ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michelle Norris.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has been a newsy place these past few months. They've held hearings on two Supreme Court nominees and on domestic surveillance. In this segment of the program, we hear from one Republican member of the committee, the senior Senator from Kansas Sam Brownback. Brownback's opposition to the nomination of Harriet Miers helped bring about her withdrawal. That gained him a lot of attention. The attention is welcome because Brownback is someone who wouldn't mind making Supreme Court nominations of his own one day.
SIEGEL: When Sam Brownback was in college at Kansas State, he got an internship doing farm reports for the University radio station, KSAC. His ambition, he recalls, was to get on the network, and he did.
(Soundbite of Senator Brownback at KSAC)
Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): I'm Sam Brownback reporting for National Public Radio in Manhattan, Kansas.
SIEGEL: The program director at KSAC in those days remembers Brownback expressing an even greater ambition in his job interview. Ralph Titus says he asked the college student, what is your goal? And he says the young man answered, to be President of the United States.
Well, more than 25 years later, after being Student Body President, after law school, after getting married and getting religion, after two years in the House and almost 10 in the Senate, ask Sam Brownback if he's interested in the presidency, and you get a pretty straight answer.
Senator BROWNBACK: I am interested and I have been encouraged and I think the environment is not yet set. And I think these things are about the right person, the right message, the right moment all coming together. I think that's pretty hard to see for 2008 right now.
SIEGEL: The Senior Senator from Kansas is straight enough about his ambition to take some ribbing about it. Here he is, literally, among country club Republicans in the Topeka Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Topeka Country Club. All the big Kansas companies are represented and Mike Murray of Sprint is handling the introductions.
Mr. MIKE MURRAY (Sprint): Now you would think that someone who had achieved so much would want to take it easy for a while in politics, but no, not Sam. Just like Bob Dole, he's off and running for president. Sam, you'll be pleased to know I didn't bring any maps this year. I figured you knew your way to Iowa. Please welcome Senator Sam Brownback.
SIEGEL: Sam Brownback is an interesting political creature. Even for an age of rampant public piety, he is extremely religious and his faith takes him to some surprising positions. But for all that, he says, his politics are familiar.
Senator BROWNBACK: I'm a Ronald Reagan conservative. I'm an economic conservative, I'm strong military. But I also voice and speak and work hard on the social issues. I am pro-life. I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I think the real needs in the country are for cultural renewal.
SIEGEL: It's his conservative social positions that make Senator Brownback a favorite of Kansans for Life. That's the grassroots anti-abortion movement at the core of the conservative wing of the Kansas GOP. It's the kind of group that would presumably mobilize for Brownback in the Iowa Caucuses.
(Soundbite of Kansans for Life meeting)
At their Topeka prayer breakfast in the Capital Plaza Hotel, there's a Christian rock bank playing, Narrow Road. All of the state's Republican members of the House and Senate are there, among 300 or so enthusiastic right-to-lifers. But, while the state's other Senator, Pat Roberts, draws polite, even prolonged applause, Sam Brownback gets a standing ovation after cheering on the activists for their work.
Senator BROWNBACK: You'll be able to stand up to your children and grandchildren and say I was there. I was in the fight. I was standing up for those who couldn't stand up for themselves. I was speaking for the unborn when they couldn't say anything themselves. When all you heard was their silent scream. I was there and it's a noble fight, and thanks for being in it. God bless you all.
SIEGEL: For the past couple of decades, for your adult life, to be pro-life, anti-abortion, has been to be a critic, to be on the outside. What happens when you're in the majority? What happens when there is no more Roe v. Wade, if that's the outcome?
Senator BROWNBACK: The issue goes to the states.
SIEGEL: Where they should do what?
Senator BROWNBACK: Where the states will work their will the way they did prior to 1973. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, California will have a set of abortion laws, Kansas, New York, Florida. What you'll probably see take place is a number of states will put some restrictions, and they'll say the late-term abortions, we just really don't like those. And you'll have some states that say, we believe that life is sacred at all its stages and so we're not going to allow abortions other than a case of the life of the mother, because here you have two sacred lives.
SIEGEL: But can you have a situation in which the same procedure is a serious felony in one state and legal across the state line?
Senator BROWNBACK: We did prior to 1973.
SIEGEL: If it's a matter for the states, that means there shouldn't be a constitutional amendment for the rights of the unborn or applying the 14th Amendment to fetuses. I mean, you're saying this is for the state to do.
Senator BROWNBACK: That's where it goes, is to the states. I do think you will have states and I think you'll have a situation where people will continue to debate, what is the legal status of the unborn? That unborn child is either a person or a piece of property and in all of our legal system, everything is one or the other. You're a person. Your suit's a piece of property. What's the child? Is it a person? Is it a piece of property? And to date, we've treated the unborn child as property.
I think there will be people that will continue to look at this and say this issue needs to be resolved. It's very reminiscent of the slavery debate where that was, at the legal core of it, that was the question. And for years we couldn't resolve it. And we would say well, somebody that's in servitude is three-fifths of a person. It was even in our constitution. You know as we wrestled with this, so I think that wrestling will go on. The immediate effect of Roe v. Wade is it goes back to the states.
SIEGEL: Well, not a good example for state's rights, the issue of slavery, I mean, that wasn't resolved by having some states, there'd be slaves and some states they were free or some parts of Kansas that were pro-slavery and some parts that weren't. It didn't remain that way. If you see the issue as one between person or property, is that something that can be resolved state by state by state, or ultimately will you advocate a federal solution to that?
Senator BROWNBACK: I think ultimately there will come a solution that the country will decide whether this is a person or a piece of property.
SIEGEL: If on the bench, if Alito were to join in the opinion that upheld the central holding of Roe v. Wade, say the woman and her physician is right to choose in the first trimester, would you be disappointed in him?
Senator BROWNBACK: I would be.
SIEGEL: You would be disappointed.
Senator BROWNBACK: I do not believe nor see, and many legal scholars do not see, a right to abortion in the constitution. I think it is a legitimate political question.
SIEGEL: Senator Brownback sees connections among a constellation of social issues and concerns that might appear formless and eclectic to others. He is against Roe v. Wade and against embryonic stem-cell research. He is in favor of a U.S. role against sex trafficking, of a U.S. role against genocide in Darfur, and he's in favor of aid to Africa.
Senator BROWNBACK: I urge people to take impact trips or vacations. Instead of going to Paris, go to Kigali, Rwanda.
SIEGEL: Brownback favors very limited application of the death penalty. Osama Bin Laden is his model for who ought to be executed. He supports President Bush's proposal for a Mexican guest worker program. To him, it's a Christian worldview. Cynics say Brownback evolved from a conventional pro-business conservative, when the political winds in Kansas shifted to the right. He cites a bout with melanoma in 1995 that started him re-thinking his priorities.
Senator BROWNBACK: It was a lengthy season of really examining the end of life, which we'll all enter into. And that's when I really, at that point in time, embraced my faith. It started changing my whole perspective that it's not about me, and it's not about what I accumulate here. It led me into embracing Christianity. Jesus is my Lord and Savior and God is a loving God.
Unidentified Man: Good to see you.
Senator BROWNBACK: Good to see you.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, Sam.
Senator BROWNBACK: Hi, sweetie, how are you doing? good to see you.
Unidentified Woman #1: You've got two of your favorite little buddies here with you, don't you?
Senator BROWNBACK: Yes, I do, they're my guards here.
Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, they are.
SIEGEL: When Sam Brownback meets and greets constituents back home, his two youngest children, both adopted, are dangling from his arms. Seven-year old Jenna was born in China, eight-year old Mark in Guatemala.
Unidentified Woman #2: We appreciate you so much, you representing us here in Washington.
SIEGEL: Sam Brownback and his wife, Mary, had three kids together before the adoptions. She is a lawyer by training, who is not practicing, and she is a Stauffer, a very wealthy Kansas family that owns newspaper and broadcast properties. By marriage, Sam Brownback is rich.
Unidentified Woman #3: Love your kids. Oh, I know, and so you take care. You've got your lineup here.
Senator BROWNBACK: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman #3: I mean, if they start kissing your ring, you know you're in trouble. You're on your way to the Vatican.
Senator BROWNBACK: No.
SIEGEL: From childhood, Brownback was a Methodist, but a couple of years ago, he converted to Catholicism. He is the only member of the family to that, so his weekly worship is ecumenical and extensive. On Sundays in Topeka, he attends early morning mass and then joins the family for services at an evangelical Protestant church.
Senator BROWNBACK: If anybody ever knew that someday I would be president, it would be Sam Brownback. I've said that ever since high school.
SIEGEL: Looking ahead to a presidential run, Sam Brownback says, the social issues establish a base. After that it will be what you say about healthcare, about the environment, about social security. Does it help to be a Senator? The track record would say, no. Does it help to come from Kansas? Sam Brownback says it has some advantages.
Senator BROWNBACK: It's kind of sensible. I guess, when you come from a large, generally flat state like mine, that people look at it, saying, well, there's not a lot of feature to it, there's humility. We're not infallible and we know that.
SIEGEL: As you're saying this, I can hear a liberal listener in my ear saying, that was Kansas when Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum were the Senators. Now, we are into something different. Senator Brownback is into virtual theocracy with his approach to politics. He's a moralist.
Senator BROWNBACK: Well, I certainly disagree with theocracies, and I will have nothing to do with it. And I am opposed to theocracies. And we see those operating in the world today, in Iran, and horrific problems coming out of it. I support a separation of church and state. But I don't support the elimination of church from the public square. I don't think our founders did either. To me that's kind of a basic midwestern sensibility.
SIEGEL: Sam Brownback, Republican U.S. Senator from Kansas and presidential hopeful in 2008.
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