Tom Delay: Reality vs. Media Image

Many journalists see liberals as warm-hearted and conservatives as mean-spirited. That’s why honest reporters are having a tough time with Rep. Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.), the new majority leader in the House of Representatives.

DeLay should be easy. He ran an exterminator business before hopping into politics: aha, let’s write that he poisoned insects and sees Democrats as big cockroaches. He’s spent eight years as the House majority whip: aha, let’s evoke thoughts of sadism. DeLay’s determined fund-raising techniques gave him the nickname (The Hammer): aha, he sees all his opponents as nails. Even his own name is useful: aha, he has no vision of his own, and can merely delay the inevitable victory of progressive thought.

A spin through the LexisNexis database shows journalists using all these gambits. But in a few stories, a disconcerting element arises. Veteran liberal columnist Mary McGrory once started a column on DeLay with three bone-chilling words, “He strikes fear,” and followed that with a reference to (The Hammer) and DeLay’s “ferocious skills.” But then she noted something unexpected: DeLay is also “the champion of poor, luckless, loser kids.”

It turns out that, as McGrory reported, “DeLay and his wife, Christine, have taken three troubled teen-age foster children into their Houston home.” DeLay has been active in working for neglected and abused kids in the District of Columbia. Mrs. DeLay is heading an effort to establish a residential facility in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, for kids who otherwise would be bounced around from foster home to foster home.

How do liberal journalists fit DeLay’s activities into the “mean-spirited conservative” grid? It’s easiest to ignore them, or to assume that DeLay is cynically using foster kids in an attempt to change his image. But having a foster home is very hard work, and it’s a lot easier to accumulate political brownie points by co-hosting a charity ball.

Besides, DeLay is a straight-shooter who passionately talks about only what he passionately feels. Recently, when I visited him in Washington, I’d like to say that my incisive questions led to a conceptual breakthrough on his part, so that at the end of our late-in-the-day session he said: “Yes! Now I fully understand how to save the Republic!”

Alas, nothing of the sort happened. DeLay got excited only at one point: when he talked about foster care. “Every time you take a child out of a home, they go through the grieving process,” he said. “You can imagine the scar tissue that has built up.”

How do reporters who can’t ignore his passion or attribute it to cynicism handle the apparent anomaly? U.S. News & World Report discerned dualism: DeLay has a dark side and a small angelic side.

Journalists often do this, asking questions like, “How can you care about the poor but also favor measures that force them to work?” (Because they should be treated as adults, not pets.) “How can you be pro-life but also support capital punishment in some cases?” (The goal is to protect innocent life.). “Since you’re broad-minded in many areas, why do you favor a narrow standard of personal morality concerning marriage?” (Because the Bible says adultery is wrong.)

That last sentence is key: I tell reporters that the Bible for me is more important than our classifying boxes. DeLay believes that, too. Reporters who read the Bible and come to understand why some people take it seriously will also understand the supposed inconsistency of Tom DeLay?and maybe other inconsistencies, as well.