Tom DeLay is much in the news these days, even for a Majority Whip whose party’s ascendancy (here and abroad) is beginning to resemble a beautiful, freakish juggernaut. Since their 40-year stranglehold on Congress slipped away at century’s turn the Democrats become either apoplectic or befuddled whenever Republicans see fit to exercise their hard-won legislative leverage. Which makes Tom DeLay a lightning rod for criticism because, after all, they don’t go after guys who don’t know how to TCB. Or to put it another way, you’ll notice there aren’t a lot of “Impeach Mary Bono” websites.
The House leader from Texas earned his nickname “The Hammer” by being a take-no-prisoners partisan, a legendary fundraiser, and an unapologetic ideologue. Then again, Tom Daschle was all of those things and you never heard anybody calling him “The Hammer”–even though he was also something of a tool. More revealing about DeLay’s ability to bedevil his Democratic opposition–not to mention their view of the world–is his other nickname: “the exterminator.” In fact, it’s pretty difficult to find a profile of him that doesn’t begin by either referring to him as such or noting, always derisively, that he once owned a bug-killing business. Why would a seemingly innocuous term like “exterminator” resonate so negatively in the minds of Democrats? As is so often the case with a pejorative, it reveals more about the person using it than that it would describe.
Granted, being an exterminator is not a glamour job. There was even a time when I might have chuckled at the thought of someone making a living by setting mousetraps and spraying baseboards. Then one day I discovered that my kitchen was infested with cockroaches. Before I knew it my entire view of the highly trained, hard-working professionals in the much-maligned pest-control industry had changed. Much as one’s view of, say, urology might change in the event that one ever required the services of an urologist. Today I happen to believe that exterminators are like gods among us, right up there with my tax guy, the guy who comes over when my cable is out and my…well, let’s just say a certain physician I happened to meet recently.
So why might a former exterminator become a Republican after deciding to go into politics? For that matter, why might Republican voters feel more kindly disposed towards a former exterminator than, say, towards a wealthy former trial lawyer? Let us count the ways.
First of all, the owner of an exterminating company (which DeLay was) would be an entrepreneur, so he’d be familiar with tax law, liability matters, and other obstacles the government typically puts between a small businessman and his livelihood. (Which seems to be why a lot of Republicans decide to go into politics.) He’s had to make a weekly payroll, and he’s probably had to administer an employee-benefits plan. In a more abstract sense, he’s rolled up his sleeves and taken on a dirty, potentially dangerous job no one else wanted to do. Which makes him a kindred spirit of the current commander-in-chief if you don’t think “exterminating terrorists” is too much of a stretch. In fact, when you think about it, what does an exterminator actually do but systematically root out and destroy parasites who, unchecked, would eat away at our very foundations and destroy us from within? Making the typical exterminator an altogether unsympathetic character to members of a party whose last presidential ticket consisted of a rich trial lawyer and an even richer trophy husband.
Clearly, Tom DeLay has had his image problems. He’s openly Christian, for one thing– folks, this guy doesn’t even try to hide it. And not just when he’s in legal trouble, either–he apparently prays every day. What’s that about? Plus he says things like, “The sanctity of the Constitution is under assault from many different directions,” which leaves little doubt that preserving the Constitution is part of his agenda. Not by lying under oath in a sworn deposition and then not going to prison for it the way Bill Clinton preserved the Constitution but…you know…in some other nefarious ways. We know for a fact that Tom DeLay knows some people who are suspected of ethical violations, and that he likes to play golf–although, in fairness, if knowing possibly unscrupulous people and playing golf were crimes Bill Clinton would be on Death Row right now. We also know that people who make lawful donations to DeLay’s party tend to have more access to elected officials in that party, which as far as I can tell would be a first in the entire history of American politics, so I guess that’s also pretty serious. Maybe that’s why the Democratic party–whose last sitting vice president used his office phone to shake constituents down for money instead of having the courtesy to use the pay phone down the block– is targeting Tom DeLay so doggedly.
But if you’re going to hang a label on Congressman DeLay to make regular folks hate him, it seems to me that you could do a lot better than “the exterminator.” It sounds like “The Terminator,” for one thing, and that guy is really popular–even in a blue state like California. Besides, regular folks know that exterminators perform a useful service, they create jobs, and they keep us all safe from bad guys like bugs and mice. If it weren’t for exterminators it’d be us in our pajamas in the middle of the night holding a flashlight and a six-iron because the missus thought she heard something scurry across the kitchen floor again. So Democrats, if you really want people to dislike Tom DeLay, why not call him something that people really hate, and for plenty of good reasons? For example, why not try calling him “the ambulance chaser”?
–Ned Rice is a staff writer on the new and improved CBS talk show The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.