RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
During 12 years that Republicans ran Congress, one lawmaker mastered the details of passing legislation.
Mr. TOM DeLAY (Former U.S. House Majority Leader): I love counting votes. I loved working with the members and the whole strategy of moving pieces of legislation. It was a rush every time that we won.
INSKEEP: Former House majority leader Tom DeLay won a lot. He mustered Republican votes for tax cuts, and for the Terri Schiavo end of life case, and for the impeachment of President Clinton. It all ended last year when DeLay was indicted for misusing campaign money.
He resigned and his party lost Congress. Yet, he titles a new memoir, "No Retreat, No Surrender." One of the most powerful lawmakers of recent times recalls his time in office and his Texas youth.
Mr. DeLAY: My father was a very busy man, and after I was about eight or nine years old, he started drinking. Pretty much took him out of my life. My mother was an enabler, and she did a lot of things. And I would make decisions on my own, without input or advice from my parents.
When I decided to run for the first time for student body president against an eighth grader, most people would have probably told me to not do that. But I did, and I won.
INSKEEP: You were a seventh grader at the time?
Mr. DeLAY: Yes, I was a seventh grader, and I've pretty much done that my entire life.
INSKEEP: Do you think it affected you in some way, that you didn't have a more stable family life?
Mr. DeLAY: No. I think it made me a better person, particularly after I became born-again and my faith was strengthened.
INSKEEP: I have to ask because your father was an alcoholic, and because you write about your own heavy drinking right up through your early years in Congress. Was there ever a time when you would say you, yourself, would fairly be described as an alcoholic?
Mr. DeLAY: It scared me, but I don't consider myself an alcoholic. And I quit cold turkey, and I had no problem quitting.
INSKEEP: This was in the 1980s?
Mr. DeLAY: 1985 or '86. I haven't had a drink of hard liquor ever since.
INSKEEP: There must be times, I mean, you're out there, you're at receptions, you're giving speeches, you're working...
Mr. DeLAY: Well, I have a glass of wine every now and then. It's good for your health.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Did you learn anything, coming from a dysfunctional family, that proved to be useful when you became part of what some would call a dysfunctional family in Congress?
Mr. DeLAY: That's a very good question, and I think the thing I learned the most is to rely on others. In a dysfunctional family, it's contentious and there's a tendency to withdraw. And what I learned from that was to reach out. That's exactly what I did as whip.
Most people think I couldn't be as successful as I was unless I broke people's arms and necks to make them vote the way I wanted them to. That's not what happened at all. I created grow the vote, which meant reach out to members, find out what their problems are with a particular piece of legislation, work with them with the idea that by the time the bill got to the floor, they'd want to vote for it.
INSKEEP: Although somewhere in the background there had to be that understanding that if people crossed you too many times, they were not going to get the good committee assignments. They were not going to be part of your team.
Mr. DeLAY: No. That is a general understanding of the political process in the House. But I never threatened anyone. Now, there were times when people were punished. There's a member from New Jersey that was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, that's just...
INSKEEP: Chris Smith.
Mr. DeLAY: Chris Smith, who just would not run his committee like the caucus wanted him to approach his committee, and the entire caucus eventually removed him as chairman of the committee.
INSKEEP: He talked about that just recently on this program, because he was -he says what he wanted at the time was more funding for veterans' health care, which is suddenly very much in the news.
Mr. DeLAY: Well, Chris Smith wanted way too much funding.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DeLAY: For veterans' health care.
INSKEEP: And in spite of what's been reported in recent weeks, you believed you are right about that, and he was wrong, still.
Mr. DeLAY: Absolutely, I still do.
INSKEEP: Now, Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, has said for a number of years that his goal was to build a permanent Republican majority.
Mr. DeLAY: Hmm.
INSKEEP: Was that your goal?
Mr. DeLAY: Yes. It's still my goal.
INSKEEP: What were some of the key tools that you used in the effort to build a permanent Republican majority in the early 2000s, say?
Mr. DeLAY: Well, one, it's very obvious. It's what was called the K Street strategy. For 40 years, if you were an organization or company or whatever, you would hire lobbyists that had access to the people in power. So you hired Democrats. And K Street was overwhelmingly Democratic.
INSKEEP: Every firm would have its Republicans, though, of course.
Mr. DeLAY: Yeah, but they were all tokens, and we started the effort to convince people that if you wanted to bring your petition to the government, you should send somebody that believes the same things we do.
INSKEEP: You said you weren't going to meet with a lot of Democrats, specifically.
Mr. DeLAY: I didn't. I didn't.
INSKEEP: You said go hire a Republican and send him to me.
Mr. DeLAY: Why would I meet with an enemy? Why would I meet with somebody that wanted to make me the minority whip, and keep me from being the majority whip?
INSKEEP: Somebody might say because he's an American with an interest?
Mr. DeLAY: He's not an American with my interest or the interest of the agenda that we were trying to promote.
INSKEEP: Was there a danger in taking that lobbying culture and very actively trying to make them part of your team?
Mr. DELAY: It's not a danger. You need to do that. The Congress should not be isolated to the world. Certainly in order to advance your agenda, you have to work with people on the outside.
INSKEEP: Even though - let's be honest, they've got specific interests and if you're bringing them on your team, you're going to have to take care of them.
Mr. DELAY: Well, that's your decision. We didn't do that. There's been many times when there were people that contributed to my campaign that I told them, no, we're not going to do what you want to do.
INSKEEP: Although you also write that you did in fact let lobbyists write legislation if it affected their interest.
Mr. DELAY: Yeah. Just like the Democrats do too.
INSKEEP: I want to play a piece of tape if I might. This is from someone you criticize in the book, Dick Armey, former House majority leader who was interviewed last year on MORNING EDITION. And was asked if he felt that Republicans who remained in Congress had lost their way, and this is part of what he said.
Former Representative DICK ARMEY (Republican, Texas, Former House Majority Leader): Every week we come into Washington. We do things we ought not to be doing in order to stay in the majority so we can do the things that we know are good for the country. But we never get around to the latter. And the fact of the matter is if you're zealous in the pursuit of saving your majority, you're making political decisions and are probably going to get to a bad place in a hurry.
INSKEEP: That's former Congressman Dick Armey. You're chuckling as you listen to that.
Mr. DELAY: Well, I'm chuckling because I totally reject that.
INSKEEP: Is there some truth, though, that because the Republican majority was fragile, you had to take a lot of partisan steps and perhaps in one concrete way in some years spend a lot more money than conservatives would like because you could only go so far and succeed politically.
Mr. DELAY: I would put it a different way - we did as much as we could to support a conservative cause with the votes that were available to us. And we accomplished some pretty amazing things with very small vote margins.
INSKEEP: You also write here about your indictment. Because you titled the book "No Retreat, No Surrender," I wonder are you prepared to say that you will not take a plea bargain no matter what?
Mr. DELAY: No matter what. I'm not guilty of anything. And I will not succumb to the Democrats' criminalization of politics. I think it's incumbent on me to fight the politics of personal destruction that I've been living through for 12 years.
INSKEEP: Is it ironic that you're using that phrase that President Clinton's supporters once used? Politics of personal destruction.
Mr. DELAY: Nothing brought against President Clinton was done for politics of personal destruction. President Clinton lied to a grand jury and to the American people and he was held accountable for that because he was impeached.
INSKEEP: Granting your position on that, did you ever imagine you'd be using that same phrase to refer to yourself?
Mr. DELAY: No, probably not. But we did not have a concerted strategy to demonize President Clinton. The Left had an announced - a strategy to demonize me and they carried it out over the last 12 years.
INSKEEP: Former House Majority Leader Tom Delay is the author of "No Retreat, No Surrender." Thanks for coming by.
Mr. DELAY: My pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: And you can hear Delay's analysis of the 2008 presidential candidates at NPR.org.