Fall of the Ring Bearers

Rep. Jim Wright
12th Congressional District, Texas: 1955-1989
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski
8th Congressional District, Illinois: 1959-1995
Rep. Newt Gingrich
6th Congressional District, Georgia: 1995-1999.
Rep. Tom DeLay
22nd Congressional District, Texas: 1984-2006
I've watched them rise to power, and I've watched them fall. It's a pattern now so familiar that even during the darkest days of the last decade, I never doubted that Tom DeLay, too, would eventually self-destruct just like the political supernovas that went before him.

During the years I spent interviewing politicians, I left every single one of those interviews pondering a single question: Why on earth would any normal person lust for such an office? The answer to that question also explains why things are such a mess all the time. Herein lays the fatal flaw in modern democracy -- as a rule, "normal" people don't run for public office. Normal people understand the corrosive nature of achieving public figuredom. Normal people understand the dangers of flying close to the klieg lights of fame.

It's so dangerous because it plays on the most superficial of human emotions. First comes fame and public adulation. Then the unquestioning allegiance of sycophantic hangers-on. Finally there's "specialness" … you are treated differently than everyone else. Better. Much better.

At first, it's exhilarating. Then it's intoxicating. At first you appreciate it. Later you come to expect it. Because you are no longer like everyone else. You are special. Soon, the need to retain this special status dictates what you say, what you do, even what you claim to believe. (After all, if you were special, would you voluntarily go back to being ordinary?)

There's a term in Washington that such folks aspire to: player. If a political colleague tells you, "You're a player," that's high praise in D.C. I remember when I first heard that term. It was after a book I co-authored on the S&L scandal came out in 1989, and everyone on the Hill was reportedly reading it. A D.C. political consultant told me I was a player. It means you have pull. It means you can shape and influence events, make things happen.

But players in national politics come in various sizes. There are small players -- mostly first-term members of Congress. There are major players -- people like Ted Kennedy and Speaker Dennis Hastert -- who have been around a while and have accumulated chits. Then there are megaplayers. These folks have figured out how to accumulate so much power that they scare the hell out of everyone else. They are to politics what mob bosses are to organized crime. They can make or they can break. Small players quake in their presence. Major players are jealous of megaplayers and plot and scowl at them -- but only behind their backs.

Tom DeLay was a megaplayer. Before DeLay, Democrats Dan Rostenkowski and Jim Wright and Republican Newt Gingrich were megaplayers. Each of them choked upon the ring of power. Each of them slipped it on for what they believed to be all the right reasons. None of them could take it off once they felt the rush. And it destroyed them. I can always tell when a megaplayer has been corrupted by his power. They develop a relaxed swagger and a permanent, condescending smirk.

When I see that smirk, I recall Euripides' warning: "Those whom God wishes to destroy, he first deprives of their senses." Madness, in national politics, manifests itself as abuse of power, arrogance, a sense of entitlement, contempt for the rule of law and corruption.

So, Tom DeLay is history. But even as I type these words, I can hear in my mind the rumble of feet as GOP Big Players frantically search for DeLay's dropped ring -- lusting after the very power that has corrupted and destroyed most of its most recent bearers.

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