Cover Story

Fighting the fever

The symptoms are unmistakable: Swollen ego, delusions of grandeur, loss of good judgment. The illness: Potomac fever, that dread disease of believing Washington has all the answers. The cure: Going home, building private businesses, creating jobs. In the post-impeachment days of disillusionment in Washington, three ex-senators report there is indeed life outside the D.C. Beltway.

Issue: "Fighting Potomac fever," Feb. 27, 1999

in Chichester, N.H. - To say that Gordon Humphrey is off the beaten path is a classic understatement. The path to his old, red-brick farmhouse on a windswept hilltop in southern New Hampshire is not only unbeaten, it's unpaved. Obscure streets with names like Horse Corner Road are practically thoroughfares around here, by virtue of the fact that they're covered with asphalt. Two other roads leading to the Humphrey homestead are simply strewn with gravel made from the granite for which New Hampshire is famous. Horse Corner Road is a world away from Mr. Humphrey's old digs on Pennsylvania Avenue. As a United States senator known for his fiscal conservatism and his pro-life convictions, he was at the center of the political universe-hounded by reporters, besieged by constituents, sought out by presidents. Yet in 1990, at age 50 the man who had never lost an election in his home state gave it all up voluntarily, trading the marble halls of Congress for the granite cliffs of New Hampshire. His home office-on the second floor of a white wooden barn that stands behind the main house-contains remarkably few trappings of leftover power. There are a couple of grip-and-grin photographs with former presidents, plus a paper sign from the disastrous Bush-Quayle reelection campaign. Visitors are left to notice such things on their own, if they have a sharp eye. Mr. Humphrey is more eager to point out the greenhouse that provides flowers through the cold New England winters or the ingenuity of the wooden joints in the attic, which have settled only millimeters after nearly two centuries. Such a lack of sentimentality for the world he left behind might be chalked up to the flinty Yankee personality that earned Mr. Humphrey a reputation as the mortal enemy of tax increases and bloated budgets. But this is more than a case of grin-and-bear-it. Like Bill Armstrong and Dan Coats-two others who walked away from the Senate under their own power-Mr. Humphrey actually loves life after Washington. "It always broke my heart to leave this place," he says with a sweep of his arms that encompasses his own rolling, 250-acre estate and the craggy mountaintops beyond, silhouetted against a sky of frozen blue. Indeed, it was only a sense of alarm for his country that caused him to leave in the first place. Then a pilot for US Air, Mr. Humphrey had always been interested in public policy but had never run for office before his 1978 bid for the U.S. Senate. "We were only five years from the Roe vs. Wade decision," he recalls. "The incumbent was a liberal Democrat, and I felt like the country was going to hell." To almost everyone's surprise, Mr. Humphrey won his first campaign for public office. Like Jefferson Smith in the classic 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, he headed to the nation's capital full of optimism and idealism. The reality that he found there was far from the stuff of high school civics classes. "There's a tremendous amount of overhead down there," he says. The endless committee meetings, visits with constituents, calls from the press, social appearances, and fundraising left little time for changing the world. Worse yet, he soon discovered that Washington was out to change him. Parachuting into town midway through the Carter administration, Mr. Humphrey found that his limited-government views were distinctly out of favor with the city's reigning elites. "The Washington Post-and, to a lesser extent, The New York Times-define the agenda in Washington," he explains. "For a conservative Republican, the best you can get out of the Post is to be ignored. If you become in any measure a threat to their agenda, they beat you up. But if you should be so foolish as to betray your philosophy, then they fawn all over you. So I constantly found myself tempted to be expedient, to pander. It's a tremendous pressure." Looking back on his 12 years of service in the Senate, Mr. Humphrey sees his greatest accomplishment as simply resisting that pressure. "There aren't any monuments with my name on it, in terms of landmark legislation," he says. "I'm proudest of maintaining a fiscally conservative record and serving the state in the way that I said I would. I stayed true to what I promised at the outset." That promise included serving no more than two terms in Washington. So in 1990, with 12 years of seniority under his belt and no viable challengers on the horizon, he walked away from the most powerful city on earth. Walking away hasn't meant "retirement" for Mr. Humphrey. He has served on the board of his local crisis pregnancy center. He formed the Russia Society to foster friendly bilateral relations and help Russian lawmakers transform their country into "a respectable member of the family of democratic nations." And he's still trying to change American culture, not through laws but through the entertainment media. He's currently assembling a group of investors to buy mainstream, commercial radio stations that will be run with a Christian perspective. "We won't be throwing religion at people in buckets, but in a constant drip," he promises. It's a decision that few politicians would make. Even believers who go to Washington with a sense of God's calling usually stay until the voters kick them out. God calls Christians to Washington, but it seems He never calls them to leave. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who retired from the Senate just this year at age 55, is one of the few exceptions. His political involvement started with a "chance" introduction to Dan Quayle just after he and his wife, Marcia, turned "all of our future over to the Lord regardless of where that would lead us." It led to eight years in the House and 10 in the Senate. And then, just as inexplicably, it led to an abrupt exit from Congress. He had promised to limit himself to no more than 12 years in the Senate, and he intended to deliver. "Here's the step of faith," says Mr. Coats from the Washington law office where he temporarily works. "As strongly as I felt that events were leading toward serving, I felt strongly that the Lord was directing me toward leaving, not really knowing what God would have next." While he awaits the next big step, he's settling into life as a private citizen: serving as board president of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America, sitting on the board of visitors at Wheaton College, and heading up a foundation dedicated to encouraging faith-based solutions to poverty and social services. Why do so few follow the Coats example? Mr. Humphrey has a simple explanation for the typical one-way ticket to town. "It's the basic human flaw: vanity. It's heady stuff to be a senator. People are constantly bowing and scraping, you have all kinds of staff, reporters are pursuing you. Ego overpowers judgment in most cases." Mr. Humphrey credits the weekly Bible studies in his Senate office with helping him to avoid that trap. Each Tuesday he huddled with then-Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.) and a representative from the Christian Embassy. Others might visit occasionally, and Dan Coats became a regular in 1988. It was half prayer and Bible reading, he recalls, "but 50 percent of it was just fellowship and letting off steam. It gave us perspective and a sense of peace in the midst of combat." Bill Armstrong, age 61, brings up those weekly Bible studies without being asked. He recalls the "wonderful times" he spent praying with Mr. Humphrey and Mr. Coats, and he agrees that such meetings helped him to keep his bearings. Not that he was immune to Washington's siren call. "I do think there is kind of a corruption that comes from being in a position of power," he admits. "It's a fact that if you're constantly surrounded by flatterers-by police officers who step off the curb to stop the traffic so you can cross the street-it's easy to get an inflated view of yourself." Still, his faith and his philosophy of government-so different from those around him-served as constant reminders that he wasn't really at home in the capital. "I don't think I ever bought into the dominant theme of the place, which is more government," he says. "I never at any point found myself doubting my point of view. If there's one strain of virus that infects people in Washington, it is that tendency to trust government rather than individual or family or God." As a three-term congressman and two-term senator, Mr. Armstrong worked for policies that would increase self-reliance and decrease the role of government in people's lives. He was an early proponent of welfare reform, an avid tax reformer, and a principal backer of the GI Bill. "I fought a lot of battles back there and, frankly, I lost most of them," he says. "I think if you take on tough issues, you're bound to win fewer than you lose. So it wasn't easy, but I found it fulfilling and rewarding." Yet he says his greatest mission was spreading the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of self-reliance. Because of his prominence as a Christian who happened to be a senator, he constantly received speaking invitations that gave him the opportunity to share his faith. He estimates that he spoke to hundreds of thousands of people in evangelistic meetings-a chance he would never have had without his highly public political role. Ironically enough, he never considered himself a politician, however. "I had never seen myself as a Washington careerist. I didn't want to see myself in that light. I always thought of myself primarily as a businessman. I wanted to be a citizen legislator who took time out to serve the public interest and then come home. If I didn't come home, I would at some point have ceased to be that." So Mr. Armstrong began praying for permission to leave the very place that so many others were clamoring to get into. Initially, he says, he felt led to stay longer than he would have liked. But by 1990, he had the peace to return to Colorado after 18 years in Washington. "I just felt like it was time," he says. Though the city had worn on him-even making him physically sick at times-he never looked at his departure as a retreat. "It wasn't a sense of 'Boy, am I glad to get out of this!' I didn't leave in disgust. I left because it was time to go home." Mr. Armstrong is still the businessman that he always viewed himself as. He owns eight companies and serves on several corporate boards. He took an active role in 16 campaigns last year, including a successful state ballot initiative requiring minor girls to notify their parents before having an abortion. And he continues with his evangelistic efforts, both in personal appearances and as a director of Campus Crusade for Christ. All the former senators keep a close eye on Washington, and they're largely dismayed by what they see. But they view the recent show trial of President Clinton as a timely reminder that Washington is not the source of hope for believers. "Too many have put too much faith in sending the right person to Washington," Mr. Coats says. "The political process is very limited in what it can do for our moral and spiritual problems." Mr. Armstrong agrees. "Sure we need to be involved, but I think it is a great error to look to the government more than we should. Most people see the role of government as making people's lives better-even improving human nature. But throughout human history, the greatest threat to liberty has been government. I subscribe to President Washington's view that government is not reason or eloquence. It's more like fire-a dangerous servant and a fearful master." "The more we rely on the individual and the community and the family-and ultimately on God-the better off we will be," Mr. Humphrey adds. "The decline in ethics and values has been commensurate with our growing dependence on Washington. It's a reflection of the darker side of human nature, wanting something for nothing, wanting to shift your responsibilities onto someone else's shoulders. It's a sign of human weakness." And a sign that Potomac fever is not merely a Washington disease that infects so many of the lawmakers who serve there; it may originate with those who send them.

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