Lone Star

By

On a hot July day in a grassy park on Capitol Hill, a star was
rising. The U.S. Senate had just rejected a constitutional ban on
gay marriage, and Senator John Cornyn, a main proponent of the ban,
was waiting to start a press conference. As usual, the Texas
Republican had a gentle smile on his face. The marriage vote had
been a flop for Senate Republicans, who couldn't even muster a
majority for their cause, never mind the 67 votes needed to amend
the Constitution. But Cornyn looked happy all the same. He'd had a
starring role in the debate and spent long hours verbally dueling
with Senate Democrats with decades of seniority--heady stuff for a
man who arrived in Washington in January 2003. Sometimes there is
glory in defeat, and now Cornyn was a minor sensation. Presently,
he was surrounded by a pack of photographers, one of whose shots
would land him on the front page of the next day's Washington Post.
A stranger approached and asked to have her picture taken with him.
"It's too bad we don't have our camera," said another nearby
admirer enviously. The conservative ber-activist Gary Bauer,
standing a few feet away, felt all the attention was well-deserved:
"He's hit a grand slam on this issue!"Even before the marriage debate, Cornyn had fast developed a
reputation as the Senate's most ambitious--and most
conservative--new addition. Whereas tradition dictates that
Senators quietly pay their dues and build up seniority before
mouthing off, Cornyn didn't hesitate to join the Senate's toughest
fights. On issues from gay marriage to judicial nominations to the
detainee abuse scandals, he has taken stridently conservative
stands that make even other Republicans queasy. "More and more, he
seems to be the designated hitter for the right wing of the
Republican Party on the most controversial issues," says Ralph
Neas, president of People for the American Way.

Of course, the Senate has seen conservative firebrands before. But
none as deceptively genial as John Cornyn. Standing a full
six-foot-four, Cornyn has a kind, slightly bemused face above which
floats a perfect cloud of puffy white hair. He speaks with a
buttery soft voice, which he rarely raises in indignation. A former
judge and Texas attorney general, he prefers the reasoned language
of jurisprudence to harsh conservative rhetoric. Whereas
congressional right-wingers--and especially Texans like Tom
DeLay--often limit their appeal by acting like villains from a
Michael Moore nightmare, Cornyn is genial. At the press conference
on the marriage amendment, he did not fulminate over moral
depravity or clumsily scorn "the homosexual agenda." Instead, he
called the debate a fine chance to highlight "the traditional
institution of marriage and its importance as a stabilizing
influence on our society." His sunny, calm tone suggested a man of
deep benevolence.

All of which makes Cornyn's ultra-conservative message easy to
swallow. "He's quiet by nature and isn't excitable. So, when he
does speak, you are more inclined to listen to what he has to say,"
says Cornyn's longtime friend Jim Lunz, a retired San Antonio
businessman. His colleagues agree. "He's very calm and poised,"
adds GOP Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. But perhaps Republican
Senator Mitch McConnell put it best when he told the Houston
Chronicle recently, "You don't get the feeling that he's overcome
by passion. It's a very dispassionate approach, and I think people
like that." If Tom DeLay is the stylistic equivalent of heavy
metal, John Cornyn is muzak. For that reason, he could prove a
major asset to a party searching for ways to seem more moderate
than it is. You might say John Cornyn is coining a new political
style: dispassionate conservatism.

A few weeks earlier, Cornyn was tackling another issue that had
scared off many of his GOP colleagues: the torture of detainees at
Abu Ghraib. Senate Democrats, led by Pat Leahy and Ted Kennedy, had
been pushing a measure that would require the Bush administration
to release memos detailing its interrogation policies.
Republicans--who didn't want the memos out but didn't want to be on
record saying so--were blocking a vote. "This is not an issue that
other Republicans want to touch," a newspaper reporter covering the
story that day murmured as Cornyn entered the Senate radio and TV
gallery, alone, and took a lectern to refute the Democratic
position. With a gentle lilt and a slight Texas twang, he argued
that releasing the memos would aid terrorists. "For us to produce a
policy document which states exactly what American interrogators
will or will not do during the course of questioning detainees
provides a road map to our enemy," he said. The continued debate
over interrogation policies, he added, "is just wrong. And the only
possible reason I can see that anyone would do it is to score
political points. But the unintended consequence of this is to help
our enemies by reducing American resolve to get actionable
intelligence and to finish the job that we've started in Iraq,
Afghanistan, and elsewhere." Cornyn said this without a flicker of
anger or machismo, as if he was just disappointed things had come to
this.

Cornyn's good-soldier role may have something to do with his
connections to the Bush White House. He is particularly close to
Karl Rove, who ran his winning 1996 reelection campaign for the
Texas Supreme Court and convinced him to run for state attorney
general two years later. When Phil Gramm gave up his Texas Senate
seat in 2002, Rove again recruited Cornyn and reportedly cleared
the GOP primary field for him. The president took it from there,
raising millions and campaigning repeatedly for Cornyn--as did
Karen Hughes, Laura Bush, and even George H.W. and Barbara Bush.
"Probably no race in the nation has drawn more interest and energy
from President Bush," The New York Times concluded that October.

Back then, Cornyn made no secret of his loyalty to Bush. It was a
central theme of his campaign against former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk.
But his conservatism attracted little national attention, in part
because Cornyn's style didn't set off liberal alarm bells. "He
doesn't seem to stir the passions either way," University of
Houston Professor Richard Murray told the San Antonio Express-News
when Cornyn was inaugurated. "He seems to be a moderate
Republican." In that respect, Cornyn's 2002 campaign is strikingly
reminiscent of the 2000 presidential race, when a deeply
conservative Bush used soft rhetoric and easy charm to cast himself
as a centrist.

Nowhere has Cornyn's smooth style been more useful to the GOP than
in the intense ongoing battle over judicial nominations. From his
post on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cornyn plunged straight
into the bitter fights over judges that Democrats and Republicans
have been waging for years. Cornyn initially took a folksy, Mr.
Smith approach to the subject, with magnanimous calls for "a fresh
start" to a "broken" confirmation process. But, given that this
"fresh start" would have involved funneling through stalled Bush
nominees and rewarding Republicans for blocking Democratic judges
in the 1990s, Democrats didn't take kindly to the suggestion. After
Cornyn made one such appeal in a hearing, the Committee's ranking
Democrat, Pat Leahy, contemptuously dressed him down. "I appreciate
him giving us a lecture on the history of the Senate, but let me
respond as one who has been here for twenty-nine years." Leahy then
rattled off extensive details about stymied Clinton nominees before
acidly concluding, "But, being new here, you may not have realized
that." If the scolding was meant to put Cornyn in his place,
however, it failed. Before long, Cornyn was helping lead an
audacious push by Senate conservatives to rewrite the body's rules
and prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees--a so-called "nuclear
option" that made GOP traditionalists blanch. But the White House
had no complaints. As White House counsel Alberto Gonzales--another
old Cornyn friend from Texas--recently told the Houston Chronicle,
"We don't view him as a junior senator. He's been very helpful in
terms of judges."

And not just judges. Upon taking his seat, he was granted the
chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution--a
plum perch for a freshman-- and, within 18 months, he had staged
hearings on no fewer than four constitutional amendments (not only
on marriage, but on flag-burning, religious freedom, and the
continuity of Congress after a terrorist attack). Cornyn is also a
reliable mouthpiece for the most conservative--and White
House-friendly-- line on the issue of the day. When Senate GOP
leaders recently angered the no- quarter right by cutting a deal
with Democrats to confirm some Bush nominees in exchange for other
concessions, Cornyn quickly declared the deal a sellout. During the
9/11 Commission hearings, it was a formal request from Cornyn,
along with South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, that led to the Justice
Department's release of a controversial 1995 memo written by
Democratic Commissioner (and then-Deputy Attorney General) Jamie
Gorelick that conservatives used to try to undermine the
Commission's credibility. During the Abu Ghraib prison abuse
scandal, Cornyn's chief complaint seemed to be that the Senate's
extensive hearings on the matter were amounting to "collective
hand-wringing, which can be a distraction from fighting and winning
the war."

And, perhaps more than any other senator, Cornyn promotes
base-pleasing, right-wing causes. Few other Republicans sought a
visible role in the gay marriage fight, for instance: When Cornyn
used his Judiciary subcommittee to hold a hearing on the issue last
spring, only one of his colleagues, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, showed
up. Likewise, when Cornyn called in Roy Moore--the former Alabama
Supreme Court justice unseated last year for displaying a monument
to the Ten Commandments--for a June hearing on "Hostility to
Religious Expression in the Public Square," the archconservative
Sessions was again the only other committee Republican in
attendance.

All of which delights conservatives. "In all honesty, many of us
here in Washington didn't know much about the senator when he was
elected," Bauer says. "I think he's clearly established himself as
a senator who's going to be a major mover and shaker in the years
ahead."

John Cornyn is hardly the first conservative Senate newcomer to shun
the rules of the tradition-bound institution. Beginning in the
mid-'90s, an influx of conservative ideologues from the Gingrich
school of take-no-prisoners political warfare joined the Senate.
These insurgents--including Sessions, Rick Santorum, Jim Inhofe,
and Jon Kyl--are far more conservative, and confrontational, than
institutionalist predecessors like Hatch, Charles Grassley, or Pete
Domenici. By bucking Senate traditions of earnest debate,
bipartisan friendship, and staid decorum--many of which they see as
antithetical to an aggressive conservative agenda--they've helped
turn the Senate into the sort of embittered, partisan battlefield
that the House has become.

But, while these new-breed conservatives have had success remaking
the institution, it's come at a cost to their image--and, in some
cases, their effectiveness. Consider the case of Rick Santorum. A
former bomb-throwing House member, Santorum came to the Senate in
1995 with all the subtlety of an air- raid siren. In his first full
month, he noisily crusaded for a balanced-budget amendment,
irreverently arguing on the Senate floor with Democrats like Robert
Byrd (who, as Michael Barone's Almanac of American Politics notes,
was elected the year Santorum was born). At one point, Santorum
scoffed to another veteran Democrat, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland,
that he was "stupefied that the plain reading of this [bill's]
language is not apparent" to him. When the 72-year-old Republican
Appropriations Committee chairman, Mark Hatfield, voted against the
amendment, Santorum demanded he be stripped of his chairmanship.
Such episodes-- combined with a shrill and sneering rhetorical
style--earned Santorum a reputation for obnoxious ambition that he
has spent years trying to repair.

Cornyn shares Santorum's ambition, conservatism, and disdain for
Senate tradition, but not his sharp-edged style. That makes
Cornyn's adversaries nervous. A senior Democratic aide says, "He's
deceiving because he's far more conservative than people realize.
He has very nice table manners, but he's as tough and fierce a
conservative as Rick Santorum or Jeff Sessions." The difference,
says the aide, is that "Santorum is smug and arrogant, and he rubs
everyone--especially his own caucus--the wrong way. A lot of members
of his caucus want to keep their distance from [Santorum] because
he's viewed as being too extreme." Cornyn's affability, by
contrast, insulates him from that sort of typecasting.

Case in point: Santorum was ridiculed last year when he invoked
bestiality-- "man on dog," as he famously put it--in an interview
about gay marriage. Earlier this month, it seemed Cornyn had done
something similar when The Washington Post reported that he had
said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, "It does not affect
your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle.
But that does not mean it is right. ... Now you must raise your
children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on
the same legal footing as man and wife." The quote quickly
circulated around Washington and beyond, reaching as far as "The
Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. But, as a subsequent Post correction
noted, Cornyn never actually delivered this line. "I had a draft
that I put out 'as prepared for delivery,'" says Cornyn
communications director Dan Stewart. "He saw that and said, 'Noooo
way!'"

It's the sort of politically wise editing conservatives like
Santorum, DeLay, Trent Lott, and others lack--and it's already
improving Cornyn's stock in the party. Earlier this year, Cornyn
was named to the Senate GOP's vote-counting whip team. And, in a
telling gesture, he was also dispatched as a GOP surrogate to the
Democratic convention in Boston last week--along with a team of
mostly moderate Republicans like William Weld and Rudy Giuliani.
Republicans and Democrats alike expect Cornyn to climb higher.
"He's become a serious player," says GOP activist Grover Norquist.

It's clear that Cornyn himself recognizes the virtue of an anodyne
approach to ideological combat. "Those of us on the side of
traditional marriage must not flinch," he said during the gay
marriage debate. "We should not back down, and we should not allow
people to paint our motivations as hateful or hurtful because,
indeed, they are not." He said something similar when I sat down
with him recently in an office belonging to McConnell near the
Senate floor. Cornyn was wearing a dark suit whose leg he hiked up
to reveal black cowboy boots with a custom u.s. senator john cornyn
seal. I asked him about his surprisingly gentle demeanor. "Maybe
some of this goes back to my role as a lawyer," he told me. "It's
not always easy, because so many of these arguments are so deeply
felt, and sometimes they get downright personal. But I try my best
not to let them get that way." To the chagrin of Washington
Democrats, he is succeeding.

Loading Related Articles...
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.