DECEMBER 18, 2006
It's a Tuesday in mid-October 2005, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownbackis chairing a meeting of a little-known but highly influentialSenate group called the Values Action Team (VAT). Think of it as aPTA board for the vast right-wing conspiracy: The Concerned Womenfor America has a standing invitation, as do the Family ResearchCouncil, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the NationalRight to Life Committee. The activists sit around a conferencetable in the Capitol building and plot strategy on matters likebroadcast decency, Internet gambling, and anti-abortionlegislation.
Typically, the group's weekly meetings draw 50 to 75 conservativeactivists. Today, however, there are well over 100 people crowdedinto the stately room. It's been two weeks since George W. Bushnamed Harriet Miers to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, and thenomination has flagged. So much so that, in the days before thismeeting, the White House has readied plans for a renewed push.Brownback has long stated his opposition to Miers, but, as a gestureof goodwill, he's invited former Senator Dan Coats, Miers's stewardon the Hill, to appear before the group. The activists are, ifanything, even less generous than Brownback. Many have turned upjust to watch the poor man squirm.
Coats makes the case for Miers as best he can: She was a managingpartner of a big Texas firm. She'll be a reliable vote for thethings you believe in. Then someone pipes up with an ominouslysimple question: Why did the president nominate Miers in the firstplace? Coats pauses for a moment before allowing, "I think neitherthe White House nor the members of the Senate wanted to make anomination that would start a culture war." Wrong answer! "Everyonein that room, they are the culture war," Manny Miranda, one of theconservatives at the meeting, recalls thinking. The activists arefurious. Several fume that Coats doesn't understand how judicialfights have changed in the years since he left the Hill.
Minutes pass before Brownback invokes an implicit slaughter rule."Well, Dan, you've got some good feedback you can take back to theWhite House for when they choose their next nominee," he says.Though he is painstakingly polite, it appears he has justpronounced the Miers nomination dead. The activists look at oneanother and scratch their heads. Can he really do that? Belatedly,Brownback picks up on the implication of his statement and offers aqualification: "Of course, I don't mean that's going to happen anytime soon."
Of all the GOP presidential contenders who could claim to havebenefited from the recent midterm elections, Brownback may be theone for whom it is most true. For years, the social conservativeswho brought down Miers have been having a fierce intramural debateon the merits of pragmatism versus purity. In the run-up to 2000,they resolved that debate in favor of the former, and the movementthrew its support behind George W. Bush over conservative longshots like John Ashcroft and Gary Bauer. But, now, conservativesappear to have the worst of both worlds: Six years ofdisappointments on issues like abortion and gay marriage haveresulted in a midterm rout and a lame-duck presidency. Purity islooking more attractive by the day.
All the more so when you consider that the early GOP front-runner isJohn McCain, a man who still makes some social conservativessputter with rage. If present trends continue and the Republicanestablishment embraces McCain, conservatives could choose to rallyaround a more acceptable alternative--that is, if they can findone. Lame-duck Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has already pulledthe plug on his presidential ambitions. As of January,Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and Virginia's George Allen are bothexsenators. And, while Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney may haveescaped the midterm fallout, he is Mormon--a religion manyevangelical Christians regard as a cult.
Brownback, by contrast, is closing in on a decade as the leadingsocial conservative in the U.S. Senate. He has impeccablecredentials on issues like judges, abortion, and gay marriage.(And, for that matter, any combination of the three: He hasthreatened to hold up the nomination of a Michigan judge becauseshe once attended a lesbian commitment ceremony.) And Brownback'sleadership of the VAT gives him extraordinary day-to-day influenceover the Senate's social conservative agenda.
There are crasser considerations, too. Brownback was an evangelicalChristian before he converted to Catholicism. Iowa has largepopulations of both. Brownback's home in Topeka is a four-hourdrive from Des Moines, giving him as close to a natural foothold inthe state as any GOP contender will have. And, as a long-servingstate agriculture secretary and former Future Farmers of Americaofficial, Brownback is as fluent in the language of ethanolsubsidies and biodiesel production as any politician reared outsideIowa. Put this together, and you have a guy who could theoreticallytake one of the top two spots in the state's first-in-the-nationcaucuses. With the Internet's track record of making juggernautsout of grassroots icons, even a third-place finish could giveBrownback an E-Z Pass lane straight through to the final stages ofthe race. If everything breaks right, and social conservatives areparticularly aggrieved over their party's standard bearer,Brownback could end up on the national ticket.
Brownback, in other words, is on the brink. He is savvy. He isrighteous. He is committed. He would appear to have been born forthis moment in politics. But looks can be deceiving, because birthis not at all how Brownback came by his place in the conservativecosmos. As recently as 1994, the year of his first campaign forCongress, Brownback was a member in good standing of the moderateRepublican establishment. But, by the time he arrived in Congressthat fall, he was emitting so much anti-government zeal he gaveNewt Gingrich the willies. Within two years, Brownback had anotherepiphany, from which he emerged as a crusader for Christiancauses.
Which raises a question for conservatives mulling a Brownbackcandidacy: Has the Kansas senator been finding himself? Or has hebeen finding himself a way to run for president?
In mid-October, I trailed Brownback through the Republican precinctsof northwestern Iowa. The first stop was an unexpectedly frou-froubistro in a town called Spirit Lake, where some 50 locals showed upfor partisan red meat. What they got was more like mixed greens.Brownback opened with a riff about growing up in the "suburbs" oftiny Parker, Kansas, where his parents still mind a 1,400-acrefarm. It took him several minutes to even mention Nancy Pelosi.When he finally did, he felt compelled to stipulate that "sherepresents her district well."
All in all, it sounded a lot like the way I imagine the young SamBrownback sounded: humble, warm, gracious--and moderate. My minddrifted to a story I'd heard from Tim Golba, a former president ofKansans for Life, who'd met with Brownback in 1994 to discuss apossible primary endorsement. According to Golba, it quickly becameclear that there was little to discuss. Brownback was not onlyunfamiliar with the anti-abortion lexicon, he had a habit ofdropping the hints used by politicians on the other side. "I thinkyou'll find me more in line with the view of Nancy Kassebaum," hetold Golba, who still grumbles at the mention of the famouslymoderate Kansas senator.
For the most part, though, it's not the continuity between the youngBrownback and today's Brownback that is striking: It's the change.Because the longer Brownback goes on, the more you sense a distinctlack of passion for standard Iowa fare like agriculture policy orthe budget. Compared with the previous speaker, local CongressmanSteve King, he's not even worked up about Iraq. What Sam Brownbackclearly wants to talk about--what he thinks people need to knowabout--are the issues you might store in a mental file called"Judgment Day." The Judgment Day file begins with standardculture-war causes like gay marriage and abortion. But it is asprawling file, and, before long, it sprawls to such far-flunglocales as Sudan and the Congo, where Brownback wants to stopgenocide and human trafficking. "We're a great nation," Brownbacksays. His voice is still composed, but now there's a firmness thatwasn't there before. "And I believe, in my heart, that for ourgreatness to continue, our goodness must continue."
It is a long journey, this trip from heartland moderate to JudgmentDay conservative. The crowd at Spirit Lake isn't entirely sure whatto make of it. The self-deprecating comments, they can laugh at.The partisan comments, they can cheer. But this culture-war stuff.This Africa stuff. ... I am seated next to a group of localbusinessmen, including two with name tags that read bank midwest. Afew minutes ago, they were sporting Chamber of Commerce grins andclapping Chamber of Commerce claps. Now they just stare ahead,blankly.
There is a final thing you notice about Sam Brownback these days.The early accounts all depict a young man in a hurry. When he beganhigh school, Brownback had--not quite a speech impediment, but atendency to garble his words. He spent his afternoons working witha teacher named Marvin Creager until the tic had surrendered to hiswill. During his senior year, Brownback won a standing ovation atthe state Future Farmers of America convention, where the delegatesmade him their president. When he applied for an internship at thelocal radio station in college, the station's manager, Ralph Titus,asked whether Brownback planned to go into broadcasting. "He said,`No, I'm going to be president of the United States,'" recallsTitus. "I laughed. He did not."
It was a pattern that continued throughout early adulthood. "Youalways got the impression he was studying, prepping," says WillGunn, who met Brownback when they were White House Fellows in theearly '90s. The day Bob Dole resigned his Senate seat in 1996, aseat Brownback would soon claim, the freshman congressman strodeinto the chamber and schmoozed his future colleagues soextravagantly that the chamber had to be gaveled to order.
But, when Brownback sidles up to me and introduces himself after hisremarks, what strikes me most is his calm. Truth be told, it is alittle unsettling. There are too many silences, and the silencesare too long. They goad you into filling them with small eruptionsof chatter. I am, in fact, halfway through a mini-autobiographywhen Brownback looks down. My Israeli first name has piqued hisinterest, and he is taking a minute to reflect. Brownback is wearinga tweedy blazer and gray-green khakis. There is no tie around hisneck, and his shoes evoke a recent trip to the Timberland outletstore. From a distance, I had mostly noticed his dark hair andtrim, athletic build. This makes it all the more jarring to surveythe deep grooves in his face.
When Brownback looks up, his hazel eyes have narrowed. He appears tobe staring simultaneously at me and 30 feet behind me, if such athing is possible. "It's a shame that country has always got todefend itself like that," he finally says, so softly I can barelyhear him. Judgment Day may be here sooner than you think.
Ihave come to Manhattan, Kansas, to figure out how Sam Brownbacktook the critical first step from moderate to conservative, and Ifeel myself getting close when Dixie Roberts walks into a cafe andextends her hand. Roberts is a petite grandmother with frizzy blackhair, stiletto heels, and bright pink lipstick. For years, she hasenjoyed unofficial status in this university town as a kind ofcampus Mama. She put two sons through Kansas State and has amassedenough of her own credits to qualify as a junior. "Politicalscience," she tells me.
Roberts has known Brownback since his 1978 term as student bodypresident, when he told the Kansas State Collegian that his goalsincluded a local mass transit system and a legislative network toconvey students' concerns directly to state lawmakers. After lawschool at the University of Kansas, Brownback moved back toManhattan to work at a small but politically connected firm, a jobthat eventually led to his appointment as state agriculturalsecretary. Roberts still gets wistful for the Brownback of thisvintage. He was a mainline Protestant in those days, and whenBrownback's current worldview comes up in our conversation, shescoffs slightly, then worries she's committed a faux pas: "Youdon't believe in that stuff, do you?"
When Brownback ran for Congress in 1994, Roberts held a seat in hiskitchen cabinet. But, shortly after his primary victory, Robertswalked away and promised herself she wouldn't be back. Now she'soffered to drive me to the place where it first dawned on her thatBrownback had changed.
Ten minutes later, we've parked in front of the Little AppleBrewery, a local dive with a wood facade and a green awning.Roberts marches me back to an enclosed room toward the rear of theestablishment. With the exception of the Southwestern decor, theroom is mostly as Roberts remembers it. The Brownback campaign hadcalled a meeting to thank supporters and begin planning for thegeneral election. Brownback himself wasn't in attendance, but hiscampaign chairman, a former K-State dean named C. Clyde Jones, wasthere, as were other advisers.
Roberts was already seated when she noticed about a dozen of thementer the room--a group of local anti-abortion activists she'dnever seen around the campaign. "It was like an army had come in,"she says. "They just took over the meeting." It took all thecomposure Roberts could muster not to head straight for the door.She sat through the entire event feeling like the wind had beenknocked out of her. When she got home, she called C. Clyde to tellhim she was out.
To understand what happened, you have to start with Brownback'schallenger in the GOP primary, a Manhattan chemical salesman namedBob Bennie. Everything you knew about Bennie told you his campaignwould be a joke. He'd never run for office in his life. No one inManhattan--much less the rest of the district-- had ever heard ofhim. And he had no money to speak of. Just about the only thingBennie had going for him was the early tremors of a politicalearthquake.
Up until 1991, Kansans for Life (KFL) had mostly restricted itsactivism to "citizen lobbying": They would show up in Topeka andbuttonhole their representatives. But, despite the group's growingstrength, passing legislation proved futile. "The leadership wouldalways make promises, and then nothing happened," recalls Golba,the organization's then-president. That's when Golba realized itwould be easier to change the politicians than to change thepolicies. He hired a savvy former legislator named David Miller toorganize his ground troops and placed moderate Republicans in hiscrosshairs. The plan succeeded beyond all expectations. In 1992,KFL stunned the local political establishment by electing tenconservative representatives. One of the new state reps, acarpet-layer named Jene Vickrey, upset the speaker of the KansasHouse.
Brownback's opponent, Bennie, was about as pro-life as you could getwithout earning yourself a restraining order. He had no troublewinning the KFL endorsement. This, in turn, formed the backbone ofhis campaign strategy. In every tiny Kansas town Bennie rolledinto, dozens of KFL activists would turn up: 25 people in Erie(population 1,200); 50 in Burlington (population 2,700)-- all ofthem to see a no-name with no chance of winning. After Benniecharged through his stump speech, the activists would fan out alongthe local streets, distributing literature and planting yard signs.It was like having a political operation thousands of workersstrong.
From Brownback's perspective, it was also a nightmare. Before thecongressional race, Brownback had never really had to justify hisabortion views. Now he was getting an earful practically every timehe stumped for a vote. There were days when it looked like thewhole thing might slip away.
Then, as primary day approached, Bennie noticed a change in hisopponent's language. Brownback never used to mention abortion onthe campaign trail. Now he was publicly pronouncing himself anabortion opponent. When primary day rolled around in early August,Bennie ran up an impressive 36 percent of the vote to Brownback's48. But he was still furious, believing Brownback had swiped thenomination by aping his positions. "I knew how I stood," he toldme. "I didn't know how he stood."
It was a fair question. Four days before the vote, the localManhattan Mercury had endorsed Brownback as a "moderate" who"displays a solid grasp of complex issues such as health care andforeign trade." The paper's editor-in- chief had known Brownbackfor years.
The Gingrich Revolution swept 73 new Republicans into office inNovember 1994, and being a freshman felt like standing at thecenter of the universe. Foreign leaders inquired about addressingthe new class. K Street eminences turned up to offer advice.
Ideologically, Brownback was typical of his new colleagues. Hestrongly opposed abortion and had an abiding faith in God. But,most of all, he felt that big government in Washington was out ofcontrol. The idea of reining it in made him too excited to sleep.
Like any revolutionary junta--or, for that matter, any high schoolclass-- the freshmen needed a president. Brownback threw himselfinto the race. Between December, when the freshmen showed up fororientation, and the day of the vote in February, the fieldnarrowed to two candidates: Brownback and a mild- manneredMississippian named Roger Wicker. Wicker eked out a narrow victorylargely because he didn't appear to be angling for the job. Thisforced Brownback to fall back on plan B. He'd been part of aninformal group called the New Federalists since arriving inWashington. Now he installed himself as their leader.
Under Brownback, the New Federalists became a vanguard of about 25House members, the purest of the pure. They churned out billsabolishing four Cabinet departments. They demanded huge cuts incongressional staff. They clamored for term limits and tossedaround constitutional amendments the way most people edit a grocerylist. Whatever it took to strip power from Washington, the NewFederalists were prepared to do it.
The Cabinet departments never did get shuttered. Nor did the otheritems on the New Federalist agenda gain much traction. Instead,Brownback and his colleagues became the House's self-appointedenforcers. When, for example, the Clinton administration balked atthe GOP's proposed spending and tax cuts, the New Federalistsagitated for a shutdown. After the shutdown proved a p.r. fiasco,and the House leadership caved, Brownback was disappointed but notdisillusioned. Then-Florida Representative Joe Scarborough remembersBrownback consoling him on the House floor in early 1996: "Sam cameup and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, `Don't worry, Joe.Even Rome wasn't burnt in a day.'"
That summer, Brownback challenged Sheila Frahm for the Republicannomination for Senate. Frahm was the lieutenant governor of Kansasand the epitome of moderate Republicanism. The state's governor wasabout to install her in the seat Dole had vacated to run forpresident when Brownback announced his candidacy. On the airwaves,Brownback attacked Frahm as a shiftless tax-raiser. At thegrassroots level, he deployed the boundless energy of theanti-abortion movement. The old divide in Kansas politics had beengeographic: the rural hinterlands versus a relatively populousenclave in the northeast. Frahm hailed from a prominent farmingfamily in western Kansas, and--thanks to her years as a legislatorin Topeka--she seemed known enough in the northeast to limitBrownback's native-son advantage. "I remember we were in Topeka whenthe [local] results came in. He had won, but I thought he hadn'twon by enough," recalls Trent Ledoux, a former Frahm adviser. Butthe old geographic model had been obliterated. Brownback ran uphuge margins across most of the state and then sailed to victory inthe general.
Despite the triumph, Brownback was privately reeling. In August1995, he'd noticed a small lump on his torso. The tumor wastreatable with surgery, but cancer is cancer, and it has a way offocusing the mind. Brownback was participating in a weeklyevangelical prayer group in Washington. But his newfoundreligiosity didn't calm his nerves; it only agitated them.Brownback couldn't stop wondering what he would have had to showfor his life if this hadn't been a false alarm.
When Brownback arrived in the Senate, he sought a meeting with ChuckColson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian.Officially, Colson ran the Prison Fellowship Ministries, anevangelical group that ministered to prisoners. Unofficially, hewas the dean of the growing compassionate conservative movement.Brownback told Colson he wanted to put the "positive side" of hisChristian faith to work in the Senate. The two men talked at lengthabout how that might happen. Eventually, Colson mentioned WilliamWilberforce, the devoutly Christian English parliamentarian who hadspearheaded the country's anti-slavery movement during the lateeighteenth century. Colson encouraged Brownback to adoptWilberforce as his model of Christian praxis.
Brownback began to read. Religiously. He devoured biographies ofWilberforce. Aides noticed how the boss would carry a copy of C.S.Lewis's Screwtape Letters everywhere he traveled. He delved intoDaniel Patrick Moynihan's writings on politics and culture. Peoplewho knew Brownback during this time talk of metaphysical change."I've had a sense that his faith has gotten stronger every yearhe's been in Congress," says former Democratic Representative TonyHall, who regularly prayed with Brownback. Colson describes it as a"spiritual maturing."
The coup de grace came later that year. At the time, Brownback wasserving as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees Washington,D.C. David Kensinger, Brownback's longtime campaign manager andpolitical Svengali, remembers when he and the senator noticed thatthe number of abortions in the District consistently rivaled thenumber of live births and that the vast majority of these motherswere unmarried. A little algebra revealed that only one in everysix pregnancies ended with a married woman bringing a child to term.It was a jaw-dropping statistic. "You can do the flat tax, you cando school choice," says Kensinger. "But until you fix that, you'renot going to fix what's wrong with D.C."
Brownback was done being a Gingrich Revolutionary. He sat down withPaul Ryan, his then-chief of staff, and told him as much. "It's onething to introduce legislation to cut taxes, like 50 other membersof the Senate. It's another thing to make a material difference inthis country, or in Africa," says Ryan. "No one else was doingthis, fighting the culture war. ... That's the calculation hemade."
Topeka Bible Church (TBC) occupies a multi-level, gray stonebuilding in a racially mixed neighborhood of urban Topeka. Aroundthe corner is a pair of apartment complexes that screamsservice-economy transience. A couple blocks away, a sign advertisesDiscount Smokes and Convenience Store.
When I ask Jim Congdon, the church's pastor, why TBC never relocatedto the exurbs, he seems wearied by the question. Congdon is a trim,bearded man in his fifties, with cheeks you could store acorns in.He tells me he has considered moving out to the western edge oftown, where much of his congregation now lives. But, each time, thetug of the old neighborhood wins out. "I just feel like it's goodfor us to stay here. I think that helps our congregation be morediverse," he says. Tomorrow, Congdon and 50 TBC volunteers willspend the day painting and mulching a nearby elementary school.
Sitting in Congdon's cluttered office, listening to his reflectionson race and urban blight, you want to tell your secular friendsthat this whole culture- war thing is a huge misunderstanding. Wecan all go home now. But there is a sharper edge to Congdon'sevangelicalism, and it can creep up on you in an instant.
Congdon's Sunday sermon, for example, is a meditation on the propermindset for a Christian when Christ descends from heaven. Thisturns out to be highly relevant, because the current turbulence inthe Middle East signifies that the end times are near. "For thefirst time in 40 years, an Israeli prime minister is worried aboutbeing annihilated," Congdon observes. One of the bigger dividesamong evangelicals is between pre- and post-millennialists. Thepost- millennialists believe Christ will only return after peacereigns on Earth. The pre-millennialists believe the apocalypse willusher in the messiah's return. Congdon, it turns out, is apre-millennialist with an itchy trigger finger.
Once the service ends, I spot Brownback chatting up a woman manninga voter registration booth in the lobby. He's wearing a blue knitsweater and looking better rested than he did in Iowa. He invitesme to join him at a reception for the outgoing youth pastor, and wemake friendly banter while his two adopted children crawl all overhim. From time to time I lose sight of eight-year-old Mark, only tosee a small pair of legs emerge from between Brownback's arm andwaist, at which point the senator gets to work retying a pair ofwhite "Shaq" high-tops. (There are five Brownback children inall.)
After about ten minutes, a tallish woman in a sherbet-green outfitbuttonholes Brownback, husband in tow. The woman gushes about howshe prays for him every day and how lucky Kansans are to have asenator like him. She is the kind of excitable busybody you expectto find in every congregation, a big vacuum cleaner of opinions whorepackages them as her own. Now she's off on a rant about how thepress opposes President Bush because he's a Republican and aChristian. Before long, she's talking about Iraq, then the firstGulf war, then on to a lament about the attention span of our"microwave society." Finally it's back to the liberal media."Well," Brownback says consolingly, "they have the newspapers andTV, but we have radio." The woman is, if not exactly appeased, atleast out of material. "That's all I listen to is radio," she says.
As she's leaving, Brownback turns to me and explains his theory ofred-state/ blue-state relations. People who live in Red Americaknow plenty about Blue America. They often work in large cities, orthey travel to them on vacation, or they hear about them throughpopular culture. But the opposite is almost never true. "Ifthey"--the people in Blue America--"travel at all," Brownback says,"they go abroad, like to Europe or Tokyo." I can't say for sure, butI think he is paying me a compliment.
In 2001, Brownback led a Senate delegation to the Vatican to awardthe Pope a Congressional Gold Medal. The group was bipartisan--inaddition to Brownback, Catholic Republicans like Rick Santorum andBob Smith of New Hampshire came along, as did Barbara Mikulski, aMaryland Democrat. The highlight of the trip was the Pope's privatereceiving line. Brownback would introduce each senator to John PaulII, and the three would chat privately for a few minutes. When itwas Smith's turn, Brownback turned to the Pope and said, "This isSenator Bob Smith of New Hampshire. He's the leading pro-lifeadvocate in the U.S. Senate." Smith then returned the favor. "Theman sitting next to you has done more than his fair share," hesaid. Brownback was beaming.
Brownback's conversion the following year made him both a Catholicand a member of the rarefied flock of John McCloskey, priest toWashington's conservative establishment. McCloskey had previouslyconverted conservative journalists Bob Novak and Larry Kudlow, andBrownback's "sponsor" was his fellow senator, Santorum. As withmost secret societies, the accounts of Brownback's admission tothis circle are remarkably thin. No one describes it as much morethan a "quiet ceremony" officiated by McCloskey in a K Streetchapel.
Even those closest to Brownback remain in the dark on the matter.When I asked Kensinger the reason his longtime boss converted, hetold me simply, "I don't know." Will Gunn, a retired Air Forcecolonel who had met Brownback in the early '90s, was even moremystified. On Memorial Day weekend in 2002, Gunn had traveled toBrownback's home in Topeka for a reunion of their White HouseFellows class. It turned out to be an extremely intimate gathering.All of the fellows had gone on to jobs with unrelenting schedules,and so, of the twelve alumni, only three could make the trip. Gunnarrived to find the senator and his wife, Mary, disarmingly down toearth. For dinner, the guests caught fish out of a backyard pond,which Brownback dutifully cleaned. By day, the families playedpickup basketball; by night, they went dancing at a localhonky-tonk club. On Sunday morning, Gunn, who is also anevangelical Christian, attended church with the Brownbacks.
Gunn and Brownback have been close ever since. They get togetherevery two or three months to have dinner and talk about theirobligations as fathers and believers and the role of Jesus Christin their lives. Brownback once told Gunn he's in Washington becausehe believes the Lord wants him to be there. And yet, amazingly,Gunn says he didn't know about Brownback's conversion until he readabout it in the newspaper several years later.
What we do know is that Brownback had taken a passing interest inCatholicism as early as 1997, when he teamed up with Ted Kennedy toarrange a Congressional Gold Medal for Mother Teresa. In theprocess, he'd begun reading up on Catholic teaching, including thewritings of John Paul II. Brownback is what you might call a Godgeek. He is endlessly fascinated by all things religious. "If it'sa spiritual thing, he loves it," says Congdon, Brownback's pastorat TBC, where he still attends service after Mass most Sundays. Notsurprisingly, Brownback's crash course on Catholicism seemed tostick with him. "It started working in the background," Kensingerspeculates. "If these people are who they are, and I want to have asoul more like theirs, what helped them to become more like theyare?"
Things proceeded in this vein for years. Paul Ryan, now arepresentative from Wisconsin, served as Brownback's chief of staffthrough his early days in the Senate. Long after he left the job,Ryan, who is Catholic, would periodically get calls from his formerboss. The two men would talk about Catholic doctrine and theintellectual foundations of Catholicism. Over time, these musingsbegan to fill out the gaps in Brownback's religious worldview. "Ijust think he found an articulation of the Christian faith in theCatholic tradition that he felt was more fully developed," saysBrownback's friend Deal Hudson, a fellow convert and formerCatholic outreach adviser to the Bush White House.
There are less flattering explanations as well. Brownback had alwayshad a weakness for elite societies. He applied twice to be a WhiteHouse Fellow before being admitted. When he got to Congress,Rolling Stone has reported, he sought admission to a small "cell"overseen by "The Fellowship," an organization of evangelicalelites. Catholicism in general, and McCloskey's flock inparticular, may have been just another upscale fraternity topledge.
Nor is it easy to ignore how Brownback's conversion has given him abeachhead in each of the two most powerful communities on thereligious right. Even Congdon concedes there was some skepticism inthe pews of TBC when news of the conversion made the rounds. "Ifielded a lot of questions from suspicious people who thought thatwas just a political conversion," he says.
A generation ago, being Catholic would have been a clear liabilityin certain evangelical quarters. But, over the last 20 years,conservative Catholic and evangelical groups have forged asemi-official alliance, evocatively dubbed "co-belligerency," tohelp advance their shared political agenda. Kensinger says TeamBrownback has no idea how the senator's conversion will play amongevangelicals, but there's clearly a hope that it will net him thebest of both worlds--a candidate who can address each group in itsown language.
Political or not, Brownback's path to Catholicism appears to havemotivated his broadening interest in human rights. In the yearssince September 11, Brownback has taken on more or less the entireRepublican Party in a fight to protect the rights of politicalrefugees, not exactly a popular crusade in the middle of the war onterrorism. In recent years, Brownback has even begun a very publicreconsideration of his support for the death penalty. At a hearingearlier this year, Brownback solicited testimony from families ofvictims on both sides of the issue. Afterward, a Kansas City Starreporter asked which stance he found more compelling. Brownbackwouldn't say, but he noted how the death penalty supporters lookedangry and "hard." "In Christian theology, the burden is on theperson who has not forgiven," he said.
Then there is the immigration issue, which is either a colossalpolitical miscalculation or the policy equivalent of Catholicself-flagellation. In 2005, Brownback signed on as a co-sponsor tothe relatively moderate Kennedy-McCain bill. The reaction fromrank-and-file Republicans has not been kind. Steve Scheffler, thehead of a conservative evangelical group in Iowa, told me, "Thebiggest thing [Brownback would] have to address is why did he votefor that horrendous bill?" Kensinger says Brownback's answer issimple: "The Bible says you will be judged by how you treat thewidow, the orphan, the foreign among you. That's the end of it." Hebelieves the key is how Brownback manages his position--not theposition itself. But Chuck Hurley, a Brownback law school classmatewho runs the influential Iowa Family Policy Center, has hinted ashift could be in the works. "I understand he's been doing someconsulting about that issue," Hurley told me conspiratorially,citing an upcoming meeting with a local anti-immigrationpolitician.
So just who, exactly, is Sam Brownback? Answering that question isdifficult, but it helps to go back to the beginning of hispolitical career and to a woman named Kim Smith. A longtimeconservative activist, Smith is the kind of person whose nameinspires shifty eyes and labored euphemisms in a small town likeManhattan, Kansas. When I mentioned her to Dixie Roberts, she hemmedand hawed, then told me that Smith's sons "had always been introuble" and that she found Smith's constant preaching a littletough to take. "Here you are, espousing all these religious views,and someone has a troubled personal life," she sighed, beforehastening to add, "we've always been friends."
Smith had been one of Bob Bennie's most loyal supporters during the1994 GOP primary. She shared his "out there" views on abortion andhad derided Brownback as an operator. "Sam, like so many others,was just a `good ole guy' and abortion was a nasty subject youdidn't talk about," Smith recently wrote me. Smith seemed to derivea sadistic pleasure from making Brownback sweat. One of her sonsworked at a Christian radio station and would receive updates onhis public appearances. Smith made a point of dispatching activiststo these events to hector him about abortion.
But, by the end of the primary, Brownback had started to generatefavorable chatter in Smith's circles. She decided to meet him inperson. Smith watched the way Brownback treated his family. Shegrilled his longtime scheduler about what he was like to work for.And, most important of all, she opened a long, anguished dialoguewith him on abortion. Smith told Brownback how, back in themid-'70s, she had terminated a six-week-old pregnancy. She was 19and didn't have a high school diploma or marketable skills. Sheshowed up at a Planned Parenthood clinic with dozens of questions,only to be given what she says was a "high-pressure sales job," towhich she acceded. "It was the most devastating decision I haveever made," she wrote me.
Brownback was shocked to hear that abortion was so prevalent, that a14-year- old girl could have an abortion without her parentsknowing, and that the procedure was legal up to the minute of birth(which is not, in fact, true). He had never even heard of atechnique called partial-birth abortion. After a few weeks of this,Smith got in touch with Golba and the other leaders of the localpro-life movement. She told them that Brownback had become an allyin their cause. She felt so strongly about this, she said, that shewas ready to vouch for him personally.
By the time Brownback and Golba met again, it was obvious that hehad changed. Brownback had been a mild-mannered Methodist at theoutset of the campaign. Now, as a result of his conversations withSmith and Robert Tyson (Brownback's former Sunday school teacher),he had begun to opine on the abortion issue with a religious senseof purpose. "His talk was completely different," says Golba. "Wefelt an honesty. ... I could tell he knew the issue; he had studiedit. We felt that's where his heart was."
A few years later, Brownback's old primary opponent, Bob Bennie,received an invitation to a breakfast in Omaha, Nebraska, featuringa local gubernatorial candidate. A Christian men's organization hadsponsored the event, and Bennie-- who had since relocated to nearbyLincoln--was just "filling a seat at a table. " Then he realized heknew the keynote speaker: Sam Brownback. Brownback's remarks wereunusually personal--really more of a testimonial than a speech. Hetalked largely about the spiritual change he'd undergone during hisfirst congressional campaign. Bennie had been livid over what he'dseen as Brownback's insincere positioning on abortion. But at thebreakfast, he told me, it was obvious that "he'd had a change ofheart in the way he thought about things." When Brownback finished,Bennie stood off to the side as the other men filed by. Finally thesenator turned and recognized him. "Bob," he said, holding out hishand. But Bennie wasn't in a handshaking mood. He walked up toBrownback and the two men embraced.