Respond to this Article October/November 2005

Getting Ahead in the GOP

Rep. Patrick McHenry and the art of defending the indefensible.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

His name, you notice immediately, is nearly an American hero's.

Rep. Patrick McHenry, 29-years old and a freshman Republican Congressman, is sitting calmly in front of an "ABC World News Tonight" camera, his prematurely grey hair parted on the side and pulled thick over his scalp. He is waiting for the show to begin. It is mid-July and a particularly perilous political moment. The House majority leader and conservative power broker, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is in hot water for taking a series of ethically sketchy trips--to the Mariana Islands, to Scotland, and to Russia--funded by lobbyists whose clients happen to have benefited from loopholes DeLay helped write into federal law. Even for Congress, this is shameless stuff and, with rumors of an indictment imminent, many conservatives are backing away from DeLay. But if the House leader has a more committed supporter on the planet Earth than Patrick McHenry, he is certainly not an elected member of the United States Congress. McHenry is one of only 20 Republican representatives who signed on with DeLay's ultimately failed attempt to rewrite the House ethics process to grant himself effective immunity from indictment. DeLay needs something--a diversion, dynamite in the distance.

And here is McHenry. As the camera turns on, his face snaps into a bank teller's automatic smile. McHenry is the kind of young person whom other young people can't stand because he comes across as if he's been prepping his whole life to be 40. His voice is high-pitched, his tone world-weary, measured, sighingly cynical. Twenty-nine years old, he's seen it all before. "This is just the pot calling the kettle black," he says, arguing that Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also took a trip she didn't fund herself. This is the Republican line of the day, even though Pelosi's trip was a non-profit-funded visit to a U.S. naval base while DeLay's was a St. Andrews golf vacation financed by indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Nevertheless, McHenry's eyebrows temple upwards, neat geometries of piety. "They call their own failure to disclose travel a mere oversight. But when Republicans do it, they call it an ethical scandal." Dynamite in the distance. The news report pivots, and ABC correspondent Brian Ross spends most of the rest of the segment affirming that Democrats, too, have taken some trips they haven't paid for. A pox on both their houses. For McHenry, this is mission accomplished.

No political movement can survive on talking points alone. It requires an endless succession of faces, flesh and bone, elected officials willing to impose their smiling mugs in front of the camera even when the talking points are ridiculous. In the nine months since he came to Washington, McHenry has cultivated a role as a kind of fraternity pledge for the House leadership, willing to do the dirty work on behalf of crusades that the rest of his caucus will no longer touch. He was still pumping Social-Security privatization this summer, months after the GOP leadership had given up on the bill. He was still attacking Terri Schiavo's husband after other Republicans, with an eye toward opinion polls, clammed up. And in June, he was summoned by the cable networks to defend Karl Rove after it began to appear likely that the president's chief strategist had identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent while talking to reporters.

McHenry is perhaps the most successful and precocious of the endless string of those guys, the youngish Republican representatives who show up on cable television to defend the indefensible. But McHenry has also mastered, far more quickly than most, the inside game, the art of cultivating personal relationships with the powerful. Soon after moving to Congress, McHenry hired Grover Norquist's press secretary as his own. More recently, he's been dating Karl Rove's executive assistant.

For his labors and for his promise, McHenry has won committee assignments and leadership positions like a row of shined medals, commemoratives for heroisms rendered. He's the only freshman to be part of the majority whip's team. He is co-chair for communications of the National Republican Congressional Committee, an exalted post that entitles him to help frame the national message for GOP candidates around the country. "He's got an awful lot of promise," House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told National Journal for a profile headlined "Boy Wonder." He has shared the stage with President Bush at the insurance industry's annual convention. Both DeLay and the man who replaced him as House Majority Leader, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), have hosted fundraisers for McHenry, a rare privilege for a freshman. A puffy Weekly Standard piece praised McHenry's "tenacity."

When Newt Gingrich brought the Republican Party back to power in the House in 1994, he did it with a phalanx of gate-crashers--dentists, insurance agents, small businessmen--political rookies and ideologues, many of whom have recently been at odds with DeLay and the spendthrift House leadership. A decade on, the revolution has calcified into what is less an ideology than a system, a cluster of organizations that manage power and careers--a political machine. Like most of the post-Gingrich generation, McHenry's ultimate loyalty is less to principle or ideology than to the machine itself.

To understand the values and pathologies of an organization, it often helps to follow the career path of its most precocious stars. Henry Blodget, the famous late-1990s Wall Street TV analyst, made it by grasping that his employer, Merrill Lynch, wanted him to talk up stocks that his firm had an extra hidden financial interest in selling to an investing public eager to believe the normal rules of share prices were suspended. Similarly with Sammy Glick, the fictional young Hollywood up-and-comer in Budd Schulberg's satirical novel about the 1930s movie business What Makes Sammy Run?, who figures out that stealing scripts and snitching on members of the nascent screenwriter's union is the way to get ahead in the studio system. Patrick McHenry is the Henry Blodget, the Sammy Glick of Republican power in Washington. "What Patrick understands is the same thing that George Bush understood," the omnipresent conservative power broker Grover Norquist told me, "which is how the modern Republican Party works."

Taking credit

"You had to hand it to him. He was always improving. I mean, he was becoming more and more expert at being Sammy Glick. The way he was telling this story, for instance. He wasn't outlining it, he was acting it. What the story lacked in character and plot his enthusiasm and energy momentarily overcame." --Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

McHenry represents North Carolina's 10th congressional district, an in-between place where the hollows and dipping roads of Appalachia drop down into the golf courses and big lawns that spiral out from Charlotte. The district is caught in an aspirational middle zone, too: On a dark back road with a house maybe every half mile, with the lawns only mowed now and then and fingers of grass lingering listless upright in the heat like the unemployed, there's a wood sign tacked to a tree, the kind of sign that in a Bugs Bunny cartoon would say, "Moonshine this-away." But instead it says, "Cherryville Golf Shop." The Almanac of American Politics has called the Tenth the "most blue-collar district in America."

Historically, at least, that's on account of the old textile mills, great long brick masses with broken windows, slung along the train tracks. The mills have been shut down for decades now, the work long since sent off to Mexico or China. But they have left this district with a particular quirk. The people who live here, many of them descendents of the mill workers who now commute to service jobs in Charlotte suburbs, still bank with the credit unions that originated in the mills, taking advantage of the better loan terms that tend to come from non-profit financial institutions. This is significant because one of the first bills authored by McHenry, whose district has 172,000 credit union members, would make it much harder for government to regulate or block the conversion of credit unions into banks, a process that tends to benefit the credit union's directors (who get to cash in stock options and can sometimes make millions) and hurt the union's members, who can no longer borrow and save at the same generous terms.

McHenry's credit union bill, a high priority for the banking lobby, has received strong backing from DeLay. The Republican leadership awarded McHenry a seat on the House Financial Services Committee upon his arrival in Washington. "Most people would say it's the most plum assignment you can get," one conservative lobbyist told me, "because you can leverage it to do so much in fundraising." But first you have to prove yourself. Asking McHenry to author a bill that undermines the interest of half his constituents is the political equivalent of demanding a young Mafia enforcer kill his cousin as a test of loyalty. "It's a bill that a lot of us are watching," a conservative activist from Mecklenberg County who has been skeptical about McHenry told me. "It's pretty clear that here McHenry is picking Washington over his district, and we're interested to see if he pays any price for it."

The crowd that fills an old textile mill in Morganton, N.C., in early August to meet with McHenry is comprised mostly of elderly supporters, with one exception: a clutch of young, well-dressed women at the back, stickers pasted to their lapels, the hand-printed word "bank" with a crude red slash through it. During the question-and-answer session, they stand up and speak, a few in turn. They're members of local credit unions, they tell McHenry, and worry that their credit union could now convert to a bank, leaving them high and dry. The older ladies and gents at the front of the room turn around, a little befuddled; so far, they've been nodding agreeably every time the sweet-faced young man tells them he's been cutting their taxes; this is an unexpected bit of controversy.

McHenry handles it expertly. As the women at the back of the room speak, he nods constantly to show he's taking them seriously; and when he begins to speak, McHenry commands the room, his hands moving forward to punctuate each essential word, model U.N.-style. He's spoken with the leadership of their particular credit unions, the Congressman says, and the leadership strongly supports the bill. (That these credit union managers stand to benefit financially if their institutions convert into banks, he does not mention.) Credit union members may not be completely aware of the provisions of his bill; in any event, he'd be happy to "get with you" afterwards, to talk through the technical details of bank conversion. Then, with the room still unsettled, McHenry smoothly moves the discussion back to safe ground, focusing on big, national topics--the plans Republicans have for major tax cuts, for Social-Security reform, for defending marriage. The room bursts into spontaneous and lavish applause. There's something openly paternal about the way the crowd reacts to him--they want to like him, want him to be doing good, this kid with their values, their politics, these hills in his veins.

Exile in Cherryville

"The first time I saw him he couldn't have been much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick…Always ran. Always thirsty." –Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

As it happens, McHenry's not even really from this district. He grew up in suburban Charlotte, the son of the owner of the Dixie Lawn Care Company, and after high school enrolled at North Carolina State. There, involved in politics, he displayed an early aptitude for translating conservative politics into street theater; in 1997, a sophomore, he stood on a Raleigh avenue as President Clinton's motorcade passed, a bearded Abe Lincoln mask over his head, and held a sign saying, "Who's sleeping in my bed?"

Halfway through his college career, McHenry left N.C. State, transferred to tiny Belmont Abbey College, and moved into a house off campus in the small nearby town of Cherryville. For a young man on the make, the move seemed an odd choice. Cherryville is a little, unprosperous town with nowhere to go and nothing to do, a place where middle-aged men walk along the side of the highway because the car broke down again. The town, in other words, is the kind of place that animates the nightmares of college juniors. As a long-term political strategy, however, the move made sense. The part of suburban Charlotte where McHenry had grown up was and is represented by a young, well-liked conservative, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) who figured to be around for a while. Cherryville was just across the border in a solidly conservative district whose man in Washington, Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.), was into his eighth decade and whose career seemed to be winding down. And this very conservative town was represented in the State House by a Democrat.

At Belmont Abbey, McHenry moved quickly. "He always managed to get his work done... but he made it clear from the beginning that he was going to miss a lot of classes, that his political work came first," McHenry's advisor, history professor Francis Murray, told me. Soon after arriving at Belmont Abbey, McHenry founded the school's College Republican (CR) chapter, then launched a winning campaign for chairman of the state CR organization.

The College Republicans have legendarily been the starting point, the training and networking ground, for the careers of all of the party's most influential activists: Lee Atwater, Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Karl Rove. And producing Roves and Atwaters, tactical geniuses and election-winners, is exactly what the organization is set up to do: The organization is a four-year crash course in how to win votes from conservatives, in electioneering, with its members running endlessly for College Republican state board, College Republican state treasurer, College Republican national committee. There's a balls-out element to these contests, to the infighting; when I talked to College Republicans in North Carolina, I heard constant, ridiculous allegations thrown at rivals within the organizations. This rival had an illegitimate son in Tennessee, that one paid for an abortion for some poor girl from Missouri. When I asked an innocent question about a network of political consultants in Raleigh, one College Republican stopped me immediately: "Surely you must have heard," he said ominously, his drawl thick, "about them bisexual orgies."

This training served McHenry well when, midway through his junior year, he declared his candidacy for the state House of Representatives. His opponent in the primary was a man named David Cline, a former county commissioner. McHenry prevailed upon College Republicans from around the state to volunteer, going door-to-door, and claimed in the course of his campaign that he was the most conservative candidate. The proof? He'd never voted to raise taxes, and once, as a county commissioner, Cline had. Cline said, essentially, of course he's never voted to raise taxes, he's a college junior. Didn't matter; the charge stuck--McHenry won. In the general election, he faced off against a connected, conservative Democrat, a businessman, Rotarian and ex-County Commissioner named John Bridgeman. McHenry, who seems to have been working from a limited bag of political tricks, claimed he was the most conservative candidate in the race. When that didn't work, he tried to link Bridgeman to the scandal-ridden Bill Clinton, charging that because Bridgeman was a Democrat, "he supported selling out the Lincoln bedroom." McHenry--keep in mind, a 21-year-old college student--lost. Bridgeman had managed to raise far more money, and one of the critical lessons McHenry's friends and advisors drew from the race, one told me, was that "Patrick had to get better at fundraising." Soon after he graduated from Belmont Abbey, he moved to Washington.

Political finishing school

"It's queer to think how many little guys there are like that, with more ability than push, sucked in by one wave and hurled out by the next, for every Sammy Glick who slips through and over the waves like a porpoise." –Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

"It wasn't like he was a Bill Gates, someone who was the smartest guy in the room or the most charismatic guy in the room or something like that," Dee Stewart, McHenry's former chief of staff and longtime political consultant, told me. "But he did something else just as special: He figured out what the system was, and he worked it harder than anyone I've ever met."

McHenry's first full-time job in Washington was with the conservative communications group DCI. It was quite a choice. If there is a center to Washington conservative dark arts, DCI is pretty much it. They were paid consultants, for instance, to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth last year, although they are most known for attacking fellow Republicans. DCI's founder is Thomas Synhorst; his expertise lies in "astroturfing"--developing fake grassroots groups to front for conservative and corporate causes--and "push-polling," a subtle technique that can impart damaging information about a rival candidate in the guise of a hypothetical question for a poll. Synhorst conducted, for instance, push-polls for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996, in which Iowans were asked if they would be more or less likely to vote for Steve Forbes if they knew that the candidate had a "promiscuously homosexual father."

This was McHenry's political finishing school. The recent graduate started work at DCI's New Media division in the fall of 1999; his main project was running a Web site, NotHillary.com, which peddled rumors that Hillary Clinton would run for president in 2000 in order to drum up conservative campaign contributions. Meanwhile, DCI was working for Karl Rove; Synhorst's group helped defeat Sen. John McCain in South Carolina that year with a series of notorious push-polls that, among other things, called McCain "a liar, a cheat, and a fraud." By June, with McCain no longer a factor and Bush breezing towards the nomination, McHenry used his connections to get an interview with Rove, who hired him to be the National Coalition Director for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

After the election, McHenry looked around for his next step. When a new administration sweeps into power, young partisans start looking for plum jobs--flipping through a book that is literally plum-colored to search for political appointee slots. The most coveted are jobs as "special assistants." Such positions require no substantive experience but put a young person in the room with an agency's principal decision-makers. They are also assignments that cannot be won without highly-placed contacts. So, when McHenry soon turned up as special assistant to the new Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, the wife of influential Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), it caught the attention of some powerful conservatives. "He had a reputation that preceded him," Norquist told me. "I was hearing from friends that Patrick was a rising star long before I met him."

There is a streak of impatience, urgency, get-aheadness that runs throughout McHenry's young career; he habitually stays at jobs for six or eight months, long enough to add a line to his résumé, make the necessary contacts, and then move on. McHenry stayed with Chao for less than six months; his credential in hand, he returned to North Carolina and began scoping out a second run for the Statehouse. He used the same tactic--claiming he was the most conservative candidate in the race--and with a weak field of candidates, he won. He spent the first half of 2003 attacking the moderates who ran the Statehouse when, almost as if on schedule, the local congressional seat opened up. The incumbent Ballenger had been making increasingly odd public statements (among other things, he attributed the breakup of his 50-year marriage to the presence of an American-Islamic relations association next door to his house) and soon was coaxed into retirement. Congressional seats don't come open too often in the one-party precincts of the South. Six months after he had taken his seat in Raleigh, McHenry announced that he was running for Congress.

I shot the sheriff

At 27, McHenry was only two years above the constitutional age requirement for running for Congress, though with his prematurely graying hair he could pass for 35. His real problem was that he had never worked a day in his life in the district as an adult. McHenry needed to get something relevant into his resume, quickly. So he took an alternate route: In the fall of 2003, he sat for the real estate licensure exam and, almost instantly, Patrick McHenry the political operative became Patrick McHenry the realtor, proprietor of "McHenry Real Estate." He didn't appear to do much business--local newspapers list no transactions and note that the "company phone number" he listed for state records was actually his personal cell phone--but "McHenry Real Estate" gave his campaign room to claim that he was the "one small businessman in the race."

Most politicians also need a local reputation, an organization, contacts, and a profile. McHenry didn't have much local profile--he was, his consultant Stewart says, "virtually unknown" in the district when his campaign began, having represented only 2 percent of it in the Statehouse. In contrast, also running for the Republican nomination were two local businessmen--Sandy Lyons and George Moretz--who were able to self-finance their campaigns, as well as David Huffman, the popular, 24-year sheriff of Catawba County.

That, according to the old rules of politicking, would have been that. The young up-and-comer would have been told--or made--to wait his turn while the more experienced men fought to claim their right to the district. But McHenry understood the new, emerging set of political rules. He may have been unknown in the district, but McHenry was known in Washington. Soon after he officially declared his candidacy, checks were coming in from conservative godfathers such as Norquist and from the PACs of powerful lobbies such as the American Medical Association and the National Home Builders Association. And while McHenry couldn't count on much of a local volunteer base, he could draw on his national contacts to staff his campaign with College Republicans. Volunteers from Alabama, Texas, and Missouri came to help out. In the North Carolina chapter, he brought in "what must have been every CR in the state," one volunteer told me, to knock on doors. When this seemed as if it might be coming up short, he applied another rule of Rove's GOP: Rules are made to be broken. His friends at the College Republican National Committee arranged to send 70 paid field operatives to work the district--a trip that may have violated the group's bylaws, which forbid the organization from taking a position in primaries. McHenry snuck into second place and a runoff against Sheriff Huffman.

Sheriff Huffman occupies a position on the political spectrum that might fairly be called lethally conservative. "Patrick's people called me anti-gun," he complained to me, "but I was the only sheriff in the state to vote to make it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit." This is an obvious point of pride for the sheriff. In the two-man race, he was the more established, the more well-known, and had staked out a political slot that was almost unimaginably right.

So how did McHenry convince voters he was the most conservative candidate? He simply said so. "It was our mantra," Elizabeth Beck, a former campaign worker and then-president of the UNC-Charlotte College Republicans, told me. "We told voters Patrick was the most conservative candidate in the race, that he was anti-tax, anti-gun control, and anti-abortion." The swarms of College Republicans also hustled: "We'd go knock on doors at 9 in the morning, and a lot of these places up in the rural areas seemed like it had been years since someone had knocked on their door--I never got turned away." Once inside, the College Republicans opened up campaign-bought portable DVD players and let McHenry's recorded address play away.

McHenry, a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant district, also started attending Baptist youth groups. "I knew he was against abortion and against the homosexual agenda," Pastor Ruffin Snow, a Baptist minister from Hickory who is considered a major power broker in McHenry's district, explained to me. "But with him being Catholic, the most important thing was I asked him, actually, the same question I'm fixin' to ask you, Ben. I asked him, Patrick, if God were to call you today and ask you whether you deserved to go to heaven, would you be able in your heart to tell him you did? Because," the pastor added with a sly hint of the deep and dark, "everyone spends eternity someplace." Pastor Snow let that sink in and continued: "And Patrick said to me, 'yes, because even though I'm Catholic I'm also born-again, I've accepted Christ into my heart.' And that was good enough for me."

After a bitter election campaign, in which Bob Novak echoed the McHenry campaign's cooked-up charges of ethical improprieties against Huffman and the sheriff charged his challenger with throwing beer parties for underage students, McHenry won the run-off by 85 votes out of 30,000 cast, and trounced his Democratic opponent in November to win the congressional seat.

"No rules in a knife fight"

"There is no word in English to describe it. You could say gloat, smile, leer, grin, smirk, but it was all of those and something more, a look of deep sensual pleasure." --Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

Congress! McHenry arrived already a celebrity, thanks to his youth. C-SPAN recorded McHenry and his staff--virtually all of whom were fellow former College Republicans--setting up their office. In a first-day profile, the Winston-Salem Journal noted that McHenry had been more or less waiting for this moment since high school. When the youngest member of the 109th Congress headed for his first vote, "That's when it hits you like a freight train," he told the paper. "This is the first time you realize the responsibility voters have given you." The first vote he had to cast was for speaker, a foregone conclusion. "When they called out my name," McHenry told the Journal, "I stood up and said loudly, 'Hastert.'"

"What stood out about Patrick from the beginning," Charles Symington, the influential head of Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America's government affairs program, told me, "was he was interested not only in policy but also in politics, that he was willing to work hard and fight on behalf of the Republican leadership." The only thing that seemed strange, a conservative activist in North Carolina told me, was that "Patrick and his staff still seemed to have what you could call an obsessive involvement in College Republicans--this was a sitting Congressman and his staff, mind you, and they were making calls to try to go behind the scenes and figure out who was getting elected to the state board, kid stuff like that, what seemed like every week. It was odd."

The shape of the College Republican national organization was beginning to shift, mud underfoot, the friends and allies McHenry had made were losing influence and power. During the lead-up to the 2004 election, the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) sent out a fundraiser that specifically targeted, as The Washington Post put it, "elderly people with dementia," and misled them into thinking they were sending money to President Bush's reelection campaign. The letter became a low-level scandal in the national press, a story helped along by the pathos of the victims: elderly conservatives with little to live on who were sending their savings on to a bunch of bow-tied college kids, smirking at their swelling bank accounts. But things really hit the fan when the letter's author, a University of South Dakota senior named Paul Gourley (a close friend and ally of McHenry's), announced he was running for national chairman, and a series of quick endorsements by the outgoing CRNC National Chair and the leaders of major state delegations followed. An outraged caucus within the CRNC came together behind an insurgent, Michael Davidson.

College Republican campaigns are big money--costs can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the rewards are big, too: The chairman, who gets a $75,000 salary and benefits, manages a paid staff with an annual budget of $2 million in salary and expenses. And the fundraiser was seamy stuff, the kind of thing that elected officials fight like hell to distance themselves from. National political figures from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Davidson. The House Ways and Means Committee Chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), even held a fundraiser for him. At the convention, things got competitive, then grotesque. Convention speakers were deleted out of the program at the last minute, replaced by figures who supported Gourley. Delegations switched allegiances for mysterious reasons in the dead of night; virtually everybody accused virtually everybody else of being gay. As The New Republic's Franklin Foer reported in a recent account of the CRNC convention, the Gourley-Davidson contest began in earnest after Norquist reminded delegates from the podium that "there are no rules in a knife fight."

This was when Patrick McHenry, sitting in his congressional office, picked up the phone. The tradition in Congress has been that it's perfectly fine to endorse candidates, but it's a little below the office to get personally involved in the organization's races. But like his mentors in the Republican leadership, McHenry wasn't much for tradition. North Carolina's College Republicans had endorsed Davidson, and so McHenry and his chief of staff, Jason Deans, began to phone the leaders of the North Carolina College Republican chapters, asking for them to change their vote. "Patrick said that he had only won the election because of the field reps the [College Republican National Committee] had sent, that Davidson wouldn't send them again, and that Patrick wouldn't win reelection without the field reps, and if we wanted Patrick to stay in Congress, we'd back Gourley," Elizabeth Beck, then the chair of the College Republican chapter at UNC-Charlotte, told me. In other phone calls, McHenry was more blunt: "He told me, and several of my friends that we were done in politics if we didn't support him," another College Republican chapter president told me. (McHenry has admitted that he and Deans made the calls but denied that they threatened anyone's career). Over the course of two weeks, after a couple of a dozen calls, McHenry prevailed upon those in the North Carolina delegation to change their votes, removing three votes from Davidson's column and putting them in Gourley's. Gourley ended up winning by six votes; had North Carolina voted the other way, Davidson might have won.

Not dead yet

In late September, the day after Tom DeLay was indicted for criminally conspiring to funnel corporate money into state elections, New York Times columnist David Brooks tried to cast a hopeful spin on the situation, declaring: "The old team is dead." He meant that the indictment signaled an end to the kind of political world in which McHenry had ascended, where "loyalty to the team matters more than loyalty to the truth."

Dead? Well, maybe. But there remains a whole generation of conservatives in Washington who came up through that system and who have rallied to defend it. That includes McHenry, who appeared on FOX News the night that the indictment was announced to debate his 68-year-old Democratic congressional colleague Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). The two batted their talking points back and forth--"it's a culture of corruption"; "no, it isn't"--when McHenry hit a little lower. Interrupting Pascrell, McHenry said he couldn't believe someone from New Jersey had the nerve to talk about ethics. Pascrell blew up, as did most of the Garden State delegation. McHenry later apologized to Pascrell privately, but never publicly. And the attack did nothing but burnish his image among fellow conservatives as a nervy team player.

"You know, I see him as someone who could someday be vice president," McHenry's political consultant Dee Stewart tells me. "Not president, because you've got to be more bipartisan for that, but a vice president, someone who could become a conservative legend."

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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