Time to Put a Nail In DeLay Moniker?

Posted March 2, 2004 at 6:40pm

The activities of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) have frequently “raised questions” over the years. Here’s another one to ponder: If a nickname appears in print but is never spoken, does it really exist?

In a finding that could flummox future biographers and profile writers, a comprehensive, highly unscientific Roll Call investigation has revealed that DeLay is not, in fact, known to his colleagues as “the Hammer.”

Not a single Member or aide interviewed in the course of the investigation could recall an instance of anyone actually calling DeLay the Hammer, though all were familiar with the nickname due to its frequent appearance in the press.

“That’s a great media creation,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), adding that even if DeLay is the Hammer, “he’s never used it on me.”

The authenticity of other oft-used DeLay descriptors was more difficult to judge. The Texan is demonstrably a “former pest exterminator” and an avowed conservative, though he might be less apt to call himself “hard-right” or “hard-line.”

Determining whether he is also a “hard-charging arm-twister” would require the use of more subjective criteria.

Objectively, the press has referred to DeLay as the Hammer thousands of times, including 50 references in The Washington Post, 48 in Roll Call and 33 in The New York Times.

It has appeared in headlines in newspapers (“GOP’s DeLay Hammers an Array of Foes”), magazines (“‘The Hammer’ Strikes”) and wire stories (“Tom DeLay: ‘Hammer’ of the House”).

It has served as a verb, an adjective and a predicate nominative.

Sometimes a writer can boil it all down to one sentence. A brief 2003 magazine bio of DeLay Chief of Staff Tim Berry dubbed him “a veteran of the vaunted arm-twisting, vote-gathering operation of ‘The Hammer.’”

But why can’t a truly free press bestow a nickname if it wants to? Some would argue that pseudonyms can be legitimate even if they remain unspoken.

“I don’t think people would go to Babe Ruth and say, ‘Hey Sultan,’” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), referring to the slugger’s being known as the Sultan of Swat (but omitting mention of “Hammerin’” Hank Aaron). “There are some nicknames that are the sole domain of the press.”

An exhaustive historical review shows that DeLay’s title was first printed in a Nov. 27, 1995, Washington Post article by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf (“Speaker and His Directors Make the Cash Flow Right”).

The story began, “In the annals of the House Republican revolution, a pivotal moment came last April when an unsuspecting corporate lobbyist entered the inner chamber of Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose aggressive style has earned him the nickname ‘the Hammer.’”

John Feehery, who now works for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), was the Texas vote-wrangler’s spokesman in 1995 and was thus present at the Hammer’s creation.

“They don’t call [DeLay] Hammer,” said Feehery. “Actually that’s a misnomer, because DeLay is much more subtle than a hammer.”

Subtle or not, enterprising profile writers and amateur psychologists needn’t fear, because DeLay’s stormy relationship with his own nickname has plenty of symbolic value — as does the velvet-covered hammer DeLay gave Rep. Roy Blunt (R) when the smooth Missourian ascended to Majority Whip.

To some extent DeLay is responsible for his own portrayal by the press, as for years he and his staff assiduously cultivated the notion that the former exterminator was a feared presence in the Capitol. That image helped DeLay both in his work as Whip and in his development into an all-purpose Washington powerbroker.

In the previously mentioned 1995 Post story, for example, DeLay explained his K Street program — which encourages (or “pressures”) lobbying firms and trade associations to hire more Republicans — by saying, “We’re just following the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends. We don’t like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution. We know who they are. The word is out.”

In recent years, however, DeLay has broadened his scope, talking more about foreign policy and expressing some discomfort with his one-dimensional portrayal.

In 1999, New York Times scribe William Safire devoted an entire “On Language” column (“Could the Body Take Down the Hammer?”) to the issue of nicknames, and DeLay told Safire that he didn’t believe his sobriquet was necessarily accurate.

“Sometimes I’m a little blunt and forthright in what I believe,” said the hard-charging Texan, “and that’s created an image I don’t think I am, quite frankly.”