Political lessons from ex-Rep. Dick Armey


“A man will fight like a cornered rat if his chicken manure is at stake.”

“If you make a deal with the devil, you are the junior partner.”

In Dick Armey’s world, there is not much in life that can’t be boiled down to a pithy phrase or summed up by a Waylon Jennings lyric.

For much of the nation, the Texan will mainly be associated with the Republican revolution of 1994 and its turbulent early years. But around Washington, Armey also has gained a reputation for his folksy homilies and wit, which he often put to good use whenever the union bosses, appropriators and media elites seemed to have him on the run.

Armey, who retired after the last Congress as majority leader in the House, has taken 40 of his favorite axioms and turned them into a book. Armey, who now consults with Piper Rudnick and co-chairs Citizens for a Sound Economy, uses his new book to pass on some of his wisdom and settle a few scores while championing his conservative, free-market worldview.

Armey’s wit has always been best when it is spontaneous. At weekly press briefings with reporters when he was leader, he would often interject hilarious or occasionally bizarre statements as he plodded his way through the weekly legislative schedule.

In his book, Armey recounts one episode when he was criticizing President Clinton for his indiscretions. An exasperated reporter asked Armey to put himself in Clinton’s position.

“I would not be in that position,” Armey replied. “I would be looking up from a pool of blood listening to my wife ask: ‘How do I reload this darn thing?’”

Unfortunately, it is difficult to translate Armey’s folksy spoken humor into a written format, even one as casual as this. Armey, a former economics professor and born-again Christian, lectures and sermonizes throughout the book, although he does it through informal stories from his own life. His lessons stress integrity, honesty, self-awareness, faith and responsibility, drawing mainly on his experiences in politics, including 18 years in the House.

He admonishes members of Congress who cite principle and refuse to bend, and he warns, “You can’t stand on principle with feet of clay.” But he declines to name a member of Congress he calls “confused, indecisive and lacking in courage.” He takes a shot at Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) but generally refrains from direct criticism of his former colleagues, and he reveals little new information about his time in the GOP leadership.

Armey doesn’t show much charity for Democrats, whom he chastises for employing shameless demagoguery and for relying on touchy feelings instead of hard facts (the province, he writes, of conservatives).

Republicans, he says, “don’t want to own an issue for political advantage” but rather want to “get it done.”

Armey, who claims to have been the victim of false accusations in his life, expresses admiration for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a chapter titled “A little man can whip a big man every time if he’s in the right and keeps a’comin.” He praises Thomas for having sympathy for his accuser, Anita Hill, even during the difficult fight over his Senate confirmation.

Armey doesn’t completely spare himself from criticism. He writes that he feels foolish for his vote in favor of the superconducting supercollider, the multimillion-dollar physics research facility that Congress finally killed. The facility was to be built in Armey’s home state of Texas, and his constituents were pushing hard for it.

But he spends considerably more space pointing to hypocrisy in others. He notes that a “United States senator from Texas” and an “East Coast publisher of a major business journal” pledged to back ethanol subsidies to win the support of Iowa farmers in their runs for president. Could he mean former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) and Steve Forbes?

And he skewers former Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) for pushing a tax credit for programs to use chicken manure to make energy — a program that would benefit Delaware chicken farmers. He expresses pride in helping devise a system to close military bases but faults those like Roth who seek to attach their names to popular legislation.

Armey frequently turns to the Scriptures to advise others on good conduct in politics and in life. He warns that “the higher the station, the greater is the illusion of power.” And he advises those seeking to climb the D.C. ladder to “get beyond yourself.” He follows with this catchy binary: “Don’t commit your life to building your career. Commit your career to building lives.”

As a fisherman, a successful politician, a husband and a father of five children, Armey has absorbed plenty of lessons that he seeks to pass on to readers. But his frequent admonishments about consistency and truthfulness sharply contrast with at least one account of Armey’s conduct as leader.

In his own recent book, Breach of Trust, former Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) singles out Armey for his role in a botched plan to remove former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) from power.

“Armey repeatedly and unambiguously advocated the removal of Gingrich as Speaker,” Coburn writes. Coburn claims Armey gave his assent during a meeting with a group of plotters that Coburn attended. After the effort was exposed (Coburn says Armey brought it to Gingrich’s attention once it was clear that Bill Paxon [R-N.Y.], rather than Armey, would be speaker), Armey scolded the plotters during another meeting.

“As Armey tried to take us to the woodshed once again, I felt like I was listening to someone with two personalities,” Coburn writes. Armey, in a letter to Coburn that Coburn reproduced, denied having given his assent to the coup.

Armey has taken his share of shots from Republicans and Democrats over the years for advocating a flat tax and pushing to eliminate even some popular government programs like the Department of Education.

But Armey is more interested in pursuing his beliefs than in winning the accolades of others. “The first rule of conservatism,” he writes, “is to accept the fact that if you are true to yourself, Susan Sarandon will never hug you in public.”