Last weekend I did something I have avoided doing for years. I went to a political rally.
I am no longer a political junkie, but there was a time in my life when I was. From high school, through college, and for many years beyond I had no greater ambition than to be a, uh, politician. I started out as a newspaper reporter and then became a congressman's speechwriter and then deputy secretary in the Kansas secretary of state's office. I enjoyed what I was doing a whole lot. Listen, I saw Jerry Ford trip before he was president. And then, sometime in 1975, at age 28, when I was getting ready to run for the Kansas legislature the next year, I found myself called to the parish ministry.
Must have been something to do with getting converted to Christianity that year, combined with growing disillusionment over Watergate and Nixon and all that--one of those "Put not your trust in princes" sort of things, even if I once had ambitions of someday becoming one. Whatever. Since ordination in 1980, I have stayed away and out of most kinds, well, all kinds of politics, apart from voting regularly. I have not missed it. I even developed a critical, if not jaded, disdain for the business. Besides, my experience of actually working for a congressman showed me that what Mark Twain said was true: "A trained flea can be taught to do most the things a congressman does."
So, I'm asking myself, what found me at an invitation-only political event in Topeka, Kansas, for U.S. senator Sam Brownback on January 20, as he announced his run for the Republican presidential nomination?
(You may have missed it; Senator Hillary Clinton's same-day announcement took up all the subsequent television time.)
More important, how can I explain why I went to it without looking like a gushy candidate's groupie? I want to keep some of my hard-earned dignity, after all.
Well, the short of it is, Brownback strikes me as an "un-political" politician. I have three occasions to recall on the matter.
Shortly before September 11, Brownback's staff organized a forum on embryonic stem cells at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. I have written on the subject--in First Things, among other places--and, being local, I was invited to participate, along with a bio-medical researcher from the University of Indiana. The senator was very good making the case against the use of embryos for stem cell use. You'd expect him to be very good; I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me was how he handled the question-and-answer period.
The three of us were seated on the stage, passing a microphone back and forth as questions were directed to us. Now, a lot of dumb questions got asked that night. I will confess to very little patience. Brownback, though, was inordinately patient, thoughtful. Some of the questions directed to him seemed conveniently phrased to let him get in a little opposition-bashing, a little demagogic demonizing of the pro-choice people. He ignored every opportunity. He was respectful of the views opposing his own and explained to the audience his "faith-based" opposition to embryonic research in a way so pastorally inspired that it made me lean over to him and ask, "Who's supposed to be the pastor here?"
After that I started following him in the news a little better and later happened across his work seeking to halt the growing international "white slavery" sex business. Hardly anybody else was talking about it. It sure wasn't keeping me awake at night. Thinking politically, I wondered, where's the voter appeal here? Who is the constituency for an issue like this? Fact is, there aren't any votes and there isn't any constituency. Maybe it's a hobby horse for the senator? Maybe, but surely he's got an adviser or two to tell him knock it off, there's nothing to be gained here. By this time, I knew a couple of his staff. It's not a hobby horse, I was told, it's what he thinks Congress should address, and even if he did have a warning he's likely go ahead and do it anyway because it's what he thinks. So there.
Last one. Hurricane Katrina was more or less coincident to the Senate judiciary committee hearings to confirm Alberto Gonzales as attorney-general. Brownback's on the committee. I caught him in a Fox & Friends interview maybe two days post-Katrina, shortly before the hearings opened on Gonzales. He was telling folks how to connect to hurricane relief, stressing an organization he thought was very good. He was back after a break and was asked if, as rumor had it, the Democrats planned to rough up Gonzales in the hearing so as to diminish any chance for a later Supreme Court nomination. Again, a perfectly phrased softball question that dangled some irresistibly partisan bait in front of a ranking GOP senator. Brownback waved it off and instead brought the conversation back to Katrina relief.
When the invitation came to attend his presidential announcement, I decided to attend the first political event I've attended in thirty-two years. I hauled along my two youngest daughters so they could see a little history in the making; very little history as it turned out. Like I said, the day was Hillary's.
I didn't plunge right into the crowd of about three hundred, mind you. I kept the girls and myself off to the rear edge, keeping a distance that was as much physical as it was, I hope, critical. Everybody else jammed themselves up against the stage. As events of this sort go, it had all the usual earmarks I remember from similar things. A high school brass band from Prairie View, Kansas (where Brownback attended) blared away, and nicely so during the hour and a half we waited for the senator. Small groups, time to time, tried to get the chant up, "Brownback! Brownback! Brownback!" Never went too far; these are Kansans, remember. Boisterous demonstrations--save at a K-State/KU game--don't fit the prairie personality. A former Miss America from Hawaii, whose name escapes me, tried to stir people with a pull-string "next President of the United States" introduction, for what I thought was going to be a pull-string announcement.
But it wasn't, not exactly. Brownback did a full-strength social-conservative sort of thing you'd expect from a social conservative, but he did it in fifteen minutes, delivered no jabs at anyone, and had an oddly endearing tendency to walk over some applause lines. As the local paper put it, he focused on "the value of freedom, building stronger families, and expanding personal opportunities with tax policy and business growth." Yawn.
Yet, weirdly, like the gushing groupie I don't want to be, I felt myself, well, thrilled. I dunno. He's an awfully nice guy, and so far in the presidential run-up, awfully unknown. I wonder which may be the greater obstacle to a Brownback presidency.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and editor of Forum Letter.