The Magazine


Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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The first time Frank Luntz met Rep. Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana congressman was drinking beer with his friends in a box at an Orioles game. It was the fall of 1995, and Tauzin had just joined the Republican party after eight terms in the House as a Democrat. Luntz, who makes his living giving advice to Republican politicians, smelled a business opportunity and offered Tauzin a lift home. "I have never seen someone go from good old boy to precise and philosophical so quickly," Luntz remembers excitedly. "The entire car ride we talked about deregulation, federal vs. state policies. The guy was brilliant, an intellectual. An hour before, I had thought of him as a beer-drinking southerner. Then I realized that he's both."

Luntz is legendary for flattering his clients, both current and potential, but when he talks about Tauzin, the praise sounds almost genuine. "He's absolutely one of the best communicators the Republicans have," Luntz says. " The more he is out front, the better the Republican party will do." Luntz pauses for a moment, reflecting. "One of my dreams," he says, "is to see Billy on TV most weekends."

Tauzin isn't yet a fixture on the Sunday shows, but he is becoming one of the Republican party's most conspicuous spokesmen. Last fall, Newt Gingrich asked Tauzin to appear with majority leader Dick Armey at a series of forums around the country where the two could debate their respective tax plans -- Armey touting his fiat-tax proposal, Tauzin pushing a retail-sales tax. Though it seemed to some within the party leadership an unusually high- profile assignment for such a new Republican, Gingrich was confident that Tauzin would succeed. Converts, Gingrich reasoned, often make the best apostles. Plus, he was sure Tauzin would be popular with audiences.

Gingrich turned out to be right on both counts. But Tauzin's greatest skills are those he deploys inside Washington. An ideological conservative with the style of an old-time southern Democrat, Tauzin is effective in Congress precisely because he is many things other Republican leaders should be but aren't: crafty, tough, witty, deft at compromise, charming. Tauzin isn't the sort of person who would have led the Republican realignment, but he's one of the few in his adopted party who are adept at managing it.

Wilbert "Billy" Tauzin grew up in a Cajun household in south Louisiana, the son of an electrician. After graduation from Nicholls State University, he worked as a pipe fitter, then took a job as personal secretary to a state senator named Harvey Peltier Jr., a member of one of the region's bestknown families. Peltier wasn't interested in what Tauzin calls "all the technicalities of being a state senator," so for four years Tauzin stood in for him, drafting Peltier's bills, handling them in committee, even voting the senator's machine most of the time. For a budding politician, it was the perfect apprenticeship. In 1971, after earning a law degree from Louisiana State University, Tauzin ran for a seat himself. Though young and relatively unknown, he was a credible candidate, thanks to his affiliation with Peltier. "It was like getting a Washington Post endorsement," says James Carville, who grew up in the area and worked on Tauzin's first campaign for Congress.

Tauzin won with 62 percent of the vote and went on to serve nine years in the Louisiana House. His mentor during those years was Rep. Risley C. "Pappy" Triche, a onetime segregationist who in the 1970s renounced his unsavory past and became the chief floor leader for then-governor Edwin Edwards. Tauzin describes Triche as "the most brilliant political mind I have ever encountered, a master politician." Few who saw Triche in action disagree. Jack Wardlaw, a political reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who has covered the Louisiana legislature since 1972, says that Triche could convince virtually anyone of virtually anything. On one occasion, says Wardlaw, "he even switched gears in mid-speech. He was speaking against a bill and someone came up and slipped him a note saying the governor wanted it passed. So Pappy switched right there. He said, 'Now that I've told you what's wrong with the bill, let me tell you what's right with it.' And it worked. The bill passed."