much in early 1995. But they didn't. As the freshly minted director of governmental affairs in the Washington, D.C., office of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, Abramoff worked for the Seattle law firm whose longtime leader and name partner was William H. Gates Sr., the father of the world's richest man, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.
What Jack Abramoff brought with him, to begin with, were a bunch of somewhat dubious IOUs, based on his close ties to Norquist, Reed, and Rove. Eventually, the IOUs would come due, but in early 1995, the old friendships counted for little more than introductions. Still, one such introduction did prove pivotal, when Norquist began opening doors on Capitol Hill for Abramoff. Norquist was by then already an important figure among the Contract with America crowd. His Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), founded in 1985, had gradually evolved into a right-wing strategy shop during the early Clinton years.
One door, in particular, that Norquist helped open — the door to a suite of rooms occupied by the House majority whip and, later, the House majority leader — would remain open for Jack Abramoff for much of the next ten years. Thanks to Norquist, Jack Abramoff was soon able to expand the orbit of his right-wing fellowship to include the powerful inner circle of House majority whip Tom DeLay, beginning with his chief of staff, Ed Buckham.
It was Buckham who became Jack Abramoff's lasting entrée into the majority whip's office. According to John Feehery, "In those early days...we knew [Abramoff] mainly as a friend of Buckham's." Buckham, speaking of Abramoff, told reporters, "He is someone on our side. He has access to DeLay."
But back in January 1995, Abramoff was still basically a D.C. wannabe. DeLay and Buckham were already in the political promised land. And, by implementing Project Relief and, later, what was called the K Street Project, Tom DeLay was about to make himself the most powerful House majority whip ever. More powerful, in time, than the majority leader, more powerful even than the Speaker.
But, first, DeLay would have to suffer Gingrich — while attempting to sidetrack him. The best way to do that, DeLay realized, would be to transform the office of the majority whip and make it into a separate power center. For this, the Texan congressman had a plan.
Copyright © 2007 by John Anderson
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