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Mike Johanns: Saturday Service

By Laura Blumenfeld
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Cabinet secretary was scrubbing his toilet, working white bristles around the rim, the sting of Clorox in his nostrils.

Chores . He makes a list on Saturday morning. Clean, wash bed, polish shoes, fertilize flowers, mow and trim, vacuum car, wash dog, sew on button . . .

By lunchtime, Mike Johanns, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, has buffed, dusted, swept and oiled upstairs and down in his Arlington home. In the laundry room, he twirled a mop face-up, running his fingers across the terrycloth.

"It's really cool. Great to pick up dust," Johanns said. His bedspread was thumping in the dryer.

During the week, dressed in a black suit, Johanns runs a $94.7 billion department with 110,981 employees. On the weekend, his black suits lie in the back of his car -- drop off cleaning -- as he unwinds with old habits from the farm.

On the dairy farm in northern Iowa where Johanns grew up, he woke at 5 a.m., and he still does. He was 4 years old when his father gave him his first chore -- holding the hose to fill the hog tanks. It was dark, minus 10 degrees, and his fingers stiffened inside two pairs of gloves. His parents milked cows, side by side.

"It was a very disciplined life," said Johanns, 55, touring his house, bending to pick up lint in the kitchen, to pluck a hair from a table in the den.

On the farm, Mike delivered piglets from their grunting mothers. He shoveled the muck in the barn. Before school he'd wash his boots, but when his boots warmed up in the classroom, they smelled like manure.

After school, he did more chores.

"He relaxes very poorly," said Johanns's wife, Stephanie, as she crossed the parking lot with him at Safeway. She is smiling and confiding, a wink in her green eyes. Next to Stephanie, Johanns is mild. He is milk; she is honey. They met when they were both serving as county commissioners in Nebraska, before Johanns was elected governor. It is his second marriage.

"We don't do anything alone," Johanns said.

"Better when you do it with your best friend," Stephanie observed. She drives him to work on the way to her telecommunications job, handles his e-mail and gives him cash because he doesn't have a checking account.

"I am his ATM, and he gets twenty dollars a week, whether he needs it or not," she said.

On work days, they pack ham sandwiches and spend their half-hour lunch in his office. On Saturdays, they grocery shop after they clean.

"He cleans constantly," Stephanie said, smiling. "He gives me jobs; he says, 'Okay, Steph, here's what you have to do. Do the counters.' When he was running for governor, if I was five minutes late getting home, he'd pull out the vacuum and start vacuuming."

Once when the grocery bags were still on the counter, he unloaded the Windex and started spraying the windows. She laughed: "He's a compulsive window washer. If we go on vacation, he washes strangers' windows."

This reminded Johanns of a chore for his list: "I have a pair of shoes that have to be resoled."

"Oh gosh, honey, that's pretty boring."

At Safeway, they pushed their cart through the door, rolling purposefully toward the produce. Stephanie had her coupons, buy two, get one free. A Safeway employee cut open a watermelon for Johanns to taste, unaware that the man licking juice from his fingers was the nation's top agricultural official.

They bought sugar-free Oreos. "We both try to stay away from sugar, although he cheats," Stephanie said. Wheeling down the cereal aisle, Johanns picked up a Cheerios box and looked at the picture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid: "This is what we need, more whole grains."

"You found your pyramid?" Stephanie asked.

"Isn't that cool?" Johanns smiled.

Later, in the parking lot, Johanns loaded the grocery bags. In their trunk lay a "Welcome" mat.

"We are so daggone boring," Stephanie said.

Johanns still had the ironing to do. He spreads a sheet under the ironing board so the starch doesn't spot the floor. After that, he cuts the grass.

"My best time is when I'm out there, mowing the lawn," he said. His 14-hour workdays at USDA dissolve, blurring the worries of overseeing the farm bill or protecting the sugar industry. When he mows and the motor roars and the exhaust ripples the grass, Johanns could close one eye and be 8 years old again, driving the tractor through a hayfield.

"The discipline, the risk," he said, recalling the farming life. "So much of it is beyond your control. Too wet. Too dry." One season when he was young, it was so dry, the corn didn't even make an ear. The family gathered at the kitchen table. The crop had died, his mother told the four children. His father, a straight-backed man of 6-2, got very quiet.

Soon after, one night at bedtime, "I was horsing around. I jumped out of bed and ran into my parents' bedroom -- I was shocked."

His father, a soaring, unbent figure, was on his knees. He was praying the rosary.

And so on Saturday afternoons when Johanns's chores are done, he and Stephanie drive to St. Aloysius Church on Capitol Hill, and walk down the stairs to the basement chapel for services. On a recent Saturday, a dozen people sat scattered in the pews. It is a place of worship reduced to its simplest elements -- a white wall, a plain wood cross, two burning candles. Johanns turned off his emergency cell phone, the one for calls from the White House.

He crossed himself.

The priest sang, "Alleluia, alleluia, one does not live on bread alone . . ."

Johanns bowed his head. The back of his neck was tanned and lined.

". . . but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God . . ."

And for the second time that day, the Cabinet secretary was kneeling. In the morning for his chores; in the evening for his Lord.

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