Shortly before Representative Tom DeLay announced he would leave Congress by summer, half a dozen advisers were on a conference call debating how to unveil their stunning secret. Suddenly, DeLay's Texas twang silenced the chatter. "Anybody wanna hear what I wanna do?" he asked mischievously.
Befitting a tactician and power broker who once ran the Capitol with equal parts guile and muscle, DeLay did it his way as he prepared to leave public life. He shunned the weepy contrition deployed by disgraced predecessors over the years and instead went out pummeling. He threatened to make one of his last acts an ethics complaint against Representative Cynthia McKinney, who later apologized for striking a Capitol Police officer. He said conservatives needed a new leader. He accused Democrats of "criminalizing politics." He said lobbying reform would be a sop to "the left." Although he has been indicted in Texas on money laundering and conspiracy charges, two of his former aides have admitted to committing crimes while on his payroll and federal authorities continue to investigate his relations with lobbyists, DeLay said he would have done nothing differently.
"I'm proud of my record," he said by phone while being driven to a golf course four days after TIME.com broke the news that he was quitting. "I'm proud of the last 11 years of changing this country and, indeed, changing the world. Why would I feel bad about it?" DeLay first disclosed his plans to resign in a lengthy interview at his kitchen table in Sugar Land, Texas, a forum he chose because he wanted to lay out his thoughts in detail rather than try to break through the cacophony of a news conference. "I'm a realist, and I know politics," he said, referring to poll numbers showing he could lose his November re-election race. "There's no reason to risk a seat. This is a very strong Republican district. It's obvious to me that anybody but me running here [as a Republican] will overwhelmingly win the seat."
The former pest-control entrepreneur says he had been contemplating a departure for months, and his struggle in last month's Republican primary helped cement his plan. He says he prayed repeatedly and even fasted, and made the final decision the day after receiving a thunderous response to a speech he gave in Washington at a War on Christians Conference on March 28. "The enemies of virtue may be on the march," he said, "but they have not won. And if we put our trust in Christ, they never will." He said the adulation convinced him he could do more good for the conservative movement on the outside than in government.
Friends, who had been worried about DeLay's increasing stress and growing girth, say he feels liberated. He just turned 59, and he celebrated by having dinner with his pastor and attending a gala for child advocates, whose cause he has long supported. He plans an aggressive schedule of speeches to promote foster care, the infusion of Christian faith into public life and the election of Republicans to all offices, great and small. DeLay said he has not ruled out becoming a lobbyist, and friends would not be surprised if he went that route. "He has to make a living," one said. DeLay told TIME he also wants to be a campaign strategist and has ideas for new techniques that will allow Republicans to "sneak up on the Democrats, and they will never see what's coming."