In addition to the alleged ethical infractions that have dogged him in the press recently, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has one overriding, unspoken sin–he’s déclassé.
In this, he has some of the same broad characteristics as George W. Bush: Texas, conservatism, Christianity, lack of–ahem–verbal subtlety. But on top of all these, DeLay adds the crème de la crème of unfashionability, for which many of his critics can’t disguise their sneering contempt: He once owned an exterminating business.
In anti-DeLay commentary, derisive references to his former occupation are almost mandatory. Joshua Micah Marshall, a well-read liberal blogger, regularly refers to DeLay as “the bug man.” A cartoon in the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post ridiculed DeLay’s views on the war on terror since he “spent much of his life shooting bugs.” A website offers anti-Tom DeLay T-shirts featuring a can of bug spray. Another, buzzflash.com, recently sent out an alert titled “Hypocrisy Is Tom DeLay’s Middle Name, Along With Exterminator.”
Even Supreme Court justices can’t resist the meme. Ruth Bader Ginsburg remarked in a speech a few years ago, “Mr. DeLay is not a lawyer but, I am told, an exterminator by profession.” How uncouth.
By one way of looking at it, prior to coming to Congress in 1984, DeLay was a struggling small-business man, striving to keep his company above water so its handful of employees could keep their jobs. In the process, of course, he provided a useful service to Texans plagued by fire ants and other pests. But this is not the narrative DeLay-bashers prefer. Oh no, his business killed insects, and that’s inherently ridiculous, along with–one assumes–other swaths of the American economy.
Plumbers work with pipes and even less pleasant things, and sometimes their tool belts drag down their pants. Garbagemen deal with, well, garbage. Painters splatter smelly paint all over their clothes. Auto mechanics work with engines, axles and other car parts likely to get their hands dirty. Miners work underground all day. We’ll leave aside for now long-distance truckers, maids, railroad linemen, longshoremen, day laborers, air-conditioning repairmen, and the cable guy.
All these professions can’t pass what might be called the “yuck” test: If a graduate student or Manhattan professional can’t help but think “yuck” when he considers a given job, it flunks the test. Everybody so employed should know that their jobs are fit for ridicule, and if they ever attain elected office they can expect demeaning nicknames related to their former professions. Even though it’s not clear why any of these professions are less honorable than the one that typically produces politicians–lawyering.
It used to be that liberals celebrated California labor leader Cesar Chavez for his impassioned advocacy on behalf of people who did nothing all day except bend over and pick grapes. What nickname, one wonders, would the likes of Joshua Marshall come up with if one of these people were ever to come in his political sights after having made an unglamorous living toiling in the dirt and sun all day long?
Alas, liberalism long ago lost its populism, as it has become increasingly colored by its urban, higher-income, post-graduate-degree supporters, for whom dirt-under-the-fingernails work is alien and, apparently, something the right sort of people just don’t do. More broadly, a new, unfortunate attitude is afoot in the land–among both Democrats and Republicans–that considers certain jobs unfit for Americans, which is why illegal Mexican labor has to be imported to do them.
As for Tom DeLay, his ideology and his ethics are legitimate targets. But not his former profession. Snobs who can’t resist pest-control ridicule should at least strive to be utterly consistent, and the next time they have a case of termites, resist the urge to call one of those contemptible exterminators.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate