Tom Delay

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(HOST) Corruption in Washington has been much in the news lately, and it’s gotten commentator Olin Robison thinking about Tom Delay and what he represents.

(ROBISON) The Germans have an exceptionally useful word for which, as far as I know, there is no English counterpart. The word is “shadenfreude” and it means, roughly, the pleasure you take from someone else’s misfortune. Theologians debate whether shadenfreude can ever, under any circumstance, be Christian.

But never mind that. I confess to having enjoyed a particularly good case of shadenfreude lately over the political demise of Tom Delay. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow – at least that is my view.

Mr. Delay has for quite some time been the Congressman from Sugarland, Texas, a district near Houston. He rose to the position of Republican leader of the House of Representatives and was proud to be known as “The Hammer”. A consummate politician, he provoked fear all ’round by rewarding those who were loyal to him and harshly punishing those who were not.

He clearly pushed the limits of the law and now he has been indicted in Texas on charges he claims are a Democratic vendetta. Whether he is right or his detractors are is no longer a question. He announced some days ago that he will withdraw from the race which might or might not have resulted in his re-election.

Now, truth in advertising compels me to state my prejudices here: Mr. DeLay has long held a place of prominence in my own pantheon of bad guys on Capitol Hill. So his departure, for me at least, represents far more good than bad.

But the Congress didn’t get the way it is simply because Tom DeLay was a skilled and ruthless partisan politician. There have been a lot of chefs stirring that soup. Let’s not forget Mr. DeLay’s longtime ally and friend, Newt Gingrich.

In addition to being a skilled and bull-headed politician, Tom DeLay has routinely used the language of religion to under gird himself and his causes. In his newly published book entitled American Theocracy, the author Kevin Phillips quotes Delay as having said, “…God is using me all the time, everywhere, to stand up for a biblical world view in everything I do and everywhere I am. He is training me.” Wow!! Anyone who believes that he or she is God’s chosen instrument for the public good scares me. A lot.

High on my list of things that are wrong in this world is the institutionalization of seriously acrimonious politics. It isn’t enough to refer to your opponent as your opponent. He or she must be demonized.

Gone are the days when Senate adversaries such as Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen would end the day sharing a bourbon. Or the close friendship that apparently existed between Richard Russell, the longtime senator from segregationist Georgia, and Adam Clayton Powell, the African-American congressman from Harlem.

Politics has been famously described as “the art of the possible.” But it is surely true that the behavior that office holders show to each other shapes what is and isn’t possible.

Tom DeLay’s political demise really does bring to mind the adage that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In my opinion he finally got what was coming to him. Now, of course, he will go on the arch-conservative speaker’s circuit and become very very rich. Ah well,…there you are.

I wish we could return to a time not so very long ago when this story circulated:

It is said that on a particular morning the Minority Leader of the Senate, Republican Everett Dirksen, called President Johnson to tell Johnson that he, Dirksen, was going to attack him, Johnson, on the Senate floor that afternoon.

Johnson said something along the lines of, “Ev, you do what you have to do, but don’t be too hard on me.”

Dirksen’s response was, “Lyndon, I’m just going to tell the truth and you know that I have a lifelong commitment to the truth.”

They remained friends to the very end.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and of Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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