LOS ANGELES – "I did a good job," Tom DeLay said Thursday in his farewell speech to the House of Representatives. "I helped build the largest political coalition in the last 50 years. The K Street project and the K Street strategy I am very proud of."
At least Republicans will have to finally stop denying its existence.
The K Street Project was the business of forcing the big corporate lobbyists to hire Republicans and donate to Republicans if they wanted to do business on Capitol Hill. For years, the boys used to claim that it really didn't exist. Just a figment of overactive Democrat imaginations, they used to say. Guess again.
K Street is the stretch of Washington populated by expensive restaurants frequented by fat cat lobbyists and the members and staffers who feed at their trough. But it is not simply a place, but a way of doing business.
Don't have an office on K Street?
Don't have a lobbyist who represents you with an office there?
And you wonder why Congress doesn't work for you? You don't own a piece of the rock ...
Tom DeLay is too arrogant to lie. He couldn't resist taking credit. Of course it existed. Now they can fight about who invented it. At least not Al Gore.
"He corroded the safeguards of the institution against corruption and put in place a culture where you could trade legislative favors for campaign contributions," said longtime Democratic Rep. George Miller. Tom DeLay didn't invent pay to play. Both sides have been doing it for years. But he probably went further than anyone else in institutionalizing the action.
DeLay's theory was simple: We're in charge. We run the business, so you do business with us. He insisted that Republicans get more than their fair share of the gravy. He turned it into a system.
There is a reason, a very good reason, that people think less of the Congress today than they ever have in the past.
For this he takes pride?
In DeLay's view, a descent into the worst kind of small time greed and partisanship is the music of freedom. The best government money can buy.
But little boys – and girls -- screaming at each other is not a symphony. It's not any kind of music. It's just screaming, just discord, just the house falling down.
"He's been a real leader," Rep. John Boehner, the Republican who took his place, said of DeLay. And so it went. Some Democrats came to hear DeLay give his going away speech, but they noisily left, when they realized what he was going to say.
The fact that DeLay is under indictment in Texas is dismissed by his supporters as pure politics.
OK, but what about the guilty pleas by two of his former senior aides? Is that politics too? Do people get any apologies for that?
And what about his former pal Jack Abramoff? Any apology for him?
Does Tom DeLay have nothing at all to apologize for?
The best defense may be a good offense, but there are moments in life to take stock, and this guy doesn't seem to recognize them.
"Hopefully, his passing means the institution may have some chance to recover," Rep. Miller said.
I wouldn't bet on it.
The sad part is that Tom DeLay is the model, for many, of the successful modern politician, part of Newt Gingrich's inner circle who helped Republicans take control of the House in 1994, and a firm believer in hardball politics. He has not been denounced by the leadership of his party. His tactics have not been rejected. His approach has not been discarded. His protégés are still part of the inner circle. His policies are still in place. His system is still in force. Never apologize, never explain.
In his speech, he claimed, indictments and guilty pleas notwithstanding, polls notwithstanding, and resignations notwithstanding, that he had at all times behaved "honorably and honestly."
The really difficult challenge posed by a politician like Tom DeLay is how you beat him. It's all well and good to denounce him, but as my friends tell me over and over, his game works. So do you play his game, or denounce it? Do you form your own K Street project, or just attack his? It's an ugly game, but he and his friends know how to play it, and they play it well.
The Democrats left the chamber on Thursday when they realized DeLay had no intention of apologizing for anything. The Republicans gave him one standing ovation after another.
Stay or leave? Pay or play? DeLay doesn't make it easy.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.
Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the Fox News Channel.