Armey Explains His Favorite ‘Axioms’

Posted October 10, 2003 at 10:27am

By Jessica L. Brady

Roll Call Staff

In his latest book, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) dedicates the 21st chapter, titled “If you insist on center stage, you get the tomatoes,” to former colleague Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

As a man who was constantly in the spotlight and oftentimes put himself there, Armey writes that Gingrich, a former House Speaker, was ridiculed by critics and taunted by the press. When it was his turn at center stage, Armey said he began to “take the blows.”

“Armey’s Axioms: 40 Hard-Earned Truths from Politics, Faith and Life” is a compilation of the former Congressman’s favorite phrases and the stories behind them. Armey, who retired from Congress in 2002, has made dropping punchy phrases his shtick for years.

Well before his 18-year tenure in the House, the leader was reciting anecdotes to keep students awake during his economic classes at the University of North Texas, where he taught from 1972 to 1985. His first, “The market’s rational, the government’s dumb,” was the name and central point of a graduate seminar. Unfortunately, the phrase was left on the cutting-room floor.

“My wife and mother-in-law said it was too boring,” Armey said in an interview. “I guess no one wants to read about economics.”

The quotable expressions, which Armey said he invented to “have a gimmick in order to stand out,” got more attention on Capitol Hill than in the classroom. Inspired by political experiences, his years in academia, and even lyrics from country-western songs, Armey could blurt out an axiom for any situation.

With more than three decades worth of phrases accumulated, Armey decided it was time to put them all in writing. Scribbling down a line whenever he thought of one, Armey had enough scraps of paper piled on his desk to write a book. However, a few old favorites were left out. “Washington is like a dysfunctional marriage. Every fight is really about something else” was one of them.

Greg Crist, who served as Armey’s press secretary, was disappointed the line didn’t make the final printing.

“That one was perfect when dealing with Members,” he said. “Dick used the marriage line when there was a struggle in a meeting. It couldn’t have been more poignant.”

The quote, referring to the smaller hang-ups often disguised by bigger arguments, was one of the many lines Crist heard Armey say when put on the spot.

“A few journalists approached him once to ask what he thought about what some Democrats were saying,” Crist remembered. “He sort of smiled and said, ‘Don’t slap the hand that greets you.’”

Crist said it was this no-nonsense, “truth with a twinkle in your eye” quirk for storytelling and line reciting that made Armey a success.

Terry Holt, an Armey spokesman for two years, agreed, calling his former boss “a genius with cowboy boots.”

“I think he rose through the ranks because of his wit and charm,” Holt, now a vice president at the Dutko Group, said. “His success in Congress was no accident.”

Like Christ, Holt can easily recall a story of his former boss reciting a life lesson in two sentences or less. Holt, a man of the Midwest who didn’t always understand Armey’s constant references to country-western music, said the Congressman responded to racism, policy, and even the Monica Lewinsky scandal with one of his infamous phrases. Regardless of the subject, Holt said Armey could squeeze in a country lyric somewhere.

“He’s a person of the West,” Holt said. “Regardless, everything he said was very direct and always memorable.”

Armey will discuss and sign copies of “Armey’s Axioms” at 7 p.m. Friday at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.