Heard on the Hill

Take Five: John Thune

South Dakota senator says ‘it was a lot easier to get things done’ before C-SPAN cameras were in the Senate chamber

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., played the piano, the tuba and sang. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. John Thune, 57, a South Dakota Republican, talks about the perks of growing up in a small town and solving problems in the Senate gym.

Q: What unique perspective do you have as a former staffer?

A: I always thought that when I was a staffer here that these members sometimes never seemed real authentic. Everything was very formalized. If I ever came back here, I was going to prove that you could get elected to this office and still be a normal person — because when I was a staffer, you’d treat them like deity, and really they’re just normal people, right? Obviously with an important position.

 [Take Five: Stacey Plaskett]

Q: Since you arrived in the Senate, have there been any disappointing changes?

A: When I was a staffer out here, we still didn’t have C-SPAN in the Senate. That was a really interesting perspective. C-SPAN came in 1986 … but when I got here, there were no cameras in the Senate chamber. So when you went over to the floor, when I went over with my boss, there were lots of interactions and discussions on the floor between senators and nothing recording that. Nowadays, when you watch somebody talk on the floor, most of them are talking to the cameras. 

I’ve always felt that it was a lot easier to get things done back in the day when you weren’t constantly appealing to the various political bases or media outlets that you’re trying to get eyeballs on.

Since I arrived in the Senate, I think probably the biggest change has just been the use of technology, the advent of social media, how that’s changed the way that we do things here.

 [Take Five: Al Green]Q: Your father still lives in your childhood home in your small town in South Dakota. Does that give you an extra pull back to your constituents?

A: I think it keeps you grounded. You never forget where you came from when you come from a small 800-square-foot house that my dad does still live in. … After World War II, he came back from the war, and they had this little bitty house and they raised five kids there. He’s 98 years old. There’s just a real sense of belonging and foundations. I live in a different community in South Dakota, but this town of 500 people is where I grew up and went to school and learned most of what I know today. The nice thing about living in a small town and going to a small school is you get a chance to participate and try a lot of things. … I played football, basketball, ran track, played baseball in the summer, played tuba in the band … even one year tried Oral Interp[retation or dramatic reading].

My dad was as a teacher and coach and athletic director and drove the bus, so I tell people there was no way I could get away from my dad. And my mom was a school librarian. My dad, I never had him for a class. He taught boring subjects like world history and international relations and geography and things like that.

[Take Five: Jenniffer González-Colón]

Q: What instruments have you played?

A: My dad was a basketball star at the University of Minnesota. He was a three-year starter for the Gophers back in the day. When we grew up — I had three brothers and a sister — the story always was, all the Thune kids were born with a ball in their hands. But my mom was very much about making sure that we had some balance in our lives and that we appreciated art and music and all of the other things. She always had a requirement … that during the afternoon you could go play sports, do your thing, but you always had to come in for an hour and read a book.

She also required that we all took piano lessons. … I took six years of piano. In band ... I was a big person, so I guess they thought I could play the tuba, [and I] sang.

 [Take Five: Tom Garrett]Q: What’s your fitness routine now?

A: I’m usually [at work] early in the morning. I come in [the office] first and do some things, and then I usually head down to the gym. A lot of it’s weights, core work, and I still try to run a couple times a week.

In the Senate gym, at least it’s a great way to socialize because of the other members down there, Democrats and Republicans. Not only are you hopefully exercising and trying to maintain your physical fitness, but it’s a good way to catch up on what’s going on and sometimes solve some problems.

Quick hits

Last book read: “Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills.”

Pet peeve: Just inconsiderate people. I was a busboy and … you appreciate people who are considerate. When you’re in a gym and somebody camps out on a machine and just sits there and isn’t doing anything necessarily but doesn’t move.

Cats or dogs: Dogs. We had a cat for a long time because I have two daughters who desperately wanted a cat.

If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead: It would be really interesting to hear directly from [Jesus] about the big issues of the day. Immigration, for example, because he gets quoted a lot.

Closest friend across the aisle: Sen. Chuck Schumer because he’s in the gym in the morning. We start our day together.

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