As someone born in mid-August, I’m used to low-key birthdays. In my childhood, big birthday celebrations always seemed out of place when half of my friends and classmates were on vacation. Perhaps because of that, I’ve never advertised my birthday, or made much of a fuss about it.
That is why it was so noteworthy that, four years ago, I received a grand total of two cards for my birthday. The first came from my mother. The second came from James Warren DeMint.
The card came with a handwritten note, thanking me for joining the Heritage Foundation and congratulating me for my work there. It’s the kind of thoughtful gesture totally unseen by the public that a person—particularly a person with a prominent position and no small amount of fame—doesn’t have to make, but rather wants to make.
I still have that note, and I’ve read it several times the past few days. For while the press and people outside the Beltway naturally focus on DeMint’s policy views and political actions, that’s not what I most remember about him.
Yes, DeMint is a committed conservative, but more important, DeMint is at his core a fundamentally humble and decent human being. If character is what you do when no one is looking—like sending handwritten notes to your staff to recognize and thank them—then DeMint’s rich character has its roots in both his southern gentility and his deep and abiding faith.
I’ve worked in several congressional offices, and in each case it truly has been a privilege to do so. I’ve been very lucky during my career—I haven’t worked for any members who screamed at their staff, asked their staff to do favors for them, or succumbed to scandal.
But of all the offices in which I worked, the DeMint team in the Senate was by far the best working environment I had—and probably ever will have—on or off Capitol Hill. As a U.S. senator, DeMint empowered his staff, creating a warm, nurturing culture that permeated all levels of the organization.
When I wrote in March of the need for humble servant leadership among congressional leaders, I specifically referred to my first interview with DeMint’s team in 2012, for creating a team atmosphere where I knew from the outset I would feel at home. In their attitude, the staff took cues from the senator himself.
Modest to a fault, DeMint never sought to impose himself on his staff. He would often give us wide berth, not wanting to intrude unduly and create situations where staff had to be “on” in front of their boss. But he was always there for us. I know of specific instances where DeMint mentored and counseled staff going through tough times, in a manner and to an extent few would expect of a man with so many other obligations.
Lone among the members of Congress I worked for, DeMint once reached out to offer me an apology. He didn’t even need to apologize—he had done me no wrong. But he felt that I had been wronged by others, and wanted to do what little he could to help make it right. Several years later, I can’t help but experience a similar feeling.
Monday evening, I received a letter in the mail, an incongruously timed fundraising solicitation from the Heritage Foundation, with DeMint’s name prominently displayed in the top-right corner. The message written on the envelope: “I cannot begin to tell you how much we are indebted to you for your support.”
No, senator—it is we who are indebted to you, for all that you have done to support, sustain, and enrich our lives. All we can give back is our gratitude.