This is the best time for me to leave," Dick Armey insisted, as open cardboard boxes in his Capitol office suite showed that, best or not, the time had come. No regrets, he said, about the decision to leave Congress that he and his wife, Susan, made in June. Mrs. Armey "just about had us prayed out of [the decision] in July and I told her to quit praying," he added with a laugh.
One pleasure in retiring from politics is the opportunity to be the opposite of retiring in on-the-record comments. Washington is full of people who for quotation toss bouquets at fellow politicians and throw off-the-record darts at others. The outgoing House Majority Leader has been directly honest over the years (see WORLD's "Cowboy convert," Aug. 31, 1996) but recently, freed of any need to be diplomatic, he talked of some old times not forgotten--and some he would like to forget.
Mr. Armey started with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, and said that calling it a Gingrich-Armey revolution misses a third element--and gets the order wrong. "I think the three most important people with respect to the Republican majority were, maybe in this order: Hillary Clinton, Dick Armey, and Newt Gingrich," he stated, pointedly placing the former Speaker of the House in third place.
To call that year's GOP triumph a surprise is also inaccurate, as far as he is concerned: "I wasn't surprised. I was sitting in Dick Gephardt's car in October 1993 and when I was asked by Gephardt why I wasn't running for Republican whip, I said because I was running for majority leader. At the time he thought it was pretty funny and told me to stick to it. I did. Best advice he ever gave me. I saw what we were able to do, I expected to do it, and I knew the opportunity that Hillary had given us with her health-care plan."
In 1993, President Clinton had named his wife to head a task force that aspired to nationalize health care in America, replacing the current system with a "single-payer" regime of government control. The plan went nowhere, but the Clinton overreach provoked the backlash that Republicans rode to power. This year, voters reacted to Democratic underreach: Senate leader Tom Daschle's plan, as Mr. Armey put it, "to win by doing nothing." With control of the White House and both houses of Congress, he adds, "our potential accomplishments could be greater than they were after '94."
The "single largest public-policy accomplishment in the United States government" of the last decade, Mr. Armey said, was welfare reform in 1996. That's because "welfare reform obviously honors people's ability and says that if you can take care of yourself you should have the opportunity to provide for yourself rather than be dependent upon the state. It has worked. We have ... decrease[d] poverty, but most importantly decreased the rate of births with unwed young teen mothers. We have done that without increasing abortions. That's marvelous--the first time in a generation that's happening."
While Mr. Armey said that giving Newt Gingrich primary credit for the GOP's 1994 electoral success is wrong, he proclaimed enthusiastically that the "stubborn commitment ... sheer will, and legislative ingenuity of Newt Gingrich" made welfare reform happen. "He saw it, he understood it, he knew what it meant. Every good benefit we see in welfare reform today and in the lives of these little babies all over America, Newt predicted it. [He] took an issue of the heart, put his heart and soul and will [into it, and] changed the lives of children all over this nation."
But other characteristics of Newt Gingrich brought him down. One was Mr. Gingrich's secret life. "I worked side by side with Newt every day for four years," Mr. Armey recalled. "There were probably no two people in this town and in my life, on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis who were closer." Yet Mr. Armey insisted that he knew nothing of Mr. Gingrich's six-year affair with congressional aide Callista Bisek, which led to the breakup of his marriage to Marianne Gingrich and remarriage to Ms. Bisek.
"I might very likely have been very high on the list of the first five people in the world that Newt did not want to know," Mr. Armey added. "Susan and I were very, very close to Marianne. We still feel close to her. Like I suppose members of families do, we were hurt for Marianne, and we were disappointed in Newt."
Mr. Gingrich also hurt the GOP effort by letting Bill Clinton outfox him. "Clinton's charm worked with Newt," Mr. Armey said bluntly. He explained that President Clinton in one sense acted the same as almost all politicians: In a room full of admirers, most politicians will seek out the one who is not a fan and try to convert him. For Mr. Clinton, though, converting his opponents is almost an obsession. "I used to tell Newt with respect to his relationship with President Clinton, you are always better off if you are being pursued than you are if you are pursuing. Bill Clinton would pursue you if you refused to pursue him. Newt never got that, and I did get it."
Here's what Mr. Armey got: "I believe Bill Clinton to be the most successful adolescent I have ever known.... [He] was basically like a prep guy saying, 'Where's the next party? I love this job. Look at the parties. What a great limo. Ain't the plane nice?' ... I did not find the president entertaining ... I have one source of pride: I never fell for the act." Mr. Armey once phoned President Clinton's chief of staff and instructed him to keep White House photographers away during White House events where he was present, so that the president would not be able to use a Clinton-Armey photo to show that he really got along with conservatives.
Mr. Armey recalled that when Mr. Clinton "was leaving office and he was asked about his relationship to conservatives his point was, 'Oh, we're getting along fine. Why even Dick Armey and I were having a good laugh the other day.' That wasn't the case. Even he and Dick Armey had not had a good laugh, but he took reconciliation with me as the standard that he was reconciled to the conservatives. I took that as a great compliment because basically he saw me ... as the last dog standing out there. [I was the Clinton team's] most hated member of Congress. The reason being they never knew how to get to me."
Ronald Reagan is the former president Mr. Armey esteems: "Most awesome," he said, his voice rising in decibels and pitch. Mr. Armey smiled and chuckled as he launched into a story about working during the Reagan years on legislation to close unnecessary military bases. President Reagan held a small bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office; Mr. Armey and his wife were invited to attend. "Here's Ronald Reagan; he sensed that the least comfortable person in the room was my wife, Susan, and he said, 'Susan, you come stand ...'"
At this point, Mr. Armey was overcome by emotion and could not finish the sentence. He cleared his throat and soldiered on. "'You come stand by me.' He reached out to her ..." Mr. Armey blinked away tears and provided his own comic relief to help him regain composure: "Imagine how I would have felt if Bill Clinton had said that to my wife ... But when I saw Ronald Reagan reach out to the woman I love with all my heart with that kindness and that consideration, it was like instinct to him.... To me that story tells who Ronald Reagan was. That's serious big-deal business, and yet his first thought was for the least comfortable person in the room."
The Capitol office Dick Armey is vacating has varied from the offices of other politicians by its dearth of "big-shot" memorabilia. (He has displayed a Ten Commandments plaque and also a replica of the Vince Lombardi trophy, the National Football League's top prize. His brother Charley, general manager of the St. Louis Rams, gave it to him after the Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000.) Mr. Armey explained that in one of his offices he ordered "big-shot" photos removed, because only two are worthy: Ronald Reagan and Clarence Thomas.
Mr. Armey's friendship with the much-maligned Supreme Court justice came by way of Mr. Thomas's wife, the former Ginny Lamp. She was a lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when Mr. Armey arrived in Washington in 1985. Together they successfully fought the push for a feminist economic theory called "comparable worth," under which a government panel--instead of the labor market--would set workers' wages. "Ginny was my pal," Mr. Armey says, "and she introduced me to Clarence."
In Clarence Thomas, Dick Armey saw another fighter. When the Senate Judiciary Committee took up Mr. Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court, the official White House strategy was to play up the nominee's attractive biography, including his rise from a humble upbringing. His opponents' strategy was to hammer him with vulgar attacks based on evidence that did not stand up to scrutiny. The accusations were humiliating, but Mr. Thomas didn't break. He rejected his White House handlers' advice and went on the offensive himself; he tore into his opponents and said he was not going to be the passive victim of a "high-tech lynching."
"Who has seen such a moment of such personal courage and conviction larger than that in this town? Not I," Dick Armey said. "For me to have been able to sit and watch that example and experience all the emotions of fear, and hope, and awe, and respect, and then be able to say, 'That's my personal friend.' He gave me a gift of experience I don't think I'll ever see duplicated in my life. I will love him forever for the example he gave to me."
What's coming up for Mr. Armey? A pair of black cowboy boots stood waiting behind his desk as the Cando, N.D., native noted happily that his adopted hometown, Dallas, has a National Hockey League franchise, the Stars. Although the 62-year-old former college professor plans to remain active during his "third career" (which will include public-policy advocacy, writing, editorializing and, probably, a "book or two"), he is looking forward to watching more sports on television. "My wife took me downtown to show me a big-screen TV; I walked in the store, they had the Stars on, and I thought to myself, 'I love this lady. She deserves to watch the Stars on big-screen TV.'"
Mr. Armey holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma, and in an interview for his 1996 profile in WORLD he described the economics of salvation: "With the market it's quid pro quo. With the family, everything is based on need. But with Christ, it's free. And there ain't no end to it! ... Salvation does not have a condition of scarcity." He said then, "What I attempt to do in Congress is pretty straightforward. My job is to prevent government from destroying our freedom. But the most important work to be done is for a person to come to terms with Jesus. That's my advice for anybody."
In 1996, Mr. Armey told of how he had recently come to terms with Jesus as he sat on an airplane bound for New York City. "I was supposed to get on a plane to go to D.C., but I got a note from my staff saying I had to be in New York. Sitting on that airplane, I started to think: How can I trust people so much that I will change my plans and go to a place I don't want to go and yet not trust God to get me to a place I want to go? It was pretty clear to me at that point ... I decided that Jesus knew more than a typical college professor."
In our recent interview, Mr. Armey spoke of the importance of President Bush's faith-based initiative: "Faith-based is antithetical to the belief system of the left. Liberals ... are threatened by private charity because private charity does those things they think government should do. But if you do faith-based, you are saying you recognize the fact that real people in their real lives from the charity of their heart will take care of one another, and that should be encouraged by government policy, not preempted by government policy. It will be fought by the left, and it needs to be prioritized on our side more than it has been."
The choice, he concluded, is between "government encouragement and support" of faith-based initiatives and "government preemption.... Whatever we do for one another voluntarily through charitable belief preempts the government's need to be there and do it. I've heard that expressed actually by a liberal. It never came to me until I heard him say it. He does not believe in private charity because private charity does in his life what [he believes] government should do."
Mr. Armey hopes that President Bush and the next Congress will stay the course in poverty-fighting. "With welfare reform we've improved the lives of children all over America," he noted. "With housing reform we affected the lives of real people and gave them a sense of controlling their own housing destiny instead of being housed as wards of the state."
He also hopes the GOP will push to "fix retirement security for all Americans by honoring American citizens' ability to do what ... those who have successfully retired have done throughout all our lifetimes: use their own resources in the growing potential of the American equity market." Privatizing Social Security, he said, "is the biggest public-policy opportunity of this generation, and we need to rise to the occasion. I think this election cycle removed political demagoguery from the issue. Democrats won't gain by practicing it, [so politicians can] treat the subject as adults."
Mr. Armey next year will no longer have in his office lovely 19th-century landscape paintings on loan from the Smithsonian, but he does take satisfaction from having changed the American landscape. "We have stumbled a little bit," he said. "There are times we looked a little foolish. I guess I have been misrepresented in terms of my character, my intention more times than I like. But I've never suffered the way our Lord or Clarence Thomas suffered by falsehoods. I don't have much regret.... There's an old line from Willie Nelson, 'The highs outnumber the lows.' The blessings are too many to count."
Political columnist Joel C. Rosenberg also participated in the interview.