• U.S.

Newt’s Battle-Ready Armey

4 minute read
Kevin Fedarko

If Dick Armey was little known outside the Capitol until now, it wasn’t because he sugarcoats his message. Invited to the White House in March 1993 to offer his views on the Administration’s new economic plan, he told Clinton . that the plan was dumb and would sink his presidency. Three months later, the Texas Congressman called Hillary Clinton a Marxist. He apologized — and then promised to restrict his Marxist comparisons of the Clintons to Groucho, not Karl.

Armey’s flair for pit-bull partisanship has catapulted him from obscurity to the upper ranks of the new Republican regime on Capitol Hill. Nine years ago, as a freshman Congressman, he was dismissed by the Almanac of American Politics as “hardly likely to be a power in the House.” Now he stands ready to assume his job in the next Congress as majority leader and right-hand man to Newt Gingrich, the future Speaker of the House. That might not be the sort of influence one would expect from a man whose pickup truck sports a bumper sticker that reads EAT, SLEEP AND GO FISHING. But Armey has an appetite for power and a talent for finding the straightest route to it. In June, before almost anyone in his right mind would have thought Republican control of the House was possible, he was writing a memo detailing the transition plan for his party.

As the story goes, the 54-year-old former economics professor entered politics after watching C-Span one night and remarking to his wife, “Honey, these people sound like a bunch of darn fools.” “Yeah,” she replied. “You could do that.” After winning his suburban Dallas district in an upset, he proved her right by spending his debut months in Washington dramatizing his frugality by camping on a cot in the House gymnasium. Evicted by then Speaker Tip O’Neill, he reluctantly retreated to a sofa in his office and later to a house in Maryland.

Known for his acid sense of humor, Armey has used his seat in the House as a duck blind from which to take potshots at the Administration. His weapon of choice is the rhetorical blunderbuss. The Clinton presidency is not merely flawed; it is a “train wreck.” The health plan was not simply misguided; it amounted to a “Dr. Kevorkian prescription.” And the Congressional Budget Office is not just a poor source of economic data; basing conclusions on its figures is “like relying on the Flintstones for an understanding of the Stone Age.”

When he is not in attack mode, Armey can be highly productive. In 1987 he launched a crusade to close obsolete military bases, an almost hopeless cause in a Congress where everyone defends home-state pork with a passion. But Armey advocated giving a bipartisan commission the full authority to do the job. Passage of this measure altered his reputation as a legislator, proving that he could listen and persuade. Yet his highest skill lies in attack by ridicule, usually through the deft use of symbolism. It was Armey who first unveiled a Byzantine chart of the Clinton health plan that reduced it to a visual cacaphony of arrows, boxes and fine print. The image was devastating.

His future agenda is focused on “building down,” as he puts it. Pet projects include proposals to get rid of farm subsidies and scrap the Social Security system. Still, there are signs that he may have softened his edge. “We want to have a happy, democratic work environment that is welcome for Democrats as well as Republicans,” he said last week. “We’ll show ((the Democrats)) our good grace, and their worst fears will not be realized.” But Democrats may wonder: Is that a genuine offering or an appetizing lure trolled by a crafty angler?

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