Tom DeLay's drama also rich in comedy

April 24, 2005|By Michael Kinsley

YOU CAN'T entirely blame Tom DeLay for being annoyed and feeling abused. He is trapped in a Washington kabuki drama not of his own devising.

Two different government investigations are looking into Mr. DeLay's relationship with a bunch of Indians he undoubtedly knew hardly at all and cared about even less. One of these investigations is asking whether he ripped off these Indians. The other is asking whether the same transactions amount to his Indians buying improper influence in a dispute with some other Indians. So they can't even decide if these Indians are the good guys or the bad guys, but Tom DeLay is the bad guy no matter what.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff got $82 million from various Indian tribes trying to protect their gambling interests and kicked $4 million of it to Ralph Reed. All poor Mr. DeLay got was a trip or three to Europe, a round or two of golf, and a meeting with Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. DeLay isn't entirely paranoid in thinking that the press is out to get him, though this is less because of any liberal bias than because (a) he's a smug, preening SOB, or at least he has chosen that public image; (b) he's the most powerful person in Congress - the press helped Newt Gingrich bring down Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, too; and (c) he's down and wounded, so naturally it's the moment to pile on. I don't defend these motives. I merely clarify that they're not ideological.

The Chinese water torture drip-drip-drip of daily revelations must be driving Mr. DeLay crazy. But it is not the result of an elaborate scheduling operation down in the bowels of Liberal Media Conspiracy Inc. It's the opposite: When a story is hot, and competition is fierce, you go with the tiniest morsel before someone else does.

Speaking of Mr. Gingrich, media high spirits can explain - but not nearly justify - the absurd overimportance awarded to an equivocal remark (Mr. DeLay should "lay out his case") by this discredited has-been. It's been treated like the first encyclical of the new pope.

Mr. Gingrich was last seen leading the charge to impeach President Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky while conducting a secret affair his married self with a congressional aide. If Mr. DeLay is thinking, "Who gives a rat's elbow what Newt thinks?" I'm with him. But Mr. DeLay can perhaps take comfort in knowing that however censorious the press may be in the heat of scandal, journalists are tolerant and forgiving in the 5- to 10-year time frame. We don't really want to drive anyone interesting off the stage.

Although the scandal is real and its unreeling is very enjoyable, all of the specific issues that propel it are bogus. Mr. DeLay can't say this either, although he must think it. Did the Indians spend $82 million and did they contribute to Republican candidates and causes that are as alien to them as they are to their Republican beneficiaries in any attempt to influence government decisions? No, not at all: The Couchatta Indians of Louisiana simply felt very strongly that the Senate majority leader needed to see Moscow firsthand, and play a little golf while he was at it.

Why is it illegal to attempt to influence a specific vote, but perfectly OK to attempt to influence several votes, or all votes? What on earth difference does it make whether the Indians, per instructions from Mr. Abramoff, sent the money for one of Mr. DeLay's golfing trips to the think tank that allegedly was paying for it before or after the trip, or whether the funds were earmarked? Looking for influence peddling in Washington is like looking for air. You can't see it, because it's everywhere.

Bogus technicalities and press excesses aside, though, the whole Abramoff-Reed-DeLay story is pretty wonderful. You gotta love the basic plot line of a Washington lobbyist organizing a religious campaign against gambling on behalf of gambling interests trying to block competition.

You gotta love imagining the scenes where Mr. Abramoff explains the white man's ways to bemused Indian tribal leaders. ("Why yes, writing large checks to nonprofit public policy groups so that our leaders can travel to distant lands and hit a small ball with a stick until it goes into a hole is a rich tradition going back many thousands of years.")

You gotta love angelic Ralph Reed piling on the whoppers. He had no idea that his $4 million to stir up anti-gambling sentiment in Louisiana came from gambling interests in Texas. Never wondered where the money came from and never bothered to ask.

The final twist is almost too neat: Mr. Abramoff goes back to the disappointed tribe whose casino he has gotten shut ("those moronic Tiguas," as he memorably calls them) and offers his services to get it reopened. You can't buy that kind of irony.

Or apparently you can.

Michael Kinsley is opinion page editor and editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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