There’s a wise old saying that no one in politics or elected office is indispensable. But Republican senator Jon Kyl of Arizona comes pretty close.
Now that Kyl is retiring after 8 years in the House and 18 in the Senate, his absence will be felt instantly. He knows more about more issues than anyone else in Congress—ranging from missile defense to the estate tax. His influence was magnified less by his position as Senate minority whip since 2007 than by his ability to deal respectfully with both Republican and Democratic senators, even those with the biggest egos.
For conservatives, Kyl was their link to the Republican leadership in Congress. He was trusted like few others. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who worked as a Senate outsider to foster conservative issues, told me Kyl was his “advocate on the inside.” Kyl’s conservatism was undiminished by the seductions of Washington. He wasn’t part of the Washington social scene.
Kyl never packaged a set of rules for gaining influence on Capitol Hill. But after covering Kyl for years and interviewing him numerous times—twice recently—I’m taking the liberty of formulating five Kyl rules. I doubt he’ll object.
Rule one: Know more. “If you know a lot about a subject, people will listen,” he says. After Kyl’s farewell speech on the Senate floor last week, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said, “I serve on the Armed Services Committee, and I’ve found he knows more about those issues than I do.” Kyl has never been on the committee.
Kyl’s insistence on absorbing the details of complex issues was the key to what he regards as his proudest achievement: defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Ratification had been considered a cinch. But senators gradually deferred to his “personal involvement and deep subject matter expertise,” says Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. The treaty was beaten, 51-48.
Now Democratic senators and the Obama White House are getting ready to seek ratification in 2013—once Kyl has left the Senate.
Rule two: Don’t seek credit. Kyl adheres to the sign that President Reagan had on his White House desk: “There’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” As number two in the Republican leadership, Kyl says, “A lot of times it’s better if somebody else takes the lead.”
He was appalled by the “sequester” requiring deep cuts in defense. “I probably wouldn’t have voted for it if I weren’t in the leadership,” he says. When Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire asked to lead the fight to restore the spending, he turned the issue over to her without hesitation.
Well before he became whip, Kyl was adept at handing off issues. In 2006, Time wrote, “he has succeeded by mastering a tactic that is crucial in a body in which any one member can bring the place to a halt as a ploy or out of pique: subterfuge.” Kyl told the magazine that “you can accomplish a lot if you’re not necessarily out in front on everything.” And he has.
Rule three: Don’t get a big head. Kyl learned this from his father, a GOP House member from Iowa for six terms. (Kyl moved to Arizona for college, then stayed.) When they parked at the county fair in Bloomfield, Iowa, Kyl senior pointed to the man in charge of parking. “He does that better than anyone else,” his father said. “Everybody can do something better than you can.”
This example, Kyl says, “always made me appreciate other people and think I’m not such a big shot. . . [so] just don’t get a big head.” Kyl hasn’t. Quite the contrary. He’s known for his humility.
Rule four: Treat everyone decently. Kyl isn’t unique in following this rule. He’s just practiced it more consistently. Like avoiding self-puffery, he learned it from his father. The lesson “was about human nature,” he says. “You’re not going to change human nature.”
From all appearances, treating people decently comes naturally to Kyl. But it also produces results. People respond more favorably. “You can best accomplish [your goals] by being a decent person to those around you,” he says. If someone disagrees with him, he doesn’t take umbrage. “He treats all people alike,” a colleague says. He’s a listener.
Rule five: Keep your principles. Kyl sees himself as Dick Cheney to Mitch McConnell’s George W. Bush. When he was being considered as Bush’s vice presidential running mate, Cheney told Bush he was “really, really conservative.” Kyl is very, very conservative. His mild, reasonable manner can fool people. Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner saw him as the “bridge” between the conservative movement and Republican congressional leaders.
When Kyl was named in 2010 by Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, McConnell characterized him as “a principled conservative who knows what is attainable.” His job as whip was to unite Senate Republicans as conservative as DeMint and as moderate as Susan Collins of Maine. He and McConnell, the Senate minority leader, became quite good at this.
Kyl was ready to retire in 2006. When a wealthy real estate developer emerged as the likely Democratic candidate, Kyl was prevailed upon to seek a third term. The Democrat, Jim Pederson, spent millions, but Kyl won, 53-44 percent.
By early 2007, he had decided not to run in 2012. He didn’t announce his plans, but gave a strong hint by failing to raise money for reelection. Had he begun fundraising, Kyl told me, it would have given a false impression.
Fifteen Republicans and zero Democrats showed up in the Senate chamber for Kyl’s farewell address, though New York’s Chuck Schumer wandered in and out several times without stopping to listen. Kyl didn’t reminisce. Instead, he focused on “some of the biggest public-policy challenges America faces” and recommended “principles to guide the way forward.” The speech was moderate in tone but deeply conservative in substance. Pure Kyl.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.