More than 900 conservative leaders and activists gathered to praise House Majority Leader Tom DeLay last night, with several thanking God for the Texan’s role as the engine of the conservative legislative agenda.
?The leadership of the conservative movement all of my life has prayed for a leader like Tom DeLay, and I’m here today to publicly thank God for answering my prayers,? said Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation.
The conservatives paid $250 a plate, or $2,000 per table, to toast Mr. DeLay at the Capital Hilton and send the signal that they plan to back him fervently as he weathers charges over his conduct.
?The message of tonight is, ?if they pick a fight with Tom DeLay, they pick a fight with all of us,’? said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who also used his benediction to ask that God protect Mr. DeLay from political attacks.
The Texas Republican has been accused of violating House ethics rules by taking overseas trips paid for by lobbyists, and was admonished several times last year for the appearance of impropriety in fundraising and in using his government office.
Outside the hotel, several scattered groups of protesters stood on the sidewalk and called for Mr. DeLay to ?come clean.?
Even as the dinner was going on, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out fundraising e-mail from Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000.
?If Tom DeLay is the ‘conservative movement,’ then that is a sad movement indeed — and certainly nothing to go around celebrating,? Miss Brazile said.
But inside, there was no sign of any doubt among the grass-roots supporters, and several attendees said they were surprised by the wide range of people, from economic conservatives to social conservatives to neoconservatives.
Mr. DeLay’s wife, Christine, told the audience about meeting her husband in high school — ?there was this really hot guy, he was so cute? — and that she had to ask him out the first time.
She also shared her reaction when he told her he was running for the state legislature in Texas: ?I think my first comment is ?That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’?
Mr. DeLay sat at the head table grinning throughout the barbs that speakers tossed at the press.
In his own speech, Mr. DeLay joked about the accusations against him, telling the Jewish refugee from the former Soviet Union who introduced him, ?You gave them another trip that they haven’t found yet.?
But he focused mainly on Congress’ accomplishments since Republicans won control in the 1994 election.
?We have shifted the political debate in this country on the economy, on the size and mission of government, on our national security and on the role of faith in our society,? he said.
He also thanked his wife for sticking with him even back ?20 years ago, when I made a lot of mistakes and was a self-centered jerk.?
While most of Mr. DeLay’s jokes were directed at his Democratic opponents in Congress, the other speakers blamed the press for the questions facing Mr. DeLay.
L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said a Google search produced 833,000 matches for Mr. DeLay’s name and the word ?scandal.?
?This is a media out of control in their commitment to bringing down this man,? he said, questioning the ethics of reporters. But he compared Mr. DeLay to other prominent conservative figures like Oliver North, and predicted that like them, Mr. DeLay would survive.
Some joked that it could be worse.
?Nobody has yet put a pie in your face,? said Phyllis Schlafly. ?I guess your enemies don’t hate you as much as they hate Ann Coulter.?