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A bigger wave

Campaign 2010 | Former Rep. Dick Armey says the 2010 election will have more lasting effects than the 1994 'tsunami' because this time it's about ideas

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

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.

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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.

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