Cover Story

Retiring but not shy

A career review with a candid Dick Armey is to politics what an ESPN highlight reel is to sports. He laughs about Bill Clinton; he cries about Ronald Reagan. His hero: Clarence Thomas. His disappointment: Newt Gingrich's affair with a staffer. His future: Continuing to push the issues he cares about

Issue: "Dick Armey's parting words," Dec. 14, 2002

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.

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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."

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