At its height, the first great political machine of the 21st century worked like this: In Congress, Texas Rep. Tom DeLay controlled the votes like a modern-day Boss Tweed. He called himself "the Hammer." His domain included a vast network of former aides and foot soldiers he installed in key positions at law firms and trade groups, a network that came to be called the "K Street Project." He gathered tithes in the form of campaign cash, hard and soft, and spread it out among the loyal. He legislated for favored donors. He punished those who disobeyed, and bought off those who could be paid.
Conservative activists, who had grown up in the heady days of Reagan's America, patrolled the badlands of American politics for new opportunities. None did it better than Jack Abramoff, a former president of the College Republicans, who had a taste for expensive suits. Abramoff opened a restaurant, Signatures, where the powerful came to be seen and, in many cases, treated to free meals from a menu that included $74 steaks. He pulled in tens of millions of dollars from Indian tribes and the Northern Marianas Islands to help fund other operations -- skyboxes at the MCI Center where DeLay could hold his fundraisers and all-expense trips to Scotland where DeLay and friends could play golf.
Others were drawn into the web as well. Abramoff kicked down money to his old college buddy Grover Norquist, an anti-tax crusader whose role was to keep the right-wing ideologues in line. He hired Ralph Reed, a former advisor to the Christian Coalition, who helped keep the religious right on good terms with the Republican leadership. He hired Michael Scanlon, a former aide to DeLay, as his assistant. He leaned on former lobbying colleagues, like David Safavian, who was working in the Bush administration and could do favors for his clients. Susan Ralston, Abramoff's former gatekeeper and executive assistant, went to work for Karl Rove in the White House.
For a while, the whole operation seemed unstoppable. DeLay, Abramoff, Norquist, Reed and Rove vanquished their Democratic opponents, winning election after election. The loyalty that ensued allowed for a historic cohesion in Congress. Tax breaks passed like clockwork, as did subsidies for favored industries and cuts to long-standing Democratic initiatives. The Democratic Party, which had ruled Capitol Hill for half a century, imploded in confusion.
But the machine may now be coming to an end. The prosecutors have arrived, and they are handing out indictments at a blistering rate. "It's a house of cards," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Jack Abramoff has been the ace of spades, but Tom DeLay has been linked arm in arm with him." Now the house is on the brink of collapse, he added. "Everything that surrounded the K Street Project and what flowed from it ... all of that is under intense pressure."
On Wednesday, DeLay was indicted with two aides by a Texas grand jury, accused of flouting campaign finance laws by illegally sending corporate funds to GOP candidates in the state. Two months ago, Abramoff was arrested and charged with fraud in connection with a casino deal in Florida. On Tuesday, two employees of a company owned by Abramoff were charged with murdering the casino's former owner. Last week, the feds arrested David Safavian, who has been working in the White House, on charges of lying to investigators about a trip to Scotland with DeLay and Abramoff. Scanlon, the former DeLay aide who worked with Abramoff, is said to be cooperating with investigators, who are likely to file even more charges.
For those who have followed the machine from its inception, these developments are striking. "It represents the beginning of the end of an era," said Vic Fazio, a Democratic lobbyist at the law firm Akin, Gump and a former California congressman. "A powerful group of people who had consolidated their power in the mid- to late 1990s is now vulnerable to legal attack."
Even some conservatives have begun to distance themselves. "The Tom DeLay machine that he built, there were corruptive elements to it," said Stephen Moore, a longtime conservative activist who sat at the head table at a recent dinner celebrating DeLay's career. Moore, who founded the Free Enterprise Fund, still describes himself as a "Tom DeLay fan," who considers the congressman a "conservative hero." But he has misgivings as well. "All of these guys getting rich off this process rubs some conservatives the wrong way," Moore said. "It's going to be difficult for Tom to recover from this no matter what happens."
Though DeLay may not recover, his machine has not yet collapsed entirely. Late Wednesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed Rep. Roy Blunt, the Republican whip from Missouri and a disciple of DeLay, as the new majority leader. Republicans, meanwhile, began working to portray the torrent of indictments as politically motivated charges against one individual. "Tom DeLay is a tremendous public servant," said Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, in a statement. "It is our sincere hope that justice will remain blind to politics." DeLay also lashed out, as is his fashion, saying he was a victim of "one of the most baseless indictments in American history."
Perhaps the best news for Republicans is the relative disorganization of the Democratic Party, which remains weakened after the 2004 elections and lacks a unified message. Democratic politicians, like Rep. William Jefferson, of Louisiana, and Rep. Maxine Waters, of California, also face their own ethical scandals. As one congressional Republican, Arizona's Rep. Jeff Flake, boasted in the Wall Street Journal Wednesday, "endemic Democratic ineptitude makes Republicans more attractive when graded on a curve."
But even if the collapse of Abramoff and the weakening of DeLay does not end the Republican reign, it will at least expose its workings. For years now, Republicans across Washington have been scratching each other's backs as they march in lockstep with a unified message. With each release of a subpoenaed e-mail, and every new indictment, more information about the workings of the machine -- and the money that was its lifeblood -- comes to light.
In recent weeks, for instance, Timothy Flanigan, a former attorney in the Bush White House, has been answering questions from Congress about his relationship to Abramoff. Flanigan, who has been nominated as deputy attorney general, went to work for the Bermuda-based corporation Tyco after he left the White House. Once there, he hired Abramoff as a lobbyist to reach out to Karl Rove on a tax issue. According to a report in the Washington Post, Abramoff boasted to Flanigan that "he had contact with Mr. Karl Rove" and that Rove could help fight a legislative proposal that would penalize U.S. companies that had moved offshore. Flanigan oversaw a $2 million payment to Abramoff for a related letter-writing campaign that never materialized. Flanigan says the money was diverted into other "entities controlled by Mr. Abramoff."
The charges surrounding DeLay also concern the misuse of money. With two associates, the former majority leader is charged with conspiring to raise $155,000 in 2002 from several major corporations, including Sears Roebuck, the Williams Companies and Bacardi USA. The indictment alleges that DeLay conspired to funnel that money through the Republican National Committee into seven Texas state campaign accounts, where he was helping Republican candidates as part of his effort to redraw Texas voting districts. If the charge is proven, DeLay and his associates would have violated a Texas campaign finance law that prohibits corporate donations to local races.
The ability of DeLay and Abramoff to collect and distribute enormous sums of money was always a key to their success. They used the money to buy friends and crush enemies. They used the money to fund the Republican revolution. As Abramoff told the New York Times in March, "Eventually, money wins in politics."
Those words form a perfect epitaph for a political machine gone awry.
This story has been changed since it was first published.