WASHINGTON — At one time or another, most journalists come to understand that they will not be the next Woodward or Bernstein. They are not likely to help bring down a president or, for that matter, even a county commissioner.

The joy of journalism in these days of newsroom layoffs, shrunken budgets and sophisticated political spin lies more often than not in a simple truth: Politicians say the darndest things.

They are, as a group, funnier than just about anyone but professional comedians. They make us giddy with their tortured locutions — Ronald Reagan saying that trees cause pollution and Bill Clinton’s parsing of the meaning of “is” are among the all-time hits. Still, few politicians have a record of hilarity as consistent as Tom DeLay’s.

Less than a year after he left Congress in disgrace, having been indicted for campaign-finance chicanery and with a bevy of ex-aides and cronies already found guilty, the former House Republican leader is back to his routine. This time, instead of taking to the House floor to declare that the Columbine High School shootings were the obvious outgrowth of working mothers who use birth control and the teaching of evolution (not necessarily in that order), DeLay has put his deepest thoughts into print.

The result is his new book, “No Retreat, No Surrender” — a title which, NBC’s Meredith Vieira pointed out — is inconsistent with DeLay’s own relinquishing of his Texas congressional seat. But why quibble? DeLay has produced a work that, if nothing else, gives him money to pay his legal bills and gives us a chance to marvel at the peculiar combination of ego and delusion that drives him and others who honor us with their leadership.

Early on, he effectively repeals the Constitution’s prohibition against state-sponsored religion. “Because there is a God who has spoken, issues like marriage, abortion, homosexuality and the death penalty are not matters of opinion,” he writes. “They are matters of revelation. There are moral absolutes and public policy should be built upon them.”

This segues, somehow, into DeLay’s recounting of his own history of drunken carousing and serial adultery while a member of the Texas Legislature. This period, we learn, ended when DeLay found redemption through prayer — and, it must be surmised, came to a deeper understanding of how his survival in conservative politics depended upon cleaning up his act. If nothing else, it all was the necessary prerequisite to DeLay becoming the driving political force behind Clinton’s impeachment for lying about adultery.

DeLay is at his comedic best when describing the Clinton imbroglio as a crisis forced upon him. “Though I certainly understood a man’s sexual temptations, I was disgusted by the sordid details. … I just hoped the whole thing would go away.”

So, of course, did most other Republicans on Capitol Hill at the time. Many were stunned by prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s impeachment report — not because it revealed high crimes and misdemeanors, but because it amounted to steamy sex talk. The consensus was to censure Clinton, not impeach him. It was DeLay who insisted on provoking the constitutional showdown and DeLay who muscled wavering Republican moderates into voting for impeachment.

You could fill a whole book with DeLay’s amusing flights of fancy. He states, for example, that Iraq is “a war that every Democrat voted for.” In fact, 126 House Democrats — a majority of the party’s caucus — and 21 Democratic senators voted against it.

But why expose its fictions when the truth of DeLay’s memoir is so much more revealing?

We’ve always known DeLay cannot bring himself to utter a kind word about any Democrat. In the book, he turns his rhetorical knife against fellow Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey — whose own overblown ambitions and political incompetence, DeLay argues, brought on the beginning of the end of the Republican “revolution” in Congress.

For all the gossipy detail and self-righteous strutting that makes DeLay’s book such a laugh, something besides a conscience is absent from it: The American public.

In telling the story of a political career that spanned nearly three decades, DeLay almost never mentions a voter or a constituent. He does not consider whether, perhaps, Clinton’s victory in the government shutdowns of 1995 and the ex-president’s continued popularity is rooted in the people’s preference for at least some Democratic policies.

DeLay’s self-portrait is of a man consumed with strategy and self-preservation. And so it’s a must-read for all politicians, in both parties.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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