Cover Story

Parable of the Talent

After a crushing statewide defeat just two years ago, Jim Talent rejected self-pity and cynicism. He took time for one-on-one Bible study with his trusted pastor, and learned to see how "God governs in the affairs of men." Now, as the newly elected senator who made the Republican majority and helped President Bush make history, he's happily reconciled to the hand-and timing-of divine providence

Issue: "Jim Talent: Majority maker," Nov. 23, 2002

For a guy who has just won the biggest political victory of his life, Jim Talent is a little agitated on this first Sunday since Missouri voters elected him senator. It's a warmer-than-usual November morning and he's briskly navigating the back stairs of his church and heading to the parking lot to retrieve the cell phone he'd left in his Ford Escape.

Their three kids safely deposited in their Sunday school rooms, Sen.-elect Talent and wife, Brenda, are awaiting the arrival of a friend they'd invited to church. Mr. Talent believes that his guest is lost. Well, not that kind of lost. She's a new convert, a young lady who helped in the campaign and is eager to visit the Talents' Presbyterian Church in America congregation in west St. Louis County. Sure enough, she had called. He presses the phone to his ear, squeezes the other ear shut, and calls her back.

"Hi, it's Jim," he says, and walks her through detailed directions. "Brenda will meet you upstairs."

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He bounds back up the stairs and through the crowded halls, receiving assorted congratulations and greetings. Toward the front entrance, he spies Todd Akin, the congressman who filled the seat he vacated in 2000 for an unsuccessful bid for governor. Rep. Akin had won his first reelection, by a large margin.

"Hey, Jim," calls a smiling Mr. Akin.

Mr. Talent responds, "Congratulations, brother!" and the two Republican colleagues' embrace ends in a hearty series of back pats. "Big win!" he says of Mr. Akin's landslide. "Huge win, huge!"

"But I'm so thankful you won, too," says one woman in the conversational huddle. "We prayed and prayed."

"Thank you. Keep praying," Mr. Talent urges. "The hard work starts now. People are going to expect us all to produce, right, Todd?"

They are. But Jim Talent is not just another Republican senator from Missouri. With his Nov. 5 victory, officially declared several hours before the GOP victory in Minnesota that sent Norm Coleman to the Senate, he's the man who made the majority. A Republican ouster of a Democratic incumbent in Georgia followed by the Democratic pickup in Arkansas kept the score tied before the Talent victory put the GOP over the top.

The Republican sweep was not just another political victory. It was the first time in almost 70 years that the party of a president in his first term enjoyed gains in both houses of Congress. And the only time since 1860 that the president's party reclaimed total congressional control at the first midterm.

Political opponents might try to paint Jim Talent as an extremist from the religious right, but it's his biblical worldview that softens for the watching public the perceived harder edges of the Republican agenda he embraces. He's into racial reconciliation and compassionate conservatism. During his first term (of four) as a U.S. congressman from St. Louis County, he introduced the welfare-reform bill of 1994-not exactly the soccer mom-type concerns typical of politicians representing the 'burbs.

"I have a heart for reaching out, for reconciliation, for pulling people together, and particularly in the minority communities. I enjoyed enormously campaigning there. We still haven't been able to evaluate how big an actual impact it had on the election, but I am going to continue doing it," Mr. Talent says. "Think what a senator does for your average middle-class person of whatever color or background in St. Louis County.... It's stuff that's important, but it's not central.

"When HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] is trying to take away the contract from a tenant management group, it means everything to the people in that housing project. They are just more vulnerable, and if their representatives don't fight for them, nobody does. They also often live in circumstances where they are being exploited, and in some cases by a political machine, and they need people who will fight for them. I have just been next to many of them and talked to too many folks in that situation, so I am eager to represent that community. What I mean is the urban core community, people who feel vulnerable. I want to try and help."

That's not the kind of talk that thrills those religious conservatives in the state who would prefer a lightning-rod leader willing to take a more confrontational approach to serious social problems. Mr. Talent kept his distance from hot-button issues like abortion, and instead stressed things like his opposition to Social Security privatization. In his campaign he talked about a prescription-drug benefit for seniors-though not the big one Democrats touted-and said he would be "Missouri's health care senator." Even Mr. Talent's pastor, Rodney Stortz, said he heard complaints that "Jim did not do enough to energize conservative evangelicals."

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