WASHINGTON -- Long feared, occasionally revered, formerly powerful House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said his goodbyes yesterday as he stepped down from Congress to concentrate on his myriad legal problems.
DeLay was characteristically unapologetic as he praised the virtues of partisanship as a strength of the nation's democracy, rather than a weakness.
Ever since questions about his dealings with former uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff reached a boiling point, forcing him to relinquish his leadership post, DeLay has moved quietly through the halls of Congress, out of the limelight.
But it was an upbeat farewell for the hard-nosed former exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas. The guy known for twisting arms, taking names and telling members how to vote joked about his departure, gave a few last words of advice and insisted he had acted "at all times honorably and honestly."
Standing in the well of the House he had served in for more than 20 years, DeLay noted that most lawmakers leave due to defeat, death or retirement.
"And despite the fervent and mostly noble exertions of my adversaries over the years, I rise today to bid farewell to this House under the happiest of the available options," he said to laughter and then a standing ovation.
DeLay was beloved by the right for his hard-core conservatism and despised by the left for that very same thing. But Democrats also hated that he knew how to wield power and could ram his agenda through the House without compromising one whit.
"What made DeLay uniquely powerful unlike other congressional leaders is he could affect people's races in their district," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, calling him an ideological true believer.
Polarizing to the end, DeLay packed the lower chamber on the Republican side of the aisle with both supporters and detractors who sat rapt with attention. On the Democratic side, a few dozen members watched quietly until he took a shot at liberals.
"In any place or any time on any issue, what does liberalism ever seek, Mr. Speaker? More - more government, more taxation, more control over people's lives and decisions and wallets," he said, to hisses of contempt. "If conservatives don't stand up to liberalism, no one will. And for a long time around here, almost no one did."
Eventually, about a dozen Democrats turned their backs on DeLay and walked out before he could make his case for the benefits of partisanship.
Over the past dozen years, DeLay outlasted every other member of the original leadership team that strode into office after the GOP seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections.
His Capitol office was always open - and always filled with the heavy scent of cigars - as he wined and dined members of his party with a long buffet of barbecue or pizza on nights that the House was working late. During the day, platters of cookies were usually around, as well as trays of meat and cheese for those observing high-protein diets.
His decision early this year to relinquish the majority leader post came after months and months of denying that he had done anything wrong.
But his former deputy chief of staff, Tony Rudy, pleaded guilty to charges that he conspired with the now-convicted Abramoff to corrupt public officials. And his former press secretary, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty as well. Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.
DeLay was already confronting a campaign finance indictment brought by Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle in Texas. With his aides pleading guilty, DeLay faces the possibility of more serious charges from a Justice Department probe of corruption stemming from Abramoff's deal-making.
Despite all that, DeLay made no apology for the way he ran the House with an iron fist, shutting out the minority and pushing his troops hard to stick together.
"You show me a nation without partisanship, and I'll show you a tyranny," he said before leaving the House for the last time. "For all its faults, it is partisanship, based on core principles, that clarifies our debates, that prevents one party from straying too far from the mainstream, and that constantly refreshes our politics with new ideas and new leaders."
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.