Our political system is a finely-tuned battlefield for the age-old debate of belief versus faith. All of us have a set of beliefs; some are commonly-shared while others are not. Beliefs are what we know to be true. Faith is the willingness to act without knowing. To be successful in politics, you have to move people from belief to faith, and that usually comes in the form of a political figure.
It’s a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She embarks on a perilous journey to the Emerald City so that the Wizard can send her back to Kansas. When she arrives, she finds that the Wizard is merely a man behind a curtain.
Unfortunately, some people who came to work for Mark Sanford were looking for the Mark Sanford I wrote about in The Enterprise. At some point, the man became more important than the policy. For people inside the world of politics, having faith in a man despite your beliefs is far more dangerous than believing in the issues despite the man. Sooner or later, you’ve ended your trip down the Yellow Brick Road and met “The Wizard.”
I met Sanford for the first time on December 7, 1994, just after he’d been elected to Congress and almost two years before I went to work for him. At that time, I was four months into my job with Citizens Against Government Waste and we were hosting a reception for the newly-elected members of Congress. The Freshmen, as they would become known, was a large class of members elected in the historic 1994 election that gave Republicans control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. They were in town for orientation, and CAGW held a reception for them in the Rayburn House Office Building.
As the “new guy,” my critical role was greeting the guests and handing out name tags. I had spent the better part of a day debating whether to call these new members “Congressman” or “Congressman-elect” since they would not be sworn in until January. I had settled on Congressman or Congresswoman, but our very first guest threw all of that out the window.
Fifteen minutes before the reception was to start, our first guest, a tall guy wearing a blue sports coat that I would come to know so well in my life popped up before me.
“Hey, Mark Sanford from South Carolina. Is this the Citizens Against Government Waste thing?”
“Yes sir, Congressman Sanford, I have…”
“Uh, just call me Mark.”
I didn’t think that was even allowed, so I just nodded my head, handed him the name tag, and pointed him to the door. He disappeared.
As the evening wore on, I was finally relieved of this duty when it was decided any stragglers could be left to pick up their own name tags.
I worked my way over to the food and found my new friend “Mark” grazing on shrimp. We did the awkward thing where I called him “Congressman” and he reminded me that it was just “Mark,” and then we talked about government spending, deficits, and the debt. It was what he had campaigned on and he wanted to get to work. He was basically searching for “good ideas,” and I didn’t have any particularly useful insight. After our brief chat, he moved on to meet other people – probably more insightful than me. Pretty uneventful for two guys who would spend 15 plus years in the trenches together on policy and political fronts in Washington and Columbia.
Meeting Mark Sanford did not inspire me to work for him. Ironically, it did insulate me from becoming a Dorothy. The faithful invest in The Wizard all the way to the end. Usually, meeting the man disillusions them in a number of ways.
When people ask me about working for Mark, it’s generally curiosity or pity. Curiosity because they want to know all about “Argentina” but are too polite to ask. Pity because “they know someone who worked for Mark” and they already know.
Truth is, Sanford is incredibly demanding and that probably won’t ever change. If all that amounted to was frustration, I wouldn’t have lasted a year, but it was more than that.
The problem is that politics, including the Sanford world, is littered with people more interested in working for The Wizard than for their beliefs. For me, Mark gave me limitless opportunities fight for issues I believed in. Working for him was not the end, but rather the means to it. Flawed as he might be, I was able to see some of those changes and learn an awful lot along the way.