Get to Know Sen. Sam Brownback

Charles Gibson's private look at presidential hopefuls.

Oct. 18, 2007 — -- Growing up in the tiny town of Parker, Kan., Sam Brownback dreamed of a future on the family farm, until economic hardship led him to law school, and eventually public service.

ABC's Charles Gibson spoke with Brownback as part of a new series called "Who Is," which features one interview a week with a presidential hopeful from now until December, with the focus on their private lives.

The Farm

Brownback spent his childhood on the family farm, situated a mile and a half outside of Parker, Kan., a town of only 250 people. It seemed only natural that he too would grow up to be a farmer, a destiny that Brownback welcomed.

"My dad farmed, my granddad was a farmer," he told Gibson. "I wanted to be a farmer."

Childhood on a farm meant getting his hands dirty.

"I'd pull my little brother on our motorcycle on an inner tube behind it. We would go fishing, we would hunt some, growing up. Mostly it's work though. I mean on a farm of that size in that generation, you've got to take care of the livestock, you got to take care of the crops, and it's work," he said.

"It started out with chickens, taking care of those, and later I really got the duty with the pigs and raising those," Brownback said. "You got to do everything. You feed them, you take care of them, you make sure they stay in the pen to start with, because they're a very smart animal, and they get out all the time."

His chores helped the farm succeed. It did well enough that he was able to go to college at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., where he served as the state president of Future Farmers of America, a position that helped him decide to go into politics.

"[Future Farmers of America] paid for a trip to come back to Washington to meet our congressman and to participate in the conference, and I met my congressman then. They didn't come around to towns of my size, so I'd never met one before, but when I met [Rep.] Joe Skubitz, I thought, 'That really seems like it would be an interesting thing to do. I wonder how you get a job like that?' And that's where it started," he said.

From there, Brownback enrolled in law school at the University of Kansas, where he met his wife, Mary.

"I think you might call it stalking now, but I followed her on my bike after a law school class. She was a big tennis player, and she was headed to play tennis. She played for the University of Kansas and so I went on my bike, behind her, following her over there, and then asked her if she would if she would go out," Brownback said.

The Brownbacks have five children, two of whom are adopted.

"I went to a number of foreign countries, and during whenever I went, I would try to go to an orphanage or a home for children. And I was seeing thousands of kids around the world that needed homes," Brownback said. "We had tried to have additional children, couldn't. We both just discussed about adopting children. Really was a tough decision, because we didn't know how was it going to affect the rest of the family."

Their daughter Jenna is from China, and son Mark is originally from Guatemala.

"They look like twins. And they act like an old couple, a married couple, because they're always around each other and barking at each other, but they won't be out of each other's side," Brownback said.

Political Life

Brownback originally planned to return to the farm, but that changed during the farm crisis of the 1980s. Food supply increased while demand stayed the same, and federal land subsidies began to wane. Farmers all across the Midwest faced an uncertain economic future; to Brownback, it no longer seemed like a viable career path.

"I went to law school with a plan of going back home and practicing law to support my farming, and Dad said, 'There's just not room here for us.' So I took off to practice law and got involved in some politics, and the rest just moved on forward," Brownback said.

In 1986, Brownback became the youngest secretary of agriculture in Kansas' history. Four years later, he accepted a position as a White House fellow under President George H.W. Bush's administration, working in the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

As part of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution, Brownback was elected to Congress in 1994 when he was only 38 years old. One year later, in 1995, he was diagnosed with melanoma.

Religious Life

The cancer diagnosis brought Brownback closer to God.

"It made my faith real. You know, something about when the … physician says, 'OK, it's malignant, we're going to have to do something here,'" Brownback said. "It made me search and really ask, 'Is there a God there that really loves me?' I had been a Christian for a long time, but my faith wasn't active in my life. And [the melanoma] made it real."

Brownback describes himself as religious and conservative, and considers his faith values an important part of his life; public and private.

"Everybody has values. Now, you know it may be formed in a secular setting, it may be formed in an intellectual setting, but everybody comes forward with values. And I don't think faith values should be excluded from the public square," he said.

Still, he gives pause when considering whether a politician with faith is a better leader.

"There's no religious test in our country, and there shouldn't be. We're an open, competitive society. I think people just bring forward their ideas, and their values, and the beauty of America is it's tended [to] … after a period of time, generally get things right. We have a lot of false starts along the way, but eventually we'll get things right," Brownback said.