Congress doesn’t get much respect. It never has. At the dawn of our republic John Adams famously muttered: “In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.” A century after Adams, citizens resonated (and still do) to Mark Twain’s assertion: “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” And a century after Twain, Joe Carter described a congressman’s recent speech delivered to an empty House as “the single most clueless speech on economic policy that [he’s] ever heard anyone make. Seriously,” he emphasized, “ ever,” while I once described my stint as a speech writer as the time I was a congressman’s whore.
I enjoy every acerbic joke about Congress I hear. Who wouldn’t? It’s Congress, right? And I completely agree with Carter, the congressman he mentioned, yes, unquestionably delivered the most significantly stupid speech I’ve ever heard.
But I think I should not describe my work using the word I used. Speechwriters and press secretaries (directors of communications, these days, what with job title inflation) can do honest work, when working for an honest congressman. My congressman just wasn’t one of them. He once wanted a photograph for the district newsletter of himself in a hard hat “inspecting” the construction of a Library of Congress addition. I thought it was dumb and dishonest. Congressmen make enough news by just being congressmen and should report that without resorting to cheaply staged photographs. In my congressman’s opinion, I never did quite catch on to the job.
Would I ever think of going back to something like that? Well, yes, as it happened. A friend—Rob Wasinger—ran for Congress last year. It was my first excursion into elective politics since I entered seminary a thousand years ago. I spent some small part of 2009 and 2010 volunteering in his congressional campaign for Kansas’ first district seat, an area distinguished for being geographically larger than many nation states. There are places in the first district one may drive long sixty-mile stretches or more and never see a tree.
Almost weekly I made the two-hour drive to the Cottonwood Falls headquarters and contributed several hours to Rob. He was seeking the Republican nomination. Winning the primary was the same as winning the election in that district. In all the one hundred fifty-year history of Kansas the district had elected but one Democrat, a one-term wonder who benefited from Republican disunion in the mid-1950s. I wrote, edited, stuffed envelopes, forged his name on fund raising letters, coached him for Q and A forums (most of which he wisely ignored), and stuffed more envelopes.
Rob was a good candidate. He had done staff work for the Kansas legislative leadership before spending twelve years with Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, ending up as his chief of staff. Rob is ardently pro-life, a Catholic by conversion, father to ten kids, one of the smartest men I know, and one of the most honorable. He was the candidate for—does this phrase work—reasonable conservatives. By that term I do not mean “moderate.” I mean a man seeking reasonable responses from within a conservative perspective, somebody who can do practical politics and keep his soul.
Rob’s message was sharp, concentrated on economic life in a region increasingly noted for small town decline, out-migration of youth, and badly in need of rural redevelopment. Compared to the other candidates, honest, he had the best message and he ran a skilled campaign. At candidate forums he clearly was the guy all over the issues with the right facts, the correct figures, and—okay, my bias—the proper conclusions for what they meant for Kansans. He was pointed and crisp.
I thought he would win, right up to the final three weeks. I was harboring thoughts of going back to work in Congress as Rob’s press secretary, and maybe volunteering a little bit with the House chaplain if he needed an extra pastoral hand time to time. Or, a fancy, organizing a Lutheran staffers Bible study group, left and right. But we—amazing how swiftly the effort becomes “we” and the loss a shared disappointment—lost the August primary, fourth in a field of six. My guy didn’t break five figures, almost, but he came in under 10,000 votes.
I said he was the sharpest and the smartest. He was that. What Rob did not have was name recognition and he couldn’t get that because he never had enough money to buy it. He routinely led the field in the number of small contributors—$200 and under—but he never led at any point in overall donations. The campaign could not buy enough television, print, or radio. Rob personally may have knocked on 25,000 doors while his opponents knocked on none, but it took money to close the deal. Two of the candidates by contrast had deeper pockets and loaned a lot of their own money to their campaigns. One of them emptied his retirement account, one of the saddest gestures I can imagine.
Rob did have the best message, but it was the wrong year. What the voters of the first district wanted in 2010 was someone who would go up to Washington and punch Nancy Pelosi in the nose. That wasn’t Rob’s message. The winner and now congressman—caution: bias alert—was noted largely for being a cranky ideologue in the Kansas state senate who promised to do exactly that. (Apart from that, he too was pro-life, Roman Catholic, and had good marks for family as well.)
Rob’s campaign argued, there is a big difference between a temper that refuses all compromise and a legislative temperament willing to reach principled resolutions, but we weren’t cutting any ice with that last summer, and we didn’t have the money to sharpen the point. Of the others, well, an Obama “birther” placed second. That should give you an indication on the mood of the district, and third place went to another state senator who had gained name recognition by running a poor campaign for governor two years previously against Kathleen Sibelius’s reelection.
Did I learn anything? Yes, a few things. I had forgotten how thoroughly I once enjoyed good politics and the camaraderie of the campaign, the fierce sense of doing something good. I will remember a thousand faces and several friendships forged over those months. I even found a couple Wasinger supporters who remembered my name from my earlier days in Kansas politics. I learned, too, the battle for “likes” on Facebook campaign pages is not unimportant.
But mostly I remembered what I have always known. Some of the bravest people I know are people who put themselves out front for civic office. Politics can be a pounding vocation but it is more than a lust for recognition and power. It can be a profession marked by candor and service. It is like doing the Hokey-Pokey. You put your whole self in. I can admire that in anyone, Democrat or Republican. And when you lose, it is your whole self that hurts. I mentioned over dinner with Rob and his family some months after that I thought he had landed on his feet post-election. His wife, Meg, put it in better perspective. “We’re still landing, Russ.”
There is no bigger blow, I think, than voter rejection. It pains me to say it, but Lutheran staff members working in Congress will have to organize their own Bible studies without my help.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Joe Carter’s comments on “the single most clueless speech on economic policy that [he’s] ever heard anyone make” may be read here.
Russell Saltzman’s recollection of his time as a congressman’s speechwriter can be read here.