When the BBC asked me to describe America’s reaction to the fact that the man who effectively ran Congress during most of George W. Bush’s presidency had been convicted on money laundering and conspiracy charges, I had to admit that the news did not exactly come as a shock.
Few figures in recent American history have abused the public trust with the determination that former House majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, brought to the task. At the height of his power, he was a political animal who ranged the halls of Congress without restraint or remorse. No one in Congress dared constrain the political bully boy who proudly referred to himself as "The Hammer," and it did not seem as if anyone on the outside would ever attempt to hold DeLay to the standards demanded of petty crooks.
It was as if the Texas Republican—who gave new meaning to the term "pay-to-play," ridiculed ethics rules and used the redistricting process to make elections in Texas even more meaningless than they had been—was daring prosecutors to go after him.
Finally, in 2005 a courageous local prosecutor (Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle) did just that, indicting the most powerful Congressional Republican on charges of conspiracy to violate election laws by illegally funneling $190,000 in corporate money to candidates in 2002.
The indictment began to unravel DeLay’s power structure, and then his career. Forced to step down as majority leader, he finally left the House in what would for anyone else have been disgrace.
While an embarrassed Charlie Rangel might show remorse for betraying the public trust and sullying the reputation of the House, DeLay never did apologize when he was going down—claiming, always, that the indictments were "political retribution"—and no one who knows the man anticipates that he ever will hold himself to account.
The verdict was no small matter, as DeLay now faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
After he was convicted Wednesday by a Travis County, Texas, jury, DeLay was unrepentant. "It’s a miscarriage of justice, and I still maintain that I am innocent," he sputtered. "The criminalization of politics undermines our very system and I’m very disappointed in the outcome."
In fact, it was Tom DeLay who criminalized politics.
It is easy to be cynical about politics. There are not many statesmen or stateswomen in either party. And the money power has made even personally decent candidates and officials into seemingly sleazy players. But Tom DeLay was different. To a profession that many Americans believe is without honor, he brought a measure of dishonor previously unimagined.
DeLay’s conviction will not restore dignity to Congress. But it does suggest that there are still a few avenues of accountability in this country. And for that, honest players in both major parties, and of all ideologies, should be grateful.
Tom DeLay always claimed to be a man of convictions. Now that claim is beyond debate. He is a man of convictions—two of them.