WASHINGTON – He never got the flat tax that spurred him to run for office, but House Majority Leader Dick Armey departs Washington with his cowboy-boots image and one more bomb to throw as he exits the stage: He may go work for the ACLU.
A conservative Texas Republican with a libertarian bent, Armey says he is considering consulting with the ACLU on privacy issues.
It's not as big a leap as it may appear. In the past, Armey has worked with the ACLU to protest what he considered government invasions of privacy. He also opposed Attorney General John Ashcroft's Operation TIPS — Terrorism Information and Prevention System — that would have encouraged Americans to look out for suspicious activity and report anything unusual.
"He is as passionate about privacy as we are," said Laura W. Murphy, ACLU Washington office director.
Armey does not miss the irony in the possible alliance.
"The Dick Armey of circa 1984 would not have considered coming within an inch of his life" of the ACLU, said Armey, who entered Congress in 1985 a pesky gadfly and at 62, leaves as the second-highest ranking House member.
But challenging institutions is classic Armey.
Early in his congressional career, he was dismissed as a quixotic lawmaker who slept in the House gym and had quirky ideas, like eliminating Social Security and farm subsidies.
He ends his nine terms as part of the mainstream.
"There's very little I did in my 18 years that someone else could not have done. It was just my good fortune to be able to do it," Armey said.
He will be honored with his portrait to be hung in the Capitol. Fellow Republicans asked Bob Ney, R-Ohio, to approve the painting, to be paid for with private money. As the Administration Committee chairman, Ney can approve portraits of House speakers, committee chairmen and for special circumstances, such as distinguished service.
"He's a great guy. I was happy to do it," Ney said.
Armey entered Congress as a foe of Big Government, the minimum wage and the Internal Revenue Service. But his last big legislative achievement was helping pass a measure to create the vast Homeland Security Department, the anti-terrorism agency that will merge dozens of agencies and some 170,000 employees. Armey has said the department consolidates several agencies so it keeps with his philosophy of shrinking government.
"Armey culturally, definitely represented the sagebrush rebellion with cowboy boots, a deep tan, his deep smoker's laugh," said Kenneth R. Weinstein, director of the Washington office of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. "He's very much someone who embodied in some ways the leave-it-alone coalition — guns, cutting budgets, making government smaller."
He was an economics professor at what was then North Texas State University near Dallas, when he won an upset victory over a Democratic incumbent.
Armey had a bumpy start, but he attributes his eventual acceptance to creating the independent process for closing military bases. Armey said he accomplished that with "hand-to-hand persuasion."
"I was profoundly aware that most bum raps we (the GOP) were getting were borne out of our demeanor," Armey said. "I think I got better at that after the 1996 elections."
That realization came too late for a moment in Armey's career that he can't escape, his 1995 referral to Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat, as "Barney Fag."
Armey maintains it was a slip of the tongue, but Frank, who allied with Armey on the base-closing measure, never accepted the explanation.
"I think Dick Armey was a much better rank-and-file member than majority leader," Frank said. "When he was rank-and-file, he was quite thoughtful. ... Once he became majority leader he abandoned a lot of that and became a right-wing apparatchik."
Within his party, Armey helped develop the Contract With America, playing a part in bringing the GOP to power in 1995. An ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he became majority leader without a challenge.
He lost some favor in his party in 1997, when he was named as part of an aborted coup to oust Gingrich, but said he was not in on the plotting. And in 1998, he came close to losing his job after the party endured some Election Day losses.
Despite the setbacks, Armey's party now controls the House and Senate and the White House, for which he accepts some credit. He says he may be a little more diplomatic now, but he has not given up on some beliefs. The flat tax, for instance, did not become law, but Armey says he put some legs under it.
"They say, too often people come to Washington a young idealist and leave an old cynic. I'm actually leaving an old idealist," Armey said. "I'm pretty much the same guy with the same values, the same hopes and dreams as when I came to Washington."
Quick on the draw with his mental index of country music lyrics, Armey adds a line from a Waylon Jennings song: "I may be used, but I'm not used up."