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DeLay shows defiance in defeat

In announcing he'd give up his House seat rather than run for reelection and risk losing amid allegations of money laundering, Rep. Tom DeLay was proud. He was combative. He was determined to come back.
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The notion of leaving the game but claiming victory isn't unique to politics. Athletes sometimes paint their losses as wins, though not always convincingly. Soldiers have been known to declare victory and go home.

Still, there's something so Washington about the defiant resignation, the politician-as-Terminator ( I'll be back ). Or -- in the case of Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay -- the exterminator as Terminator, a man who intends to continue fighting, only now as a private citizen.

We've seen defiance in defeat many times before: Forty-odd years ago, a candidate on the wrong end of the California governor's race seethed at the media: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."

Four years ago, New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli abandoned his bid for a second Senate term amid ethical troubles.

"Don't feel badly for me," the self-described "fighter" said. "I've changed people's lives."

This is what people call being bloodied but unbowed. In announcing he'd give up his House seat rather than run for reelection and risk losing amid allegations of money laundering, DeLay was proud. He was combative. He was determined to come back. He was everything anybody who ever knew the pugnacious Texan would expect.

"Who wants to see him crying like Jimmy Swaggart?" asks political analyst Charlie Cook. "At this point I would be disappointed if Tom DeLay left any way but defiant."

"DeLay had a reputation for not running from a fight," says Republican strategist Ed Rogers. Remember that mug shot of the former House majority leader after he was booked in Texas, that victorous grin? Rogers says that smile was the equivalent of DeLay "giving his opponents the finger."

DeLay apparently concurs, although he might put it differently. In an interview with Time magazine yesterday, he said of the photograph, "Poor old Left couldn't use it at all."

Smile as shield
DeLay's smile had been his shield throughout the ethics investigations. He showcased it again in a taped resignation speech proclaiming his innocence, after telling his audience not to believe the "political pundits and media."

"I am quite certain most will put forward their opinions and conclusions devoid of and unencumbered by accuracy, facts and the truth," he said. "So I thought I might try to make everyone's job a little easier."

As he said that, he spread his clasped hands like a butterfly and smiled. I'll be back.

Registering defeat without seeming defeated -- with varying degrees of combativeness, ranging from outrage to quiet pride -- is an important skill for any politician. (It's certainly preferable to the Jim Traficant option -- refusing to resign after being convicted of bribery and other corruption charges, and instead being forced out by fellow lawmakers.)

In 1958, President Eisenhower's powerful chief of staff, Sherman Adams, resigned after accepting gifts. He blamed a "campaign of vilification." In 1989, House Speaker Jim Wright resigned after an ethics scandal. The Texas Democrat urged the House to end "this period of mindless cannibalism."

The day that President Bill Clinton was impeached, Vice President Al Gore proclaimed that Clinton would "be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents." Democrats assembled at the White House applauded. This is the Democratic version of a grinning mug shot.

‘The ultimate bantam rooster’
"It's from the animal kingdom," says pundit Marshall Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council. "Animals cannot show their fear or their dismay in defeat, and he" -- that's DeLay -- "is the ultimate bantam rooster."

Rooster or no, Republican strategists praised DeLay's approach to resignation, which included the taped video and a Q&A with Time. In that interview, DeLay continued to paint himself as a crusader, an underdog under-appreciated by the media, which didn't write enough about one of his charities because -- as his wife put it -- "they're scared to death it might make that Tom DeLay look like he could be part human." Asked what he wished he'd done differently, DeLay said, "Nothing."

DeLay said he would continue to spend time in the Washington area and "keep fighting for the things I believe in, outside of Congress."

"He's kind of like a boxer," says Democratic strategist James Carville. "He's ready to get back in the ring."

As for yesterday's video: Better than a "sweaty press conference," says Rogers.

Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, puts it this way: Rather than DeLay standing before cameras with "15 mikes on a podium" and "bright shining lights" and the possibility of becoming emotional or displaying "a sense of being hunted," DeLay "controlled the environment."

Bonjean, by the way, doesn't see any comparison to Nixon. DeLay didn't appear bitter in his announcement, he says. "He remained a team player," Bonjean says, and "at the same time, still blamed the Democrats."