WASHINGTON — Dick Armey is a grizzly-bear-sized man who looks more like a pro-football linebacker than the economics professor he once was. He drives around Dallas in a red Ford pickup on weekends. And Representative Armey has a reputation for parsimony: During his first decade in Congress he saved money by sleeping on a couch in his office.
On a recent Tuesday, his ornate china-blue lounge, just off the House floor in Washington, seems an odd setting for a homespun update on the fishing exploits of the House of Representatives majority leader.
"Y'all had a good weekend I trust?" he asks gathered reporters. "Let me tell you about mine.... I mowed my lawn and caught the biggest bass I ever saw in my life."
The folksy presentation, often peppered with references to country music, masks an armadillo-tough partisan who entered the House as a political neophyte after the 1984 elections and in just eight years clawed his way into the Republican leadership.
Once known for his sharp-tongued attacks on the Clinton White House, Armey, colleagues say, has matured in his role. As House Speaker Newt Gingrich has lowered his profile, Armey has stepped further into the spotlight as a Capitol Hill power broker. Last Friday, for example, it was Armey who publicly defended the Republican position in the contentious debate over disaster relief funding. As the party's No. 2, there is talk about Armey eventually succeeding Representative Gingrich (R) of Georgia as Speaker.
It was Armey and Gingrich, who co-authored the Contract With America and helped engineer the end of 40 years of Democratic Party control of the House.
LOOKING back on that landmark shift in power and the rocky partisan battles that ensued, Armey observes during a Monitor interview that "there were two big emotional problems with the [104th] Congress ... One was the Democrats' inability to manage their disappointment, and the other was our inability to manage our enthusiasm," he says.
He blames the GOP demeanor on the "40 years we wandered in the wilderness." "[Jesus] Christ ... says you should be 'wise as serpents and harmless as doves.' Well, we were as wise as doves and harmless as a serpent on too many occasions." He adds, "We were too quick to state publicly things that didn't need to be stated."
Among some Democrats, Armey has a reputation as a swaggering conservative. And past House leaders were often noted for iron-fisted rule. But "that's just not [Armey's] style," says Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a Republican moderate. "Like Newt, he tries to appeal to your intellect.... He's just basically a good-natured individual."
Rep. David McIntosh (R) of Indiana, a vocal member of the party's conservative wing, praises Armey's "unity dinners." He invites a dozen or so Republicans on different sides of an issue to try to find common legislative ground. "People felt thankful that Armey was willing to listen and to set up those structures."
Armey attributes his approach to dissidence in the ranks to what his wife calls his "darned laissez-faire attitude," and "Armey's Axiom: You can't get ahead while you're getting even."
"I reject the power model," he says. "If we're strutting around here telling everyone how big shot and powerful we are, we're gonna be called on to demonstrate that. The fact is, I cannot force another one of my colleagues to do one darned thing that they're not willing to do.... So what you do is accept with as much grace as you can your own disappointment that somebody was 'off the reservation' ... and you encourage them to understand that you regret that."
Even so, Armey is better than Gingrich at enforcing discipline when necessary, says Dave Mason, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who's worked with the majority leader. "Gingrich tries to be a very participatory leader.... Armey is a lot better at figuratively and literally putting his arm around people and saying, 'Hey, you're just going to have to do this.'"
Still, "I don't think anyone fears him," Representative Shays says.
Like most politicians, Armey has gotten into his share of hot water over the years. During 1993 and 1994 his criticism of President Clinton's health-care proposal, and of Hillary Rodham Clinton, its chief drafter and advocate, enraged White House partisans. And Armey publicly apologized after a mispronunciation of Rep. Barney Frank's name early in 1995 sounded like a slur on the Massachusetts Democrat's homosexuality.
He insists that he uttered no such slur and now says he shouldn't have apologized. "I did not say it. It was not a slip of the tongue. It's not something that was in my mind or in my heart."
But the majority leader doesn't shy away from his critical opinion of Mr. Clinton: "I don't take the president as a very serious person when it comes to matters of national public policy.... And maybe my assessment is not accurate, but I see him in a lot of meetings... The president has a lot of folks that are concerned about whether or not he has the seriousness of purpose that one expects of the president of the United States or the uniformity of commitment that one expects...."
An unabashed supply-sider, Armey supports a flat income tax and has spoken in the past of abolishing the minimum wage. He's an ardent foe of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's so strongly against tax increases that he helped bring down President Bush's budget agreement with congressional Democrats in 1990, a move that paradoxically damaged Bush's presidency but set the stage for the Republicans' 1994 congressional victory.
Armey's biggest legislative achievement before entering the leadership was the bill setting up a review process for military baseclosings. "He took a problem nobody could solve and he solved it," Mr. Mason says.
Armey says his best moment as majority leader was when the House leadership pushed through a tough bill cutting the Health and Human Services Department budget in the 104th Congress. "That was probably as near to a moment of elation as any of us felt.... I don't do elation often, nor do I do depression often. I do stoic most of the time," he says.
His worst moment: August 1995, when the leadership lost control of the Republican caucus over an adjournment vote, he says. Passage of a minimum-wage hike also stung. "I realized that we as a conference had not understood and accepted all the responsibilities and disciplines of a majority."
ARMEY doesn't draw much criticism from Republicans. Mason would like to see Armey disagree publicly with Gingrich on at least one major issue. Shays says Armey is "getting better at taking more of a national, rather than a Texas, perspective." Another GOP member complains, however, that "when he and his staff have a plan in mind of how a process should work, they stop listening..."
Back at the press briefing, reporters want to know what Armey did with the bass. "I kissed it and put it back in the water."
Are the fishing stories and country-music quotes an act? Mason says that with Armey, what you see is what you get: In 1996, he went looking for Armey at a conference for GOP freshmen and found the majority leader shooting the breeze with a group of Capitol policemen, clad in a windbreaker, cowboy boots propped up on a table. "I've seen pols who take on the country manner but couldn't sit down and have a conversation like that to save their lives," Mason says.
ARMEY AT A GLANCE
* Born July 7, 1940, in the small farming town of Cando (pronounced CAN-do), N.D.
* Worked at a grain elevator and as a lineman for a rural electric company.
* Received bachelor's degree from Jamestown College in North Dakota in 1963.
* Received PhD in economics from the University of Oklahoma, Norman, in 1969.
* Defeated Rep. Tom Vandergriff (D) in 1984.
* Married, with five children.
* Slept in House gymnasium and later in congressional office to save money.
* Chairmanship of Republican Conference Committee in 103d Congress.
* Helped pass nine of 10 legislative pieces in the Republican Contract With America as majority leader of 104th Congress.
* Heavily criticized in 1995 for the self-described "unintentional mispronunciation" of Rep. Barney Frank's (D) last name, which sounded like an anti-gay slur.
* Deemed by Hillary Rodham Clinton the "Dr. Kevorkian" of the Clintons' health-care reform package.
* Currently serving seventh term in Congress and could replace Newt Gingrich of Georgia if he were to resign from his position as House Speaker.