By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
In 1995, Sam Brownback sacrificed part of his body and wound up closer to God. He discovered a melanoma and had to have two surgeries, during which a "big hunk of flesh" was taken out of his side.
"It was a great season in life," the Kansas senator says in his soft lullaby of a voice. "Season" is one of his favorite words. He sometimes sounds as though he's quoting the Bible even when he isn't.
"I can identify now better with people that have cancer, 'cause when you're told that, it's kind of like -- where else? What else is going on in this body?" Brownback says. He is sitting on a couch in an office in the Capitol and once or twice smiles a serene smile. "But that's mind focused on the flesh. That's death. Literally, you almost can worry yourself to death."
Instead of dying, the first-term Republican congressman had a revelation. In a speech once, he likened the melanoma to God pounding on his hardened heart, even bringing a hunk of concrete and an ax onstage to make the point. He says now it produced "a wonderful and radical transformation of focus." When he ran for the Senate the next year, his spiritual awakening gave him the determination to run an aggressive campaign and crush his opponents at the polls.
Everything has its season, and now is the time when presidential aspirants sprout like stalks of tall Kansas wheat. Brownback thinks 2008 might be his moment, though in interviews he emphasizes his humility. He calls himself a "flawed man," and says the longer he pursues his faith, the more he finds his own sin. It seems contradictory -- all that ego and all that modesty.
"I could be the right person with the right message at the right moment. And I could be completely wrong and I'll still be happy about it," he says, sounding way too mellow for a wannabe president.
In the meantime, amid the fundraising and the visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, Brownback is focused on spreading light when he enters a room. He has said he tries to see Jesus in his fellow senators.
Three years ago he gave a speech at the Archdiocese of Denver. He spoke of the need to "convert the culture" by spreading God's love. He posed a question: "When we walk up to the McDonald's counter, what if we looked at that person in the eye . . . and we said, 'God bless you for that Big Mac?!' "
Then Brownback quoted Burt Bacharach.
"What the world needs now," the senator said, "is love, sweet love."A Religious Experience
Four years ago, Brownback -- who'd been a Protestant all his life -- had another spiritual transformation. He decided to become a Catholic.
"Just felt a real deep calling," he says.
He won't talk much about this aspect of his religious life. "It's kind of a divisive issue," he says, perhaps conscious of his many evangelical supporters. "People divide along churches instead of trying to look at how you pull together. Like, okay, this church is better than that church. You can find the Lord in a lot of places if you're willing to look for Him."
Brownback says he felt drawn to Catholicism for several years before he converted. (He had been raised a Methodist, and later belonged to a nondenominational evangelical church.) He describes the decision as an organic process, less a journey away from his faith and more a return to its roots. He doesn't call it a conversion.
"A conversion is if I became a Buddhist," he says. "Joining the Catholic Church was joining the early church. This is the mother church. This is the church out of which orthodoxy and Protestantism came."
He was sponsored by his friend in the Senate, Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). The ceremony was performed by the Rev. John McCloskey, a member of the controversial and strict Opus Dei sect who has helped convert a number of high-profile people, including columnist Robert Novak and former abortion provider Bernard Nathanson.
Sundays back in Topeka, the senator, who says he is not himself Opus Dei, attends two services. First he goes to Mass by himself, then to his old nondenominational church with his family, who did not convert. His wife, the former Mary Stauffer, comes from a wealthy family that used to own a media conglomerate. They have five children, the two youngest adopted after the Brownbacks applied in China and Guatemala simultaneously and both applications -- unexpectedly -- came through.
He invoked his adopted daughter recently during the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, where potential '08 candidates gathered to speechify.
"Tomorrow, because a woman in China saw that abortion was killing a child, Jenna Joy Brownback, my daughter, will have an eighth birthday party," he told the crowd, prompting applause.
Brownback has a folksy, reassuring presence: He might be lamenting Roe v. Wade or he might be tucking you in and reading "The Berenstain Bears." He grew up on a farm and uses agricultural analogies and words like "skedaddle." He keeps a Mother Teresa quote about not judging people on the back door of his home in Topeka.
"So easy to judge people," he says. "I see you coming in the hallway and my mind just automatically goes, 'Okay, reporter, Washington Post, that's a primarily liberal publication, be careful.' Well, now I've automatically judged you. So I've spent my time judging you instead of thinking, 'Oh, here's a great person that I can interact with. I pray to love 'em.' "
Love, sweet love. Brownback examines his soul for hate and tries to excise any malignancies. Some years back, he says, he apologized to Hillary Clinton at a prayer breakfast for having despised her and her husband.
"I'm ashamed to say it but I did. And I felt -- justified in my hate," he says, his tone bitter, as if reliving an ancient betrayal. "I disagree politically but there is no call to hate. And it was wrong, it's a sin, and I went to her and I apologized."
He practices prayer when he finds himself in heated situations, as he did recently during a meeting on a constitutional amendment he supports, which would ban same-sex marriage. (Marriage, he says, is "a man and a woman bonded together for life and grandparents surrounding 'em.")
"Instead of getting angry at somebody for opposing you on something, you're just praying for them," he says. "You just pray blessings on them, blessings on their family."
Because of his emphasis on compassion, Brownback does not fit the stereotype of the angry Christian conservative. This persona was embodied sensationally by "Pitchfork Pat" Buchanan and his talk of America's "religious war," by Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once imagined "rampant" lesbianism in his state's schools, by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who said abortionists, feminists, gays and pagans helped cause the 9/11 terror attacks. (Falwell later took it back.)
Brownback has teamed up with some of the most liberal members of the Senate to help victims of sex trafficking, and suffering Sudanese. He quotes Bono on the struggles of the poor and encourages college students to take their spring breaks in Africa. He has worked for women's rights in Afghanistan and for North Korean refugees. When the issue of illegal immigration blew up in the Senate earlier this year, Brownback embraced President Bush's plan for comprehensive reform, infuriating some conservatives who see it as too lenient. He has pushed for an African American history museum on the Mall, saying he became committed after a "divine intervention" came to him during prayer.
"It's a consistent kind of a viewpoint that he has that's across the spectrum, and I think a lot of political leaders sort of pick and choose," says Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
"The wonderful thing about Sam is yes, he is ambitious, but it doesn't change anything," says David Barron, who coordinates a consortium of environmental groups called the International Conservation Partnership and has worked with Brownback on conservation issues. "He doesn't worry that someone's going to think he's a squishy liberal because he wants to feed people."
It would, in fact, be a grave error to characterize Brownback as squishy.
When he entered the House as part of the Republican sweep of 1994, Brownback argued for dismantling the departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development as part of an effort to downsize the federal government. Some years later he put forward the theory that part of the problem with the Social Security system was abortion, because too few children were growing up to become workers who could pay into the system.
During the 2004 Republican convention, Brownback told a closed-door rally, "We must win this culture war,'' according to the New York Times. "I say we fight."
"He has this kind of soft physical presence," says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "I think Sam Brownback is a very tough customer."
Brownback believes that research on embryonic stem cells is immoral. In a hearing in 2000, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) argued that research could save lives, and pointed out that the embryos in question were left over from fertility treatments and were going to be discarded anyway.
Brownback compared Specter's argument to the gruesome medical experiments performed on victims of the Holocaust.
"You had the Nazis in World War II saying, of these people, 'They are going to be killed,' " Brownback said. " 'Why do we not experiment on them and find out what happens with these experiments? They are going to die anyway.' "
"But they were living people," said Specter, whose parents were Jewish immigrants.
"These are living embryos," Brownback countered. He then hastened to reassure his opponents that he knew they meant well.
"I do not think our hearts are any different," he told one.A Humble Leader
During visits to Israel, Brownback used to study the Torah with Ariel Sharon, calling it "each of us feeding our souls." Lately he has been reading the Koran. He says Islam's holy book talks a lot about weighing people's good deeds against their bad deeds, and this has made him appreciate Christianity more.
"That's why I love grace so much. And mercy," he says. "Think of the burden that is on a person, that you're going to be weighed. And all of us fall short."
This notion of falling short is a big part of Brownback's identity. He's even humble about his own humility, saying there are others who surpass him in this virtue. Once, years ago, he washed the feet of a staffer at a farewell party to demonstrate respect and humility. When he feels his staffers need guidance, he gives them index cards with Scripture encouraging them to follow Christ's model of servant leadership, or reminding them that "Pride goes before destruction."
He says he struggles "to be really fully committed to the faith -- to die to self," to "pick up His cross daily and carry it." He talks about a visit he made earlier this year to Gospel Rescue Ministries downtown, where he stayed overnight in a room full of men participating in a substance abuse program.
"But for the grace of God," he says three times, "there go I."
Brownback grew up one of four kids on a Kansas farm outside Parker, which had 281 residents in the last census. His childhood friend David Prentice recalls herding cattle with Sam on motorcycles. In high school Brownback was a quarterback ("Wasn't much of one," the senator says), and maintained a lustrous afro he likes to joke about now.
But if the young Sam was, as high school friend Joe Atwood describes him, "extremely overboard humble," he was also highly ambitious. He held leadership positions through law school at the University of Kansas and was state president of Future Farmers of America. At 30, he was appointed the youngest agriculture secretary in Kansas history.
And now, at 49, he's considering a run for president. Across the country, not many people know who Sam Brownback is. His fundraising has been lackluster, though it's still early. Even if he doesn't get close to winning, though, his support in the conservative Christian community may affect what other candidates are talking about.
"One of his major contributions would be to anchor the moral issues in the Republican Party," says Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister and president of the conservative National Clergy Council. "He in a way could hold the evangelical and the traditional Catholic vote hostage if the party began to waver on those issues."
Brownback says his model for the presidential race would be the way he ran for Senate in 1996, after discovering the melanoma.
"If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose," he says. "It's a great liberation. . . . And then you run on the topics that you really feel called to do. And the beauty of it is, is that people really like that. They may not agree with you on things but they really do like that. The purpose-driven life."
He talks about the presidency with a sense -- as his former chief of staff David Kensinger put it -- that "what is supposed to happen will happen." He believes America is a special place destined for special things, and that it is undergoing a "renewal of the soul."
"If Sam's headed for higher office it's because he thinks the mission is headed for higher office," says Barron, the conservationist.
But how can a person be humble and also believe he should be president of the most powerful country in the world?
"It's one of the most humbling things on Earth," Brownback says, his voice soft. "Look at the nature and the difficulty of that job and the greatness of this country and the need to be humble and wise to serve. Plus it's just, it's like, pride was the first sin and humility's the first grace . . ."
"I think Reagan had it right that you don't pursue the presidency, it pursues you."
But a man who expects a crop must first till the soil. Brownback knows this. He still goes home to his childhood farm for the spring planting and the fall harvest of the wheat.
He used to keep a tennis ball can filled with Kansas dirt in his office as a symbol "of what I physically return to," he says. "It's just a great reminder that you serve for a period, you serve for a season and then you move on."
Brownback says he imagines future generations walking the halls of Congress and nobody knowing who he was. He imagines people passing a "Brownback Room" and someone saying, "Who was he?"
Perhaps someone else might answer that Sam Brownback was a complicated man, who thought himself a servant and a potential president at the same time, who imagined his life forgotten even as he dreamed of a room named after himself.