Dick Armey's political career began atop a 30-foot power pole, where the high-school graduate with few ambitions was working for the Rural Electrification Administration. There -- in the late 1950s, in the middle of the night, in a sub-zero North Dakota winter -- Armey decided that unless he wanted to be on top of that pole at age 40, he ought to go to college.
In 1984, the then-economics professor won a Texas congressional seat and soon became one of Congress' leading conservative idea men. Though he proved at least as well-suited at shimmying up the political power pole as he did the REA power pole -- he ran unopposed for majority leader right after the GOP recaptured the House in November 1994 -- Armey's Washington climb also has had its nights of cold, solitude and precariousness. He could be seen as an embodiment of everything both right and wrong with the leaders of the Republican revolution -- smart, bold and reform-minded, but also callous, small-minded and full of hubris.
Thursday morning the pole-climber, now House majority leader, announced that he was retiring. "It is time for me to stand down," Armey, 61, said in emotional speech that in particular thanked his wife, Susan, for her "years of sacrifice." He heralded the work the House had accomplished, proclaiming that "peace through strength and supply-side economics changed the world for the better." His announcement was accompanied by news that Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, would seek to replace him. This set off various positioning moves. It also fueled speculation about subsequent House leadership races and about the possibility that the House GOP, which currently holds a six-vote majority, may be in some trouble.
"He's a rat jumping from a sinking ship!" crowed one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named.
A more measured, if still partisan, analysis came from Jenny Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He's the guy in charge of recruiting, fundraising and rallying Republican members to stay in the House," Backus said. "He just forced a bunch of vulnerable Republicans to make bad votes -- on fast track trade negotiating authority, the economic stimulus package, the patients' bill of rights, the airport security bill -- and now he says 'I'm walking'?"
But House Republicans were quick to describe their house as in order. "I don't think this has any impact on the 2002 elections," said Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He's had a very distinguished congressional career, but he's leaving secure in the knowledge that Republicans are returning to the majority next year." Having accomplished everything he set out to do -- reform welfare, lower taxes, reduce the size of government, rout Communism -- Armey wants to walk out on the top of his game, Schmidt said.
Schmidt's argument -- that this changes little in the Republican dynamic though the party is preparing for what historically should be a difficult mid-term election -- makes sense. Since Armey lied to his Republican colleagues when he denied playing a role in the 1997 failed coup attempt against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., he has been seen as generally out of the loop. In his 1998 race for reelection as majority leader, he was almost defeated.
"His credibility and effectiveness as a leader was severely damaged during the coup," said a former GOP official who asked not to be identified. "I don't know that he ever fully recovered from it."
Others struggled to come up with niceties. "I thought he was a terrific leader of the floor activities," said moderate Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "Since '94 we have schedules, we know what's coming up, there's no surprises. But in terms of his being a good spokesman for the party, that's where the breakdown was -- at least for those of us from the Northeast. He's a good-hearted man, but sometimes I had to bite my lip when he would be on "Meet the Press" and speak for our caucus, because sometimes his message was not the message I would want to project for our party."
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., noted to reporters that Armey had been passed over for the role of speaker twice since Gingrich resigned -- though as majority leader he would logically be next in line. Frank told Roll Call Thursday that "DeLay has been running the place for a long time anyway." In a now-infamous gaffe, in January 1995, Armey referred to Frank, who is gay, as "Barney Fag."
"He's one of the weakest majority leaders in the history of the country," said another Democratic member of Congress, who asked not to be identified.
The congressman then turned his attention to what the Hill was buzzing about, instead of Armey's years of service: The leadership race. With DeLay running to succeed Armey, speculation abounds under the Capitol dome about who might challenge the majority whip, and who will run to succeed him. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a close ally of the Bush White House, was originally mentioned as a possible Armey successor. But DeLay was moving so fast to secure the majority of votes in the 221-member GOP caucus that Portman removed his name from consideration on Wednesday.
According to one source close to DeLay's office, as of Wednesday morning the former exterminator had secured enough votes to ensure his promotion.
Other possible candidates include Education and Workforce Committee chairman John Boehner of Ohio, Rules Committee chairman David of Dreier of California, and Conference Committee chairman J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. But Dreier and Watts may instead run for whip, along with chief deputy majority whip Roy Blunt of Missouri and House administration chairman Bob Ney of Ohio.
"It looks like DeLay has cleared the field, so he's going to move up," speculated the Democratic congressman. "The last time there was a shuffling in the leadership, and the speakership was there for the taking, DeLay made the calculation -- I think the correct one -- that he should not be the front-of-the-camera guy for his party." Now, however, with Speaker Dennis Hastert having only one more term before he has to resign as speaker (term limits for committee chairmen and leadership officials having been part of the Contract with America), and with other GOP members achieving power and status, DeLay may be preparing to finally pursue the speakership.
The fact that so much of the Hill's oxygen was spent discussing the jockeying -- and not Armey's retirement -- said something about the role Armey had played in the GOP leadership in the last few years.
In a statement, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., praised his fellow Dick for his "significant contribution to our country in the past two decades." Gephardt noted that Armey "has stood strong for America since Sept. 11, and we have worked well together on behalf of the American people in response to the attacks." Armey has in particular been very active in working on the economic stimulus package.
It was in dealing with economic issues that Armey always seemed at his strongest within his party. An adherent of the philosophy of supply-side economist George Gilder, Armey was a free-market conservative and flat-tax proponent from the beginning of his days in Congress. "It's no stretch to say that without Mr. Armey's ideas, Republicans in the later Clinton years would have had no ideas at all," Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot wrote on Wednesday. "His critics will say many of these causes have now crested short of success. But it's just as accurate to say many of them, especially tax-cutting, have become staples of GOP policy."
A House Democratic leadership staffer described Armey as having been "disengaged" in the legislative process from late 1998 until just recently. "He came back into his own after Sept. 11 and became more relevant," the senior staffer said. "If you had told me before Sept. 11 that he was going to resign, I wouldn't have been surprised." But after Sept. 11, Armey became more involved, so the news was "kind of a surprise" the staffer said.
There were complex and complicated reasons for Armey's disengagement. After Gingrich suddenly resigned in 1998, DeLay -- thinking himself too "radioactive" to be the face of the party -- hand-picked Hastert, one of his deputy whips, to ascend to the speakership. Armey -- whom many Republican members of Congress resented for lying to them about his role in the failed 1997 coup -- was effectively diminished in power. According to a source close to DeLay, after the whip 'fessed up to his role in the coup plotting, he never quite forgave or trusted his fellow Texas Republican when Armey denied his own role. Many other Republicans shared that view.
Gingrich resigned on Nov. 6, 1998, three days after House Republicans lost a number of seats in their majority in the November 1998 elections. The rank and file of the GOP caucus were not pleased; they saw their leadership as lacking. Armey faced three challengers in his reelection race for majority leader: Hastert, Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, and Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington. After three ballots, Armey emerged victorious -- if without a mandate. "He's lousy on TV," Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., griped to reporters. "It's something we have to live with."
Ironically, Armey's power grew from his previous closeness with rank-and-file Republicans. In 1990, after then President George H.W. Bush announced that he was going to go along with a Democratic budget proposal that would raise taxes (famously breaking his "Read my lips: no new taxes" campaign pledge) -- and House GOP leaders went along with it -- Armey led the revolt against the bill. At the July 1990 GOP Conference, conservatives wore buttons that read "Read Armey's Lips," a slap at the president, who was defeated for reelection in 1992. President George W. Bush is said to have learned from the lessons of his father that he can never lose the support of House conservatives.
The then-conciliatory (and then-minority) GOP leadership was just one of the many sacred cows Armey aimed to slaughter. He took on farm subsidies for individuals earning more than $100,000 a year and attacked the National Endowment for the Arts. "When he was a sophomore lawmaker, and a member of the then minority party, Dick Armey proved his mettle by authoring and passing a major base closure initiative that was signed into law," President Bush said in a statement Thursday.
The ambitious firebrand gave prospective interns a questionnaire to ensure that they opposed gay public school teachers and supported school prayer. For a time in his first term, to save money, he slept on the couch in his House office. Setting the stage for the 1994 Republican revolution, Armey was one of the authors of the "Contract with America," an American political version of the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church. Armey also worked with President Clinton on passage of free-trade bills like NAFTA, and on welfare reform.
Not long afterwards, however, Armey emerged not only as a leader of the charge to impeach Clinton, but as one of the harshest critics of the president's personal life. Calling Clinton "shameless" in a visit to a Texas high school in April 1998, Armey said, "If it were me that had documented personal conduct along the lines of the president's, I would be so filled with shame that I would resign. This president won't do that. His basic credo in life is, 'I will do whatever I can get away with.'"
Armey later defended his harsh comments, saying, "I could not let these children think this President is a good role model. Parents expect this standard from teachers, football coaches and CEOs. We should be able to expect the same from the president."
These philosophies and fights seemed to mean more to his constituents than all of the up-or-down inside-the-beltway machinations put together; Armey never received less that two-thirds of the vote in his eight reelection bids.
"He resisted the homosexual agenda and was a supporter of the right to life of unborn children," said Family Research Council president Ken Connor. "Not only through his votes and his speeches on the floor of the House, but also in deploying his outstanding staff behind the scenes. When Armey was on your side, you had an army at your side."
Added a one-time opponent: "He has certainly rendered tremendous service over the years," said Tarrant County Judge Tom Vandergriff, the freshman Democratic incumbent congressman Armey beat in 1984. "We here in North Texas surely have reason to be grateful for all that he has done on our behalf. He'll be missed."