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David Fiderer

David Fiderer

Posted: August 11, 2009 10:28 AM

When Joe Scarborough Dragged Dick Armey Out of a Closet of Shame

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It was one of those ugly Washington stories that everybody knows about but almost nobody talks about. Joe Scarborough, to his credit, went on the record. In his 2004 Washington memoir, Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day, Scarborough provides a chilling portrait of the man who leads FreedomWorks, the organization now promoting brownshirt disruptions at town halls across America.

Before he headed Freedomworks, Dick Armey was House Majority Leader. According to Scarborough, Armey was bereft of common decency, a shameless liar who betrayed his colleagues. Armey worked hard to destroy the career of a young reporter. After that reporter's suicide, Armey helped spread rumors about a gay affair between the reporter and Bill Paxon, a congressman who angled to replace Armey as House Leader. Paxon immediately retired from politics, while Armey stayed on. It seemed like a life-imitates-art reenactment of the 1959 potboiler, Advice and Consent.

If Scarborough was disgusted by Armey, his Republican colleagues seemed unfazed. They kept Armey in his leadership post until 2003. Character is destiny, and Scarborough's portrait of Armey may foreshadow the ugly tactics of the teabagging crowd that attempts to shout down the healthcare debate.

In the book, Scarborough outs himself as the confidential source for Sandy Hume's blockbuster article for The Hill, which recounted the behind-the-scenes drama of an aborted Republican coup. In July 1997, G.O.P House members, including Scarborough, were fed up with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who proved to be incompetent when it came to working with people or getting things done.

The planned putsch by some twenty-odd renegade members failed because of a last-minute betrayal by House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who turned on his colleagues after learning that Bill Paxon, not Armey, was designated to succeed Gingrich. Right after The Hill published "Gingrich Foils Coup By Deputies," on July 16, 1997, Sandy Hume became famous. His story got plugged by Mark Shields on the PBS NewsHour, by Al Hunt on CNN's Capital Gang, and by Sam Donaldson on This Week. Hume was interviewed by Bernard Shaw on CNN's Inside Politics. Hume's article also elevated the stature of Bill Paxon. As if in lockstep, all the talking heads designated him to be Gingrich's heir apparent. The National Journal did a tally on July 21, 1997:

ABC's Kristol: "For the first time, there is now a credible alternative to Gingrich. .. He is the speaker- in-waiting" ("This Week," ABC, 7/20)... Time's Margaret Carlson: "Paxon's going to be speaker before the '98 elections" ("Late Edition," CNN, 7/20). Time's Mike Duffy: "He can now position himself as an alternative not only to the Speaker, but also to DeLay and Armey" ("Wash. Week," PBS, 7/18). Newsweek's Eleanor Clift: "Now it looks like [the GOP] is operating with the Ken Doll theory of succession: who looks good on TV. And so, Bill Paxon may well be exiled on Elba for a while awaiting a triumphant return." Roll Call's Morton Kondracke: "He's ultimately Speaker material, but I don't think in the short-term he's going to be Speaker. I think they're going to go to somebody else. ... Like Bob Livingston. ... If not Livingston then Kasich." Pat Buchanan: "I think Paxon will run against Newt. ... Paxon is the logical choice to run against Newt, but Newt will ask for one more year and I wouldn't be surprised if they give it to him" ("Group," 7/19).

But, as Scarborough writes, Armey was furious:

Armey was livid at The Hill story and used the next Republican caucus meeting to dismiss The Hill article as "a pack of lies." The denial was ridiculous since, by now, Armey's actions were a well-known secret within the caucus. Sandy Hume's article simply made Armey's mendacious actions known around Washington and around the world. [...] Following The Hill piece, Hume complained that Armey and his staff were doing what they could to harm Hume's career.

In fact, Sandy Hume's career seemed to be thriving. He specialized in "the juicy inside stuff" as he described it to The New York Times. "I can spend all day on the Hill and not know what a single vote is about...Almost everything they vote on is irrelevant to our mission.'" The son of Fox News anchorman Brit Hume was going places. On February 21, 1998, he accepted an offer to join U.S. News & World Report. "He seemed very well connected on a workaday level with the GOP power structure," U.S. News editor James Fallows told The Village Voice, "and for the foreseeable future that was going to be an important story."Later that same evening, according to reporter Andy Humm, Hume showed up at a Republican fundraiser, also attended by Bill Paxon.

But then, writes Scarborough, "Sandy passed away on February 22, 1998, at the age of twenty-eight." The Village Voice reported the details of on Sandy's "passing." At 2:20 a.m. on February 22, 1998, in Bethesda, Maryland, Sandy Hume's BMW was stopped for going 75 mph on a 45 mph zone. Hume was drunk and taken to a police station, where, in a holding cell, he was caught trying to choke himself with a shoelace. At 9:30 a.m., Hume was admitted to the city mental health clinic for psychiatric evaluation. Hume was released later that day, and he returned home, where he shot himself in the head.

"Hume's death represented an opportunity for revenge for some in the Armey camp," writes Scarborough, who recounted a phone inquiry from a Wall Street Journal reporter. "Someone in Dick Armey's office just told me that Sandy got the coup story by having a gay affair with Bill Paxon. Both knew the story was coming out and that's why Paxon resigned and why Sandy killed himself," said the reporter.

The obvious insinuation was that Sandy Hume killed himself because he was mortified at suffering the kind of fate borne by Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with Bill Clinton had been first reported one month earlier. Hume frequently appeared on Fox News, an outfit obsessed with the politics of personal destruction.

Two days before Hume's suicide, Bill Paxon contacted dozens of members to prepare a bid to oust Armey as Majority Leader. "House Republican renegades have issued a stern warning to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about influencing leadership elections: Fight for Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) at your own risk," wrote Sandy Hume in The Hill just before Paxon started calling. George magazine had commissioned a lengthy profile on Paxon, written by Sandy Hume.

Two days after Hume's death, Paxon, 44, retired from politics. He announced, "I will never run for office again. Never. Not even for dog warden." Scarborourgh recounts how he felt when the Journal reporter called:

I sat at my desk, rage growing by the second toward this reporter, Dick Armey, and the sleazy business of politics. For the first time since the coup began, I measured my words and held my anger. "I don't know who Sandy slept with and I don't care. But I do know Sandy didn't get it by having sex with Bill Paxon. Sandy got it by eating ribs in Shirlington with my ten-year-old son and me. I told Sandy everything about the coup from the beginning to end to show everybody what rally happened. Bill Paxon didn't give Sandy the story. I did."

Scarborough's candor helped keep Armey's narrative out of the press.

She and most other Washington reporters ignored the story that spread around the Capitol like a virus. Dee Dee Myers would tell me at Sandy's funeral that the slur against Hume was the single most disgusting thing she had ever encountered in politics. Those around us nodded in agreement that while winning in Washington was always a blood sport, the slur on Sandy was more like a political terrorist attack. And in this tragedy the collateral damage was not the reputation of the intended target. Everyone knew Armey's staff was lying. Instead, it was Sandy's family and friends who had to endure the unspeakable savagery of the attack.

It's a chilling parable, though one detail makes no sense. Why would Armey's people spread the story after Bill Paxon wrote his own political obituary? At that point, Armey had prevailed. By encouraging further talk about the matter, Armey was impeding Job 1 of the G.O.P. and the Washington media: Obsess about Monica Lewinsky all the time. Is there any chance that Scarborough got his chronology wrong? That perhaps Armey's people were spreading the story of a gay affair before Paxon decided to stop running for House Leader and permanently withdraw from politics?

Is it possible the mere rumor of a gay affair invoked such dread and fear in someone so invested in being a G.O.P. insider? Only two things seem certain. Sandy Hume can't speak for himself, and no one in the GOP leadership took Sandy Hume's suicide as a wake-up call to temper the viciousness of their personal attacks. No one, especially at Fox News, ever asked, "Is it possible that if we had not been so relentlessly mean-spirited in attacking the foibles of others, that Brit Hume might still have a son?"

After leaving Congress, Paxon addressed the gay rumors. He said they came from Democrats. Paxon's wife, former Staten Island congresswoman Susan Molinari, explained why they were easy targets."[B]ecause Bill was 40 when we were married and hadn't been married before, the rumors were I was gay and he was gay," she said. [New York Daily News, January 29, 1999]

Dick Armey appears regularly on Fox News with Neil Cavuto.