As I sat talking to Bill Clinton this morning, the conversation turned to the great successes of the 90s. Looking back, I believe it was the courage shown by conservatives like Matt Salmon, Steve Largent and Tom Coburn that led to the first balanced budget in a generation, four consecutive balanced budgets for the first time since the 1920s, historic welfare reform and paying down the national debt by trillions of dollars. And I have no doubt that if conservatives like Matt were in Congress over the past decade, Republicans would have stayed true to their values and America would be stronger today.
Archive for September, 2011
I quit Congress 10 years ago today.
It was nine months into my final term and I would be savaged for this decision for years. The transition home was publicly and personally wrenching.
Republican candidates who begged for my endorsement months earlier took to attacking me on the campaign trail. Contributors that tripped over tables in restaurants to shake my hand would turn their heads away later when I walked into a room. And media speculation as to why a 38-year-old congressman who won his last election with 80 percent of the vote would quit bordered on morbid.
One newspaper ran an editorial claiming I was morally unfit to hold office because it was running with a rumor that I had gotten a woman pregnant. A year later when I finally confronted the editor over the recklessness of an editorial that caused my family great pain, his response over a plate of fried catfish was, “Well, sometimes we don’t get it right.”
As my mother’s son, I should have been enraged and held a grudge for at least a few decades. But by that point, the fight was out of me. I changed the subject, picked up the bill and drove home.
What was so frustrating about my decision to leave was that I could not fully discuss my reason for quitting a job I loved.
My family knew my reason, as did my close friends and neighbors. But media types and politicians who tried to dig up every last detail of my very personal decision were left wanting more. They didn’t appreciate my bland explanation that I had resigned to “spend more time with his family.” They sought their revenge in different ways.
But by the time I left, my singular focus had turned to two sons facing troubling times. Andrew had been diagnosed with diabetes and Asperger’s, while Joey had a similarly serious condition — he was in middle school. But he had also endured his parents’ divorce while spending the better part of seven years away from his dad.
After going to a family counselor for a while to work through some of those challenges, the counselor’s conclusion was blunt and clarifying: “You can either take your sons to Washington or come home now. If you don’t, bad days are ahead for your family.”
When I heard those words, I knew I was coming home.
My family was in crisis. The days of racing home to put a bandage on searing emotional scars were over. I could not rip two boys away from their mother, extended family and school friends to transplant them in Washington.
My career in Congress was over.
I spent the next decade catching up, coaching baseball, going to Sunday lunch after church, spending Friday nights watching high school football with the kids and playing music with my sons. But most importantly, I was there to say goodnight.
The family counselor was right. The boys flourished with the love of their mother, grandparents and dad. And they still do today. That’s why my decision was both the easiest and most difficult I have ever made.
To channel Ronald Reagan’s famous debate question, I know my boys are better off today than they were 10 years ago. I just wish I could say the same for my country.
When I left Washington, America was running a $155 billion surplus, the economy was in overdrive, and the United States of America enjoyed a primacy unrivaled on the world stage.
A decade later, we are crippled by debt, depressed by a jobs crisis and drained by an endless war waged against an invisible enemy.
Our president is ill-prepared and our Congress is incapable of grasping the great challenges that now confront us.
This week we will remember those who lost their lives on Sept. 11. It is also a time to reflect on what we once were and what we can be again.