Cover Story

Retiring but not shy

"Retiring but not shy" Continued...

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

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."

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