For the old-fashioned, the definition of a “news story” is a story that is new–hence the name. But the newspeople at the newspapers the Washington Post and the New York Times have an updated definition–anything that hurts Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay on any given day.
The Times just ran a front-page article reporting that DeLay’s wife and daughter receive payments from his political operations. This story might have been news if it hadn’t been known for years and been the subject of a detailed report in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call on May 5, 2003–meaning the Times did a follow-up 702 days later. And this story might have been scandalous if it weren’t for the fact that having family members on the pay-roll is a common, bipartisan practice, accepted as legitimate so long as they actually do work (DeLay’s daughter runs his congressional campaigns). This story can only be explained if some editor at the Times is not barking at reporters, “Get news on Tom DeLay!” but instead simply, “Get Tom DeLay!”
The same day as the Times front-pager, the Washington Post ran its own front-page article on a trip DeLay took to Russia that was ostensibly funded by a Washington think tank, but that really might have been funded by a Washington lobbyist, in violation of House rules. This might have been news if that trip hadn’t taken place in 1997 and been reported in the National Journal on Feb. 25, 2005–meaning the Post did a relatively brisk follow-up after 39 days. Most subjects of Washington scandals are undone by the steady accumulation of new allegations. DeLay might be the first brought down by the drip-drip of old allegations.
What is happening to DeLay is a ritual with all the carefully scripted but irrational rules of an Aztec sacrifice ceremony. First, the target is deemed “dogged by ethics questions.” Then, every scrap of negative information is splashed on the front pages, until out of exhaustion the target’s supporters abandon him. Finally, six months after the target’s demise, everyone scratches their head and wonders, “What was that all about?”
There is no doubt that DeLay has gotten too comfortable with the perks of power and had a cringe-making relationship with a sleazy Washington lobbyist named Jack Abramoff. Given the ways of Washington, these shouldn’t be firing offenses, especially when the outrage over them is driven less by good-government zeal than frank partisanship. House Democratic campaign head Rep. Rahm Emanuel has been open about making ethics charges a linchpin of the Democratic political strategy.
The independent ethics groups that have been decrying DeLay’s practices, such as Democracy 21 and Common Cause, are allies in this partisan push. Their contributors are hyper-Democrats like George Soros, and their staffers are often former Democratic politicos. They identify ethical government with Democratic government, and get the cooperation of the press, which would have no use for DeLay even if he were the reincarnation of Mr. Smith. This is why House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi can secure a federal grant for a nonprofit that contributes to her political action committee, as The Washington Times recently reported, and the story barely causes a ripple, let alone gets recycled every 39 days.
The Democratic assault on DeLay is modeled on Newt Gingrich’s ethics drive against the Democratic leadership when Republicans were out of power in the early 1990s. That tack proved successful, but because it was combined with a serious intellectual and policy push. That is what’s missing from the current Democratic campaign, which is all about DeLay, pure and simple. In fact, the Democrats have taken to charging that the House is being distracted from its policy work because of the DeLay controversy of their making. This amounts to saying: “Stop us before we attack Tom DeLay again!”
Of course, the substantive bankruptcy of the congressional Democratic minority is not news–however you define the term.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate