A think tank in cowboy boots
Now that Texan Dick Armey is ascending the House hierarchy to become majority leader, Republican brain trusters are beating down his door. Last week true believers William Kristol and Bill DalCol, along with magazine heir Steve Forbes, popped by to chat. As the three sat down on Armey’s government-issue couch, the leader couldn’t resist. “There hasn’t been so much brainpowerassembled on that couch since I used to sleep there alone,” he chuckled.
That was 10 years ago. After Speaker Tip O’Neill publicly booted Armey out of a cot in the House gym, he decided to sleep on his office sofa. It was to save money, he says, since he had four collegebound boys. “I got a coffeepot, I got a TV, I got a phone. That’s all I needed.” If it wasn’t a stunt, it was at least vintage Armey: a lowly Republican outsider happily tussling with the Democratic establishment. “It was their world,” he shrugs. “I was just living in it.”
No more. Soon the House of Representatives will become part of Armey’s World, and even his Republican colleagues wonder what life will be like with Newt Gingrich as the conservative speaker and Armey as his more ideological lieutenant. At the White House, the thinkers come by way of Harvard and Oxford. Gingrich taught history at West Georgia College; Armey taught economics at North Texas State. And at 54, Armey is savoring the coming fight with the nation’s intellectual elite.
Think of Armey, friends say, as a think tank in cowboy boots. (His have House of Representatives patches stitched onto the leather.) Or as a nice version of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a presidential wannabe and fellow conservative economist. Or, as Rep. William Ford, liberal Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, once said, just think of him as “a pain in the ass.”
Armey is different. He swears he doesn’t own a silk tie, drives his red pickup to White House meetings (with five fishing poles, a tackle box and bags of bait in the back) and prizes his “Goat Ropers Need Love, Too” bumper sticker. Gramm once had to remind him to stop jangling the coins in his pocket because he was ruining his own sound bite. Armey is an original-a funny microeconomist, a folksy supply-side commando. He once got in trouble by telling Bill Clinton his economic plan would make him a “one-term president.” Outraged Democrats were reminded that Armey once told George Bush that, too.
Armey’s politics are defined by his economics, and his economic philosophy is pure Adam Smith. He wants to launch a “frontal assault” on government by scrapping the tax code and passing a flat tax by 1997. “Freedom works,” he says. “If you like peace more than freedom, you lose.” Trouble is, Armey has always been a guerrilla warrior. Now the graduate of “the uppity minority,” as he dubbed it, must lead a majority-and produce something other than chaos and carnage.
For every political situation, the new leader likes to have an “Armey’s axiom.” Revenge against the Democrats? “You can’t get ahead while you’re getting even.” Free markets? “The market’s rational. The government’s dumb.” Cut government? “No one spends another person’s money as wisely as he spends his own.” In Armey’s own life, too, axioms and aphorisms always come in handy:
“No man should ever lose his daddy’s spurs.” There was a single moment when Armey knew he was going to college. In November 1958, he was 18, standing on a 30-foot pole at 30 degrees below zero at 3 a.m. and trying to fixa power line in Cando (pronounced”can do”), N.D. He was the middle child of seven; no one in his familyhad ever attended college. His father farmed and owned a grain elevator; his mother was a bookkeeper and staunch Republican. He calls his graduation from Jamestown College “an impossible dream.” A liberal economics professor inspired his faith in free markets. Then came graduate economics degrees and “the pleasures of watching first and second derivatives fall into place.” Armey taught until he found himself at odds with academic liberals and too burned out to “listen to myself lecture.”
So he went into politics. In fact, Armey could be the first congressional leader who learned about the job throughC-SPAN. The story may be apocryphal: Armey and his wife, Susan, were watching Congress on television. “Honey,” he said, “these people sound like a bunch of damn fools.” She responded, “Yeah, you could do that.” But television did demystify Congress for Armey. When he saw Gingrich and Co. challenge the Democrats, he wanted to join in. “We would win the debates,” he says. “And they would win the votes.”
Armey was so green that the first politician he ever met was the fellow he ran against: Tom Vandergriff, a popular Democrat nobody thought was in trouble. But Armey, who admits “I didn’t know what I was doing,” rode Ronald Reagan’s coattails to victory in 1984 despite a major gaffe-calling for a phaseout of Social Security. After that debacle, a staffer despaired. Armey grabbed his father’s spurs from a nearby box and threw them on his desk. “No man should ever lose his daddy’s spurs,” he said. “Now let’s get it done.” The spurs-and his father’s saddle blanket-now hang on his congressional office wall. “Nothing changes Dick Armey,” says his brother Charlie, who directs college scouting for the New England Patriots.
“If I put too much load on my truck, I’ll break the axle. Then I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” When Armey was elected in 1984, he wanted to take on everything-and ended up on the fringe. His ideological purity produced a dysfunctional politician: He offered amendments that went nowhere, gave speeches no one cared about. His first foray into real legislative work came in 1987, with his bipartisan plan to close surplus military bases. The idea: Createa commission able toact without congressional interference. “I’m amused that I got credit for doing the impossible,” he says. “That shows you how impossible things are around here-when the impossible is the most doable.”
Soon, Armey united with Northeastern liberals against another target-farm subsidies. He failed, and discovered there are few conservatives in committee. “At least he has intellectual consistency,” says liberal Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, an ally in that fight. “Let’s see whether he keeps it.” Frank bets against it: Republicans did well in the agricultural Midwest. And Armey’s position on term limits has wavered lately. “I accepted them somewhat reluctantly because of my affection for the Constitution,” he says, sounding like a Republican who wants term limits only if the Democrats are in charge. “I’d like to believe that under Republicans this institution will function the way it should.”
“You do what you have the power to do. I do what I have the right to do.” In 1992, Armey successfully ran for a leadership post against a more moderate Republican, campaigning as the man best equipped to help Gingrich lob bombs. If Gingrich was the bad cop, Armey became the loud one. He bonded with Republicans leading a guerrilla war on the liberal Education and Labor panel. Forty-minute debates turned into four-hour sessions as Armey demanded roll-call votes. “It got pretty heavy,” says Illinois Republican Harris Fawell, Armey’s seatmate. “You could see the utter disgust in [Chairman] Ford’s face.”
Often, the tactics boomeranged. Some Republicans still consider Armey’s running feud with Hillary Rodham Clinton an embarrassment. After she called him the Dr. Kevorkian of health care reform, he told her that “the reports of your charm are overstated and the reports of your wit are understated.” He still insists he had to fight back. “I had to get up off the mat. You can’t get yourself knocked out in the first punch.”
Armey does not defend his worst faux pas. In the midst of a heated debate with House Democrats, he called Bill Clinton “your president” (it is no secret that the man from Hope drives the man from Cando crazy). Rep. Tom DeLay, a buddy, says that “he knew it was a mistake the minute he walked off the floor.” And Armey says, “You won’t find me doing that again.” Moderate Republican Fred Grandy takes a less charitable view: “Armey was purposely doing prior to the election what Jesse Helms was chastised for doing after it.”
“Conservatives believe it when they see it. Liberals see it when they believe it.” Armey was energized when Democrats ran the Congress; he became a man possessed when Bill Clinton entered the White House. Finally, there was a clear dialectic between Republicans and Democrats, and no House Republican was surer of the economic truth than Armey. “Entitlement spending is partisan pork,” he says. “It’s the politics ofgreed wrapped in the language of love, and Lyndon Johnson taught it to his party.”
Armey argues that the federal budget got less discretionary as entitlements swelled to nur-ture Democratic con-stituents. So when Reagan cut taxes, he could not make commensurate budget cuts. Why not then resurrect Armey’s old idea of a Social Security phaseout? Not a chance. Now he calls Social Security a “fiduciary responsibility to people who have been forced to pay in all their life to a very badly managed annuity program.”
The House Republicans’ “Contract With America” is a Gingrich idea that was put together largely by Armey’s staff. Now the two leaders must figure out how to get it done. At a recent session with Gingrich, Armey pushed to allow freshmen to take a lead on the House floor. “Remember, these folks were portrayed as signing a pact with the devil,” Armey said. “And in case you missed it, Newt, you were the devil.”
“Never let your face show how bad they’re kicking your butt.” It’s sage political advice, and Armey thinks Clinton is probably taking it. “There are lessons he understands from this election, but he’s not going to let the world know it.”
Armey’s last adage may determine whether he succeeds or fails. “I know I can fly solo,” he confided to Gingrich. “Now I got to see if I can learn to fly in formation.”
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