Dick Armey represented a north Texas district in the House of Representatives from 1985 to 2003 and was House Majority Leader during his last eight years in office. In 1994 he worked with Newt Gingrich to develop the Contract with America and now, as chairman of the grassroots group FreedomWorks, is heavily involved in the Tea Party movement. Armey, 70, earned a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and was a college economics professor before heading to Washington. Here are edited and tightened excerpts of our interview before a student audience.
Will the upcoming election be another 1994? Better than '94. It is the most authentic and widespread grassroots uprising that I have ever seen. It is about ideas, not about personalities-no allegiance to persons or political parties, but to the great ideas, starting with the Constitution of the United States. It is also an internet phenomenon. Poor old Al Gore has to live with the fact that he was the inventor of the demise of the left.
What went wrong in 1994 after Republicans won Congress by pledging to "restore bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives"? Now, Republicans as well as Democrats are untrusted. We went from trying to balance the budget to using the budget as a pork barrel. We went from entrepreneurs to bureaucrats, from the great ideas to the selfish ideas. But I also refine my understanding-there are two kinds of bureaucrats: benign bureaucrats and malevolent ones. The benign bureaucrat was Denny Hastert. He meant no harm to anybody. He just wanted life to be easy.
And the malevolent bureaucrat? A malevolent bureaucrat is a power maximizer: I'm in business for myself, and willing to do harm to other people to get what I want, for me. Tom DeLay.
Republicans elected Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay. GOP candidates are saying, "We're not the ones who broke your heart"-but some of them are. They are. But the electoral impact of the Tea Party to this point has been primarily on the Republican Party. They have taken from many bureaucracy-minded Republican officeholders the possibility of reelection. That is an enormous signal to those who remain: Rehabilitate yourself if you want to stay in office.
In 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a reporter asked you what you would do if you were in President Clinton's position. You're said to have replied, "I would not have gotten a chance to resign. I would be lying in a pool of my own blood with Mrs. Armey standing over me saying, how do I reload this thing?" True? True. By the way, she outshoots me with a handgun and knows how to reload it.
Did you know about Newt Gingrich's extramarital affair? Who did know? When I heard that Newt had been carrying on an affair for all the years that we'd worked together, I went home and said, "Honey, I had no idea about this." She said, "Of course not. You're the last person in town Newt would have wanted to know about this." Newt was scared of me. What I discovered: Clinton found out about the Gingrich affair and called Newt over to the White House for a private meeting between the two of them. Clinton said, "You and I are alike." Which meant, shut up about Monica or I'll start telling your story.
Was it blackmail or bonding? Newt and Clinton actually developed sort of a bond over it. They had many meetings that we didn't know about where they'd drink wine and smoke cigars and talk about their girlfriends. It's fascinating; why would you confess to your mortal enemy what you wouldn't tell your closest friends?
Why did he? Politicians are fascinating. If you ever want to do developmental psychology, use them. They are much, much, much more skillful at developing rationalizations than developing rational thought.
Is the psychology, "I'm important, I'm getting adulation, I can do what I want?" It's a prudent thing for a man to know his limitations, but when you're in a position of authority like public office, it's a moral imperative. There wasn't a lobbyist in town who didn't laugh at my jokes: How in the world did I get so funny? I'm amazed at how little introspection I see from privileged people.
Tom Friedman of The New York Times wants to rename the Tea Party movement the tea kettle movement because, he says, all it does is let off steam. The Tea Party movement has an idea: It's called the Constitution.
What do you think of the anti-Wall Street sentiment emanating from the Tea Party? There is not an animus toward Wall Street. There is an animus toward anybody who has big business access to the government and is seeking bailout subsidies from the public trough. If you are in business and do not have the decency and self-respect to shut up and compete, and instead go whining to the government for some kind of subsidy or bailout, you won't get much respect from the people in this movement.
Why not bailouts amid crises? If a business is not left to deal with risk, it will not be prudent. The market punishes immorality. The market punishes incompetence. Then the market cleans it up. When the market allocates resources and market share away from losers, it allocates them to winners. Government puts the incentive structure on its head. You win for losing if you can go to the government for a bailout.
Are we seeing any pre-election surprises? The biggest October surprise: dead people voting earlier this year than in past years. I don't mind Democrats continuing to vote after they die, but the guys who change parties when they die really irritate me.
With the emphasis this year on fiscal issues, what's happened to social issues? In the Tea Party we care about these issues but don't find them to be the most important issues that concern the broad base of the American electorate. I cannot tell you the depth of commitment my wife and I feel to the unborn. All the hours in all the years that I sat up in dark conference rooms until 4 or 5 in the morning fighting for Mexico City language that stops American funding of international abortions. Fighting that fight, year after year after year. If the Republicans gain the majority, we have a very good chance of seeing diminished funding, if not eliminated funding, for international abortions.
But you don't hear candidates talking about this . . . When I ran for office in 1984, the chairman of Texas Right to Life asked me, "What is your position on the life of the unborn?" I stated it in no uncertain terms. He said, "That's great. Keep your mouth shut about it." I said, "What?" He said, "You're trying to get elected. You don't get elected if you insist on talking about things that voters are uncomfortable with. So talk about the areas of consensus that are comfortable for voters to talk about, but keep your commitment in service." That was good electoral advice given by a wise man whose commitment to the unborn cannot be questioned.
At this point in your life what's most important to you? My savior Jesus Christ, who went to the cross for me. I take that very personally. Second, my wife, my family, and my grandchildren. My issues are the constitutional limitations imposed on government. It's a privilege to hold office. My objective is to inspire and encourage-and to punish officeholders if they fail to be adults.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Dick Armey, click here.