The New York Times uses a nice, soft word this morning to describe Tom DeLay's sensibility: He's "dispirited" by continuing legal difficulties. This is the closest we've seen any reports come to saying that DeLay resigned because he anticipated being charged in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The former majority leader has been emphatic in his confidence that the Abramoff imbroglio will simply not touch him, and reporters have so far come up with little evidence to show that he stepped down because of Abramoff (beyond the obvious issue of timing, that mounting federal investigation). And so still now, a day and a half after the big news hit on TV and in the papers, the main story line remains the one DeLay himself is pushing -- that DeLay quit simply because he wanted to avoid a bruising election that he might have lost. He's taking one for the team. He's being a gentleman. He's an honorable man.
But of course that's not the story, or at least not the whole story. Tom DeLay, you see, is dispirited, one friend tells the Times, because the prosecutors are coming. Tony Rudy, Tom DeLay's former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty last week to corruption charges, and now is telling the law all he knows. Rudy's plea agreement mentioned that a certain "Lobbyist B" was under investigation; officials have confirmed that this is a reference to Edwin Buckham, who is DeLay's friend and served as chief of staff to the congressman in the 1990s. If Buckham pleads out, DeLay's troubles will deepen.
One anonymous DeLay friend tells the Times: "Tony Rudy and especially Ed Buckham were more than just former colleagues -- they are Tom DeLay's friends ... You can imagine what it feels like: to know that your friends are being squeezed to say terrible things about you, things that aren't true. By leaving the House now, I think DeLay hopes that the spotlight on him and his friends will dim a little."
Anyone who has ever seen one or two episodes of "Law & Order" understands that these maneuvers are classic: Prosecutors go after the underlings to get at the bigger fish. Indeed, as one unnamed government official points out to the Washington Post, prosecutors' plea deals with Rudy, Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, another former DeLay aide, place a "dramatic premium" on evidence that might implicate others. The official tells the Post that for DeLay, "the federal case is going to get worse before it gets better."
But DeLay maintains his innocence, and in interviews with the Post and other outlets, his lawyers are insistent that the federal case had nothing to do with his sudden resignation. The Post digs deeper into DeLay's main reason -- that he got some bad polls recently.
"Starting in December, DeLay's private polling pointed out serious political problems," the paper says. "At first, it suggested a roughly even voter split with former congressman Nick Lampson, the Democratic nominee. But it also showed that nearly eight in 10 voters were already firmly decided on one of the two candidates -- a rarity for a House race, especially considering that the general election was 11 months away. That meant changing minds would be costly."
DeLay commissioned another poll after his victory in the primary last month, and found no difference in the mood of voters -- winning the seat would be very difficult, costing as much as $10 million. And in the end, what would DeLay get? A seat in the House, but not a leadership position. It would be a demotion.
And why take that when, out of Congress, the future could be so much brighter? As the Post reports: "Friends and associates of DeLay say they think he can make a prosperous future for himself as a corporate-paid legislative strategist, book author and speaker."
Update: I said earlier that the Times report comes closest to saying that it was the Abramoff investigation that did DeLay in. But that was before I saw Knight Ridder reporter Ron Hutcheson's story, which has several lawyers saying that as far as the law is concerned, DeLay is done.
In a story that includes many fine quotes, here's the best one: "The guy has a hide of titanium," John P. Flannery II, a former federal prosecutor, says of DeLay, dismissing the congressman's argument that he was afraid his race would get too nasty. "This is not about his election; this is about his defense of the criminal investigation. The circle is closing on him for a federal indictment."