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Driven to Distraction

The most telling moment of last night's conservative salute to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay at the Capital Hilton in Washington came just after dinner. A "dessert surprise" had been promised in the program, and sure enough, once the waiters had shuffled off with the last of the dinner plates and the depleted bottles of wine, the lights dimmed. Right on cue a bluegrass band struck up the opening chords to "If I Had a Hammer," a nod to DeLay's nickname. Minutes later, the edible portion of the surprise appeared: a cake--patriotically frosted in red, white, and blue, a hammer cookie embedded on top--for every table in the room. DeLay, however, didn't have to share. He got his own cake, piled high with hammers and candles. He laughed at the confection, and then a look of concern flashed briefly across his face. DeLay may have been wondering, How am I ever going to eat all that cake? Or he may have had other things on his mind.

That brief postprandial moment of unease was typical of an evening that awkwardly tried to combine feisty humor with sincere adulation. Organized primarily by the American Conservative Union, the tribute gala drew several hundred people, though notably few elected officials (Representative Roy Blount was the most visible, and he offered only a few innocuous comments). More boisterous speakers--including conservative heavyweights like Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich, and David Keene--toed up to recent allegations of ethics violations committed by DeLay, but mostly through jokes and winks. Other testimonials avoided the issue all together. A video tribute featuring DeLay's friends and family was silent on the scandal and, for that matter, on DeLay's work as a legislator. It focused instead on the congressman's identity as a man of steady principles. "He's the same now as he was then," DeLay's wife Christine said, referring to his humble beginnings in the Texas State House.

Neither humor nor avoidance, though, was enough to rebuke news reports of DeLay's alleged improper ties to lobbyists. If anything, the two techniques highlighted how ill-equipped the Texas Republican is to defend himself against the charges.

The surest way to get a laugh at the DeLay tribute was to play up the scandal as a battle between the congressman and the liberal media (which, according to former congressman Bob Livingston, now amazingly includes The Wall Street Journal editorial page). In the punchlines of these zingers, DeLay inevitably emerged as a kind of Bogartian tough-guy, whose sheer masculine force put the effete, but more numerous, journalists to shame. Livingston complained of ridiculous writers who "pile on Tom and ruin his reputation, ruin his name." L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, needed only to bring together the phrases "journalistic ethics" and "Bob Woodward" to get his audience in an uproar. With an elaborate set of visual aids, conservative activist Morton Blackwell imagined a hypothetical future in which The Washington Post and The New York Times would uncover the real scandal of our time--that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a "San Francisco socialist who always blames America first." Of course, Blackwell added, that won't happen because "the major news media would never cooperate."

While this easy, bantering indictment of the left betrayed a kind of confidence--DeLay even joked that a vacation one speaker had mentioned gave the media "another trip" to investigate--it also indicated how badly conservatives may be underestimating the seriousness of the ethics charges. At no point in the evening did anyone articulate that the accusations against DeLay were untrue. The night was devoted instead to devastating the credibility of those making the allegations. What was to be DeLay's closing tour-de-force amounted to little more than a trite exercise in name calling, without even an oblique reference to his ethical woes. Savaging the left may work among the DeLay faithful, but it leaves him vulnerable to criticism from within his own party, something he can expect more of in the weeks and months to come. Newt Gingrich, Chris Shays, and Tom Tancredo represent the vanguard of an anti-DeLay GOP movement. DeLay will need a bogeyman other than the liberal media to defeat this opposition.

Even as some of the nasty jokes at the tribute failed, the flattest moments occurred when speakers acted as if DeLay wasn't under fire at all. Event MC Cleta Mitchell's rambling account of planning the fete rang conspicuously hollow, mostly because she circled around the less savory reasons for the gathering. (At one point, she let slip, "This doesn't remind me of any funeral I've been to recently." Uncomfortable applause followed.) So did nearly every other speaker's refrain that DeLay is a great leader. His strengths as a party head--raising vast amounts of money, consolidating power, contriving GOP-friendly congressional districts in his home state--are considerable. But they don't really lend themselves to the breed of warm-and-fuzzy anecdote typically trotted out for public consumption. As a result, details were sparse throughout the evening.

Of course, it was unlikely that DeLay was going to take to the podium with a mea culpa. But as the investigation of his ethics abuses intensifies, and the support of his GOP colleagues grows ever more anemic, DeLay may well regret having frittered away this opportunity for candor. And then the laughter will really stop.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.