Tom DeLay's extreme makeover

With DeLay's image sinking toward Gingrich-like depths, we asked professional image consultants and P.R. execs how to dress him for success.

Published April 9, 2005 12:17AM (EDT)

Tom DeLay is a walking public relations nightmare. Even many of his putative compatriots on the right are turning away in horror. His political grandstanding during the last days of Terri Schiavo's life was a painful sight in itself. And earlier this week, the notoriously conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page smacked DeLay around for money laundering and illegal campaign contributions. If the House majority leader expects to be reelected in 2006, it's safe to say he needs a serious makeover. And who better to polish DeLay's reputation than public relations executives and image consultants? Figuratively and literally, DeLay needs a new do.

"DeLay's public persona has become radioactive," says Andy Plesser, principal of Plesser Holland, a public relations firm in New York. "He's got to cool down. He can go along with his bombastic, combative approach with the mainstream media -- but that's a very bad idea. He can get a more sympathetic ear with Fox News, the New York Post and talk radio. Or he can decide to keep a lower profile. I think that's the best choice."

Plesser believes DeLay's recent displays of arrogance and political opportunism have knocked the lights out of his leadership. "As a leader, it's pretty much over for him," he says. "He's become a liability and his influence is going to wane. He's going to be a lightning rod for criticism from the Democrats. His recent behavior and demeanor on CNN are indicative of one who has lost the composure that's necessary to keep that position of leadership."

Sam Lauter, a political consultant and public relations executive in San Francisco, also says DeLay needs to dial down his hubris a good three notches. The Wall Street Journal dinged the Republican for riding to power on a wave of revulsion against big government but now embodying its worst traits himself. "And if there's one thing Americans don't like, it's hypocrisy," Lauter says. "Americans like people to be honest, and he's not being honest at the moment." Lauter, though, calls DeLay tough and smart and believes that by chilling out he will live to fight and win another Texas congressional battle.

Maybe so, says Diane Parente, president of Image Development and Management, based in Ross, Calif., but he better do something about his hair. "It looks shellacked to me," she says. "Every hair is in place. I would get rid of the gel." And while he's at it, he might consider a better-fitting suit. "He's very sloppy looking and the fit of his overall suits is sloppy," Parente says. ''His shirt is too tight. Although he wears a lot of tans, taupes and navy. And that's good." As for his appearance, well, he "needs to convey a more sincere attitude and watch the expression on his mouth, which looks like a frown. I would have him go in for an eyelift because he has heavy lids and they conceal his eyes; it makes him look cynical."

Plastic surgery for DeLay is most assuredly not an approach that Houston professional image consultant Suzie Wilson, founder of Image & Impact, would entertain. "Oh, I don't think he needs to change a thing," she says. "I think he's wonderful. He's a handsome man."

Wilson says DeLay's homespun Texan image fits him like a glove. "He wears a nice khaki pant with pleats that are going away from the abdominal area," she says. "If pleats go toward the abdomen, they make it look bigger. But he's always got a nice, toned-down, expensive-looking fabric khaki pant. He wears a nice shoe and a nice argyle sock." Khaki shirts, though, should be out for DeLay. "And orange," Wilson says. "If he were wearing a polo shirt, that would not be one of his best colors. Nothing in the orange or gold family. And no jewelry or bling-bling! That's important."

Wilson, who has dressed countless Texas politicians for success, is certain DeLay has his own image consultant and private dresser. "Oh, they all have someone," she says. Still, given DeLay's attire and appearance, it sounds as if Wilson doesn't believe he has an image problem. "I think he has a wonderful physical image," she says. "Now, there are some political things he may need to change."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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Tom Delay