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Lone Star

On a hot July day in a grassy park on Capitol Hill, a star was rising. The U.S. Senate had just rejected a constitutional ban on gay marriage, and Senator John Cornyn, a main proponent of the ban, was waiting to start a press conference. As usual, the Texas Republican had a gentle smile on his face. The marriage vote had been a flop for Senate Republicans, who couldn’t even muster a majority for their cause, never mind the 67 votes needed to amend the Constitution. But Cornyn looked happy all the same. He’d had a starring role in the debate and spent long hours verbally dueling with Senate Democrats with decades of seniority--heady stuff for a man who arrived in Washington in January 2003. Sometimes there is glory in defeat, and now Cornyn was a minor sensation. Presently, he was surrounded by a pack of photographers, one of whose shots would land him on the front page of the next day’s Washington Post. A stranger approached and asked to have her picture taken with him. “It’s too bad we don’t have our camera,” said another nearby admirer enviously. The conservative ber-activist Gary Bauer, standing a few feet away, felt all the attention was well-deserved: “He’s hit a grand slam on this issue!”Even before the marriage debate, Cornyn had fast developed a reputation as the Senate’s most ambitious--and most conservative--new addition. Whereas tradition dictates that Senators quietly pay their dues and build up seniority before mouthing off, Cornyn didn’t hesitate to join the Senate’s toughest fights. On issues from gay marriage to judicial nominations to the detainee abuse scandals, he has taken stridently conservative stands that make even other Republicans queasy. “More and more, he seems to be the designated hitter for the right wing of the Republican Party on the most controversial issues,” says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. Of course, the Senate has seen conservative firebrands before. But none as deceptively genial as John Cornyn. Standing a full six-foot-four, Cornyn has a kind, slightly bemused face above which floats a perfect cloud of puffy white hair. He speaks with a buttery soft voice, which he rarely raises in indignation. A former judge and Texas attorney general, he prefers the reasoned language of jurisprudence to harsh conservative rhetoric. Whereas congressional right-wingers--and especially Texans like Tom DeLay--often limit their appeal by acting like villains from a Michael Moore nightmare, Cornyn is genial. At the press conference on the marriage amendment, he did not fulminate over moral depravity or clumsily scorn “the homosexual agenda.” Instead, he called the debate a fine chance to highlight “the traditional institution of marriage and its importance as a stabilizing influence on our society.” His sunny, calm tone suggested a man of deep benevolence. All of which makes Cornyn’s ultra-conservative message easy to swallow. “He’s quiet by nature and isn’t excitable. So, when he does speak, you are more inclined to listen to what he has to say,” says Cornyn’s longtime friend Jim Lunz, a retired San Antonio businessman. His colleagues agree. “He’s very calm and poised,” adds GOP Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. But perhaps Republican Senator Mitch McConnell put it best when he told the Houston Chronicle recently, “You don’t get the feeling that he’s overcome by passion. It’s a very dispassionate approach, and I think people like that.” If Tom DeLay is the stylistic equivalent of heavy metal, John Cornyn is muzak. For that reason, he could prove a major asset to a party searching for ways to seem more moderate than it is. You might say John Cornyn is coining a new political style: dispassionate conservatism. A few weeks earlier, Cornyn was tackling another issue that had scared off many of his GOP colleagues: the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib. Senate Democrats, led by Pat Leahy and Ted Kennedy, had been pushing a measure that would require the Bush administration to release memos detailing its interrogation policies. Republicans--who didn’t want the memos out but didn’t want to be on record saying so--were blocking a vote. “This is not an issue that other Republicans want to touch,” a newspaper reporter covering the story that day murmured as Cornyn entered the Senate radio and TV gallery, alone, and took a lectern to refute the Democratic position. With a gentle lilt and a slight Texas twang, he argued that releasing the memos would aid terrorists. “For us to produce a policy document which states exactly what American interrogators will or will not do during the course of questioning detainees provides a road map to our enemy,” he said. The continued debate over interrogation policies, he added, “is just wrong. And the only possible reason I can see that anyone would do it is to score political points. But the unintended consequence of this is to help our enemies by reducing American resolve to get actionable intelligence and to finish the job that we’ve started in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.” Cornyn said this without a flicker of anger or machismo, as if he was just disappointed things had come to this. Cornyn’s good-soldier role may have something to do with his connections to the Bush White House. He is particularly close to Karl Rove, who ran his winning 1996 reelection campaign for the Texas Supreme Court and convinced him to run for state attorney general two years later. When Phil Gramm gave up his Texas Senate seat in 2002, Rove again recruited Cornyn and reportedly cleared the GOP primary field for him. The president took it from there, raising millions and campaigning repeatedly for Cornyn--as did Karen Hughes, Laura Bush, and even George H.W. and Barbara Bush. “Probably no race in the nation has drawn more interest and energy from President Bush,” The New York Times concluded that October. Back then, Cornyn made no secret of his loyalty to Bush. It was a central theme of his campaign against former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. But his conservatism attracted little national attention, in part because Cornyn’s style didn’t set off liberal alarm bells. “He doesn’t seem to stir the passions either way,” University of Houston Professor Richard Murray told the San Antonio Express-News when Cornyn was inaugurated. “He seems to be a moderate Republican.” In that respect, Cornyn’s 2002 campaign is strikingly reminiscent of the 2000 presidential race, when a deeply conservative Bush used soft rhetoric and easy charm to cast himself as a centrist. Nowhere has Cornyn’s smooth style been more useful to the GOP than in the intense ongoing battle over judicial nominations. From his post on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cornyn plunged straight into the bitter fights over judges that Democrats and Republicans have been waging for years. Cornyn initially took a folksy, Mr. Smith approach to the subject, with magnanimous calls for “a fresh start” to a “broken” confirmation process. But, given that this “fresh start” would have involved funneling through stalled Bush nominees and rewarding Republicans for blocking Democratic judges in the 1990s, Democrats didn’t take kindly to the suggestion. After Cornyn made one such appeal in a hearing, the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Pat Leahy, contemptuously dressed him down. “I appreciate him giving us a lecture on the history of the Senate, but let me respond as one who has been here for twenty-nine years.” Leahy then rattled off extensive details about stymied Clinton nominees before acidly concluding, “But, being new here, you may not have realized that.” If the scolding was meant to put Cornyn in his place, however, it failed. Before long, Cornyn was helping lead an audacious push by Senate conservatives to rewrite the body’s rules and prohibit filibusters of judicial nominees--a so-called “nuclear option” that made GOP traditionalists blanch. But the White House had no complaints. As White House counsel Alberto Gonzales--another old Cornyn friend from Texas--recently told the Houston Chronicle, “We don’t view him as a junior senator. He’s been very helpful in terms of judges.” And not just judges. Upon taking his seat, he was granted the chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution--a plum perch for a freshman-- and, within 18 months, he had staged hearings on no fewer than four constitutional amendments (not only on marriage, but on flag-burning, religious freedom, and the continuity of Congress after a terrorist attack). Cornyn is also a reliable mouthpiece for the most conservative--and White House-friendly-- line on the issue of the day. When Senate GOP leaders recently angered the no- quarter right by cutting a deal with Democrats to confirm some Bush nominees in exchange for other concessions, Cornyn quickly declared the deal a sellout. During the 9/11 Commission hearings, it was a formal request from Cornyn, along with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, that led to the Justice Department’s release of a controversial 1995 memo written by Democratic Commissioner (and then-Deputy Attorney General) Jamie Gorelick that conservatives used to try to undermine the Commission’s credibility. During the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Cornyn’s chief complaint seemed to be that the Senate’s extensive hearings on the matter were amounting to “collective hand-wringing, which can be a distraction from fighting and winning the war.” And, perhaps more than any other senator, Cornyn promotes base-pleasing, right-wing causes. Few other Republicans sought a visible role in the gay marriage fight, for instance: When Cornyn used his Judiciary subcommittee to hold a hearing on the issue last spring, only one of his colleagues, Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, showed up. Likewise, when Cornyn called in Roy Moore--the former Alabama Supreme Court justice unseated last year for displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments--for a June hearing on “Hostility to Religious Expression in the Public Square,” the archconservative Sessions was again the only other committee Republican in attendance. All of which delights conservatives. “In all honesty, many of us here in Washington didn’t know much about the senator when he was elected,” Bauer says. “I think he’s clearly established himself as a senator who’s going to be a major mover and shaker in the years ahead.” John Cornyn is hardly the first conservative Senate newcomer to shun the rules of the tradition-bound institution. Beginning in the mid-’90s, an influx of conservative ideologues from the Gingrich school of take-no-prisoners political warfare joined the Senate. These insurgents--including Sessions, Rick Santorum, Jim Inhofe, and Jon Kyl--are far more conservative, and confrontational, than institutionalist predecessors like Hatch, Charles Grassley, or Pete Domenici. By bucking Senate traditions of earnest debate, bipartisan friendship, and staid decorum--many of which they see as antithetical to an aggressive conservative agenda--they’ve helped turn the Senate into the sort of embittered, partisan battlefield that the House has become. But, while these new-breed conservatives have had success remaking the institution, it’s come at a cost to their image--and, in some cases, their effectiveness. Consider the case of Rick Santorum. A former bomb-throwing House member, Santorum came to the Senate in 1995 with all the subtlety of an air- raid siren. In his first full month, he noisily crusaded for a balanced-budget amendment, irreverently arguing on the Senate floor with Democrats like Robert Byrd (who, as Michael Barone’s Almanac of American Politics notes, was elected the year Santorum was born). At one point, Santorum scoffed to another veteran Democrat, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, that he was “stupefied that the plain reading of this [bill’s] language is not apparent” to him. When the 72-year-old Republican Appropriations Committee chairman, Mark Hatfield, voted against the amendment, Santorum demanded he be stripped of his chairmanship. Such episodes-- combined with a shrill and sneering rhetorical style--earned Santorum a reputation for obnoxious ambition that he has spent years trying to repair. Cornyn shares Santorum’s ambition, conservatism, and disdain for Senate tradition, but not his sharp-edged style. That makes Cornyn’s adversaries nervous. A senior Democratic aide says, “He’s deceiving because he’s far more conservative than people realize. He has very nice table manners, but he’s as tough and fierce a conservative as Rick Santorum or Jeff Sessions.” The difference, says the aide, is that “Santorum is smug and arrogant, and he rubs everyone--especially his own caucus--the wrong way. A lot of members of his caucus want to keep their distance from [Santorum] because he’s viewed as being too extreme.” Cornyn’s affability, by contrast, insulates him from that sort of typecasting. Case in point: Santorum was ridiculed last year when he invoked bestiality-- “man on dog,” as he famously put it--in an interview about gay marriage. Earlier this month, it seemed Cornyn had done something similar when The Washington Post reported that he had said in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, “It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right. ... Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife.” The quote quickly circulated around Washington and beyond, reaching as far as “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. But, as a subsequent Post correction noted, Cornyn never actually delivered this line. “I had a draft that I put out ‘as prepared for delivery,’” says Cornyn communications director Dan Stewart. “He saw that and said, ‘Noooo way!’” It’s the sort of politically wise editing conservatives like Santorum, DeLay, Trent Lott, and others lack--and it’s already improving Cornyn’s stock in the party. Earlier this year, Cornyn was named to the Senate GOP’s vote-counting whip team. And, in a telling gesture, he was also dispatched as a GOP surrogate to the Democratic convention in Boston last week--along with a team of mostly moderate Republicans like William Weld and Rudy Giuliani. Republicans and Democrats alike expect Cornyn to climb higher. “He’s become a serious player,” says GOP activist Grover Norquist. It’s clear that Cornyn himself recognizes the virtue of an anodyne approach to ideological combat. “Those of us on the side of traditional marriage must not flinch,” he said during the gay marriage debate. “We should not back down, and we should not allow people to paint our motivations as hateful or hurtful because, indeed, they are not.” He said something similar when I sat down with him recently in an office belonging to McConnell near the Senate floor. Cornyn was wearing a dark suit whose leg he hiked up to reveal black cowboy boots with a custom u.s. senator john cornyn seal. I asked him about his surprisingly gentle demeanor. “Maybe some of this goes back to my role as a lawyer,” he told me. “It’s not always easy, because so many of these arguments are so deeply felt, and sometimes they get downright personal. But I try my best not to let them get that way.” To the chagrin of Washington Democrats, he is succeeding.