How Contempt of Government Landed Tom DeLay in a Jail Cell and Our Politics in a Deep Hole

Tom DeLay was sentenced to three years in a Texas prison today, and I saw it coming almost 20 years ago. Sort of.

Back in that distant, unwired summer of 1991, I was a wide-eyed recent college grad starting a brand-new job as staff for a member of the Texas Legislature. One of my first assignments? To prepare a detailed analysis of a recently passed, 100+ page government ethics bill for my boss, who surely already knew it in detail already but who wanted to make sure that I did, too.

Texas legislative ethics had an oxymoronic reputation back then, and within 18 months we would lose our fourth House Speaker in a row (the Honorable Gib Lewis) for playing fast and loose with the lobby. That ethics bill I analyzed was designed to stop such exciting habits as the handing out of campaign contribution checks on the Senate floor during a vote, but it also reaffirmed a long-standing ban on direct corporate and union money in Texas politics. That was a rule folks took seriously, and it was the one that ultimately guaranteed The Hammer a spell in a Texas slammer.

But really, at some level his Fate was really determined by something that ran deeper than a casual flouting of the law — his very attitude toward the office he held. Ronald Reagan may have called government the problem rather than the solution, but DeLay took those words to heart and seemed determined to put them into action. From the ludicrous Clinton impeachment to the unforgiveable tarring of Max Cleland, from the cynical naming of the “USA Patriot Act” to the overreach of the “K Street Project,” DeLay and his ilk treated politics like a blood-sport — and governing as the spoils of war.

Jack Abramoff ran with that logic in one direction, defrauding his own clients even as he dangled his access to power in front of their noses. His friend DeLay ran in a different direction, trying to ensure his tribe a lock on the reins of power, a drive that ultimately ran him afoul of Texas law. Arrogance is in there, for sure, but also contempt — for government, for the people who elected him, and for governing itself. From contempt to hate is a short and dangerous step, and sitting here two days after the shooting of a congressmember and the murder of six people standing near her, it’s hard not to think that this kind of contempt, so widely shown in our politics today, has played a role in more crimes than one.