BOOK REVIEW:

Messing with Texas

A review of The Hammer, a new political biography of Tom DeLay.

Review by Ryan D. Sniatecki

The Hammer: Tom DeLay: God, Money, and the Rise of the Republican Congress
by Lou Dubose and Jan Rei
Public Affairs; $26; 2004

God and Ronald Reagan propelled Tom DeLay from an obscure back-bench seat in the Texas legislature to the most powerful office in the US House of Representatives.

DeLay's anti-government rantings fell in nicely with Reagan's attacks on welfare queens, so it was only natural that DeLay would catch the conservative wave that Reagan rode to re-election in 1984. A religious conversion a few years later provided new vigor and focus to an already crafty politician who knows how to count and move votes when it matters most.

"Tom DeLay will someday be elected Speaker [of the House of Representatives]. When he does, he will in effect be the first prime minister of the United States," write Lou Dubose and Jan Reid, authors of The Hammer: Tom DeLay, God, Money and the Rise of the Republican Congress.

Ranging from amusing to thought-provoking to scary, this book opens a window not only on DeLay but the new Republican House and how it operates. The authors do an excellent job of delving into the social and historical threads that created DeLay as a person and as a legislator who is nicknamed "The Hammer." They place DeLay in his proper historical context before moving on through his career, providing readers with a well-rounded portrait of the man.

Political junkies will eat up the intricate descriptions of funding deals and legislative battles, but the language may not be as accessible to regular readers. Several typos and other technical mistakes added to the confusion, but will likely be corrected before subsequent editions come out.

DeLay spent the last decade building an impressive fundraising machine and the most powerful whip organization the House has ever seen. He saw early on that to remain in power, he had to raise money for other candidates. He didn't just give funds to the right-wing candidates he supported, he gave them advice and professional campaign help. Those who won stayed loyal.

Democrats are powerless in DeLay's House. The House Republican leadership asked the business lobby to take the lead in pushing through legislation, giving private interests unprecedented access to the halls of government. In addition, DeLay presses lobbyists to take a long hard look at which party they contribute to most.

The book explores the various ways in which the Republican leadership has manipulated the rules of the House to dominate legislation. George W. Bush's Medicare bill was debated in secret during the Republican Conference. No Democrats and no press were allowed. The leadership held the voting time open for three hours to ensure passage. The most the Democrats had ever held a vote past the 15-minute limit during their majority was by 10 minutes.

"For forty years we were in the minority and we complained about Democratic high-handed tactics," said Sherry Boehlert, a Republican representative. "Now we're in power and we're doing the same thing."

DeLay's response to such criticism is, characteristically, blunt. "We have a strategy of using every tool available--every vehicle available to us--to make sure our positions prevail."

"This is transformative," said Barney Frank, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. "Unlike anything we have seen in the past 100 years. DeLay has the power and inclination to sweep aside any constraint ? any institutional or procedural constraint."

Tom DeLay wasn't always a religious man. He came to Washington with a drinking problem and strained family relations. A fellow congressman took DeLay aside and asked him to watch a videotape that would transform DeLay--and through him, the country.

Virginia congressman Frank Wolf gave DeLay a copy of James Dobson's religious video "Where's Dad?" Years earlier, fellow Texan George W. Bush came to Jesus with the help of his dad's old friend, Billy Graham.

"George W. Bush was reborn in a private audience with the most iconic preacher in the world, arm-in-arm at Kennebunkport with a man who had preached to millions and ministered to presidents," the authors write. "DeLay, the quintessential suburbanite, found God while staring at a TV screen."

DeLay sees the United States as having fallen apart after we denied God. His mission is "to bring us back to the Constitution and to Absolute Truth that has been manipulated and destroyed by a liberal worldview."

DeLay's religious convictions apply to foreign as well as to domestic policy. In a chapter appropriately titled "Apocalypse Now," Dubose and Reid delve into DeLay's own personal Israel policy, one which defies his president's.

Like many born-again Christians, DeLay believes strongly in the end times. DeLay sees the West Bank as the ancient kingdoms of Samaria and Judea, which must be reunited before the second coming. He openly opposed Bush's "road map to peace" as too soft on the Palestinians.

Pro-Israel interests in the United States have contributed most of their $41.3 million to Democrats, but DeLay's Israel stance has begun to shift the flow of cash. "For the majority leader from Texas, Israel is the perfect nexus of ideology, faith, and fundraising," according to Dubose and Reid.

DeLay's hatred of environmental regulation has also stuck in W's craw. DeLay killed the energy bill Dick Cheney worked so hard in secret to create because it didn't contain a provision protecting producers of MTBE from civil lawsuits.

"MTBE is a gasoline additive that is also an environmental and public health hazard," the authors write. "DeLay wanted to protect the producers of MTBE, who do business in Texas and Louisiana and contribute generously to his and to other Republican PACs."

Delay also "cut EPA funding by a third and cut funds for the agency's enforcement division by a half," according to the authors. This action during the Clinton administration ended vehicle emission tests required by the Clean Air Act, prevented wetlands protection and blocked policies related to oil refinery pollution and toxic waste, according to the authors.

The authors have the Texas credentials needed to give substance to this book. Dubose formerly edited The Texas Observer and has co-authored two books on George W. Bush. Reid is a senior writer for Texas Monthly.


Ryan D. Sniatecki is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.



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This story was published on October 22, 2004.