OF ALL THE PICTURES IN his high-school yearbook, Tom Daschle looks happiest with his fellow senior-class officers. It was clearly a triumph for him: No one would have expected the baby-faced son of a small shop owner and the Avon lady to be class president at Aberdeen Central High. It was quite an accomplishment-maybe the high point of his life.
Nothing in his early years suggested he would rise much higher. His slight build wasn't conducive to sports, the normal path to glory in Midwestern towns like Aberdeen. Singing in the a capella choir at Central High School and joining a civic club called the Young Cosmopolitans didn't exactly win Tom the title of Big Man on Campus. While he toiled in relative obscurity, classmates like Lars Herseth, a blond-haired, blue-eyed jock, hogged most of the pages in the yearbook. The son of a former governor, Lars was expected to do big things, and he didn't disappoint. He served 20 years in the state legislature and nearly became governor himself in 1986. (This year, his daughter Stephanie is the Democratic nominee for South Dakota's lone congressional seat.)
Lacking both athletic prowess and a family pedigree, Tom tried to make his name in other ways. He joined the Young Democrats and entered the Boys' State competition without much success. His political instincts were good enough to get him elected second-semester president of his senior class, but he lost his bid for Pageant Day Marshal, a popularity contest similar to Homecoming King. Though he managed to show up on nine pages of The Arrow, his 1965 class yearbook, he clearly was not a household name by graduation day: Editors consistently misspelled his name, ending it in -el rather than -le.
At nearby South Dakota State University, Tom, not surprisingly, majored in political science. He married Laurie Klinkel, his high-school sweetheart, and served a three-year stint as a strategic intelligence officer with the Air Force. His military career took him to Vietnam, but there was little doubt that he would one day return to South Dakota-or that he would get into politics.
The 1972 Senate race seemed a perfect way to start. Sen. George McGovern was challenging Richard Nixon for the presidency, ensuring a strong Democratic turnout for South Dakota's favorite son. The state's other Senate seat, meanwhile, was open for the first time in a quarter century, following a debilitating stroke that had felled the Republican incumbent, Karl Mundt.
Fresh out of the Air Force and not yet 25 years old, Tom Daschle needed to find a rising political star to help launch his own career. He'd considered himself a Democrat at least since high school, so there was no question which party he would get behind-only which candidate. Pro-life Democrat George Blue made the abortion issue a cornerstone of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, telling crowds at county meetings that abortion amounted to murder, regardless of what the Supreme Court happened to think. But Mr. Daschle signed up with liberal Rep. Jim Abourezk as a $175-a-week field worker.
Whether based on principle or pragmatism, Mr. Daschle's choice of candidates was undeniably shrewd. The McGovern campaign mobilized the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, helping Mr. Abourezk defeat his more conservative challenger. In November he won again as a fractured GOP failed to coalesce behind its little-known nominee, attorney Robert Hirsch.
South Dakota had a new senator, and Mr. Daschle had his ticket out of Aberdeen. Few could have predicted that ticket would turn out to be one-way: Over the next 30 years, Mr. Daschle would spend just two years as a full-time resident of his home state-and those years were spent trying to get back to Washington.
Not that he started out in Washington proper. Like other young staffers, Tom and Laurie Daschle couldn't afford the high rents around Capitol Hill, so they settled into an apartment in the Virginia suburb of Annandale. Mrs. Daschle did clerical work in the senator's office, eventually rising to the office manager position. Mr. Daschle became one of Mr. Abourezk's half-dozen or so legislative aides, but he worked his way up quickly, both in terms of salary and responsibility.
According to an unsigned office memo, Mr. Daschle was the senator's point man on "Space, Defense (including Veterans), Foreign Affairs (including Middle East), [and] South Dakota Projects." Another unsigned memo gave him "primary responsibility for Middle East and all other foreign relations matters."
In any other Senate office, responsibility over Middle Eastern affairs would hardly have been considered a plum assignment. But Sen. Abourezk's parents were Lebanese, and he considered the Arab-Israeli conflict his top priority. Though he campaigned largely on farm issues back in South Dakota, he quickly established a reputation in Washington as the go-to guy for any group with an ax to grind against Israel-so much so that one radio commentator dubbed him "the Senator from Saudi Dakota." Sometimes his battles were petty, like his attempt to pressure the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of the United Jewish Appeal (a charitable organization similar to the United Way), or his vote against confirming Henry Kissinger as America's first Jewish Secretary of State.
But other battles challenged the most basic assumptions of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Mr. Abourezk called the Israeli government "terrorist" and consistently opposed arms sales to Tel Aviv. He called for recognition of the PLO and embraced Syrian President Hafez Assad, a major sponsor of international terrorism. (Later, during the Gulf War, the former senator even compared Israel to Nazi Germany: "Israel has been grabbing land since 1948, and I don't know how you call it self-defense.... Hitler said he took Czechoslovakia in self-defense, you know.")
Almost every week, Mr. Abourezk was on the Senate floor, reading lengthy statements for the Congressional Record that deplored Israel (see sidebar). As the staffer in charge of Middle East issues, Mr. Daschle must at least have reviewed these statements, just as he reviewed every piece of correspondence dealing with foreign affairs.
Or was his involvement deeper? Mr. Abourezk's papers, now stored in more than 1,000 boxes at the University of South Dakota, contain hundreds of pages of statements from the Congressional Record, but usually only in printed form. What few drafts have survived are mostly typewritten and unsigned, making it impossible to determine the author.
But there are tantalizing exceptions that suggest Mr. Daschle was more than just a rubber stamp for the senator's views. With a memo dated April 3, 1975, Mr. Daschle submitted a seven-page "statement on Kissinger's Middle East failure, for your consideration for insertion in the [Congressional] Record. While it puts the blame on Kissinger's strategy, it doesn't castigate him or blatantly put him in a bad light."
In fact, however, the statement did castigate the secretary of state, portraying him as biased, naïve, and dangerously ambitious. It blasted America's "carte blanche policy on military supplies for Israel," and even charged that the U.S. government endangered its own soldiers for the sake of Israel's: "During the October War the Department of Defense was willing to deplete the supplies available to American military forces in Western Europe and in the United States to maintain the Israeli Defense Forces. This was done to the tune of $2.2 billion which the United States government wrote off as an outright military grant and then asked the American taxpayer to pay for through government borrowing at 9.5% interest. Israel rightly concluded that there were no limits to the American commitment to Israel."
Mr. Daschle went on to criticize Mr. Kissinger's policy of dealing individually with moderate Arab governments, an approach that would "freeze out" the PLO. Mr. Daschle made heroes of the Egyptians who had "sacrificed so much for so long for the cause of Palestine ... approximately 500,000 Egyptian lives and millions of dollars in destroyed property over the 26-year history of Egypt's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict." And he took offense at the idea of a negotiated settlement between Israel and Egypt: "To suggest that [Egyptian] President Sadat could [or] even should be persuaded to conscience standing alone in the Arab world and make a separate peace with Israel under these circumstances is sheer folly on Kissinger's part."
This, of course, was some of the milder sentiment expressed by Sen. Abourezk on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it raises the question of just how deeply a young Tom Daschle was involved in crafting policy positions for his boss. Undeniably, he was the top foreign-policy aide to the most stridently anti-Israel senator ever to serve on Capitol Hill. But how much of the rhetoric actually came from Mr. Daschle's own pen? It's a question the current Senate majority leader has never been compelled to answer. (Sen. Daschle's office did not respond to WORLD's request for an interview.)
Whether he wrote every anti-Israel screed or just a handful of them, Mr. Daschle apparently never challenged his boss's views-or did anything else to upset the senator, for that matter. He rose steadily through the ranks of Mr. Abourezk's staffers, gaining both the experience and the contacts to further his own political ambitions.
By mid-1975, it was time to focus on the senator's reelection, and his advisers were worried. By allowing himself to become the Capitol's lightning rod for Arab causes, Mr. Abourezk had largely neglected constituent service back home. Correspondence went unanswered, phone calls went unreturned, and summer recess was spent on lavish tours of the Middle East rather than shaking hands at the state fair. Voters were beginning to grumble. Something had to be done.
In a sign of just how important he had become, Mr. Daschle was assigned to head up the new, 20-person South Dakota Section of the Washington office. Among other things, he was charged with answering constituent mail, finding ways to bring more federal pork to South Dakota, and getting more positive coverage in the local media.
The reorganization wasn't exactly a hit with South Dakota staffers. "Can Tom Daschle possibly read all of the S.D. mail and answer a 'quarter to a third of it'?" asked one worker in Rapid City with more than a hint of sarcasm. And another memo complained about "a prevailing cavalier attitude among Washington staff to SD staff."
But for an ambitious 27-year-old like Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Section was the perfect assignment: While working for a sitting senator, he could get to know the state's power brokers, the media gatekeepers, and the issues that people cared about. In August of 1975, he wrote to the senator's office in Pierre, asking for help in setting up meetings across the state with "Party people who are interested in and willing to work with us [to] accomplish our primary objective-providing better service to the people of S.D."
If there were a secondary, more personal objective, he didn't mention it in writing. But within a year he had left Washington entirely, moving with his wife back to Sioux Falls to take over the entire state operation.
It wasn't exactly a smooth transition. The Daschles kept their Washington salaries-nearly $50,000 between the two of them-while long-time field workers saw no increase in their paltry pay. "I personally have been working (hard, I might add) for Jim for 5-1/2 years," wrote one worker in an unsigned memo. "I'm not making too much more than $9,000 even though I have taken on a great deal more responsibility than when I started out." At $18,000 a year, Jody Severson of the Pierre office had been the highest-paid staffer in the state until the Daschles arrived. Within months he was gone, and others followed.
The conflicts with the new boss weren't only about money. "He [Mr. Daschle] is trying to run [the] Sioux Falls operation like that of Washington, but I have been under the impression that everyone is their own boss. I prefer it that way," wrote Gail Prostollo to a fellow staffer in August of 1976. "I suppose I should probably talk to Tom directly," she admitted, but "it would cause a [rift] which doesn't need to be raised. It appears to me that Tom is getting involved in things over his head. When he can't cope with it, he puts it up to me.... As I said before, I want to work for Jim [Abourezk] and not be Tom's [gofer]. Will that statement get me fired? Oh well."
One of the things keeping him so busy was trying to drive up his own name recognition. As the senior staffer for Sen. Abourezk, he was getting his face on television and his name in the paper. "One of the TV stations did about a three-minute film clip of an interview with me," he bragged in one of his weekly reports to the Washington office.
Mr. Daschle was also scouting and perhaps undermining potential competition. In a weekly report from November 1976, Mr. Daschle recounted a conversation with an unknowing competitor: "Mike O'Connor rode over to Armour with us. In the 2-1/2 hour drive, Mike elaborated on his plans to run for Congress. He wanted to announce already in March of '77. I told him that because of new campaign election laws, etc., it would be much better to wait to announce until much later. He thought that made sense and most likely will wait. He also said that the way a congressman needs to get elected in the First District was to get into every precinct and start knocking on doors. That's what he intends to do this spring."
Mr. Daschle may have been itching to start knocking on doors himself, but there was one big obstacle in his way: his boss. Sen. Abourezk had been raising money for a reelection bid, but as of late 1976, he had yet to officially announce. If the senator decided to seek a second term, Mr. Daschle's options would be limited. Leaving his boss during a crucial campaign might look overly ambitious, leaving a sour taste in voters' mouths. Everything depended on Sen. Abourezk, and the clock was ticking.
Fortunately for Mr. Daschle, he didn't have to wait long. Disillusioned by five mostly unsuccessful years in the Senate, Mr. Abourezk announced on Jan. 24, 1977, that his first term would be his last. Almost immediately, Mr. Daschle caught another break: Rep. Larry Pressler, the Republican incumbent in South Dakota's First Congressional District, announced that he would run to replace Mr. Abourezk in the Senate.
Just 29 years old and almost totally unknown, Tom Daschle tendered his resignation and went off the government payroll for the first time since college to seek Mr. Pressler's empty seat. He fervently hoped that his days in the private sector would be numbered.
Mr. Daschle may have been unknown to the people of South Dakota, but at least two important groups knew him well: Big Labor and the Democratic Party hierarchy. Both First Lady Rosalynn Carter and her redoubtable mother-in-law, Miss Lillian, flew in for fundraisers. Thanks to ties he had forged in Sen. Abourezk's office, when Mr. Daschle called for funding, union leaders answered. Almost one-third of the $180,000 he raised for his campaign came from out-of-state labor unions-among the highest totals of any congressional race that year.
Demographics within the state also seemed to be in his favor. Registration records showed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 1,589 voters in 1978-the first time the GOP had ever fallen behind in registrations, according to the secretary of state.
Still, Mr. Daschle knew he'd have to work hard to overcome his image as an untested political novice. His opponent, Leo Thorsness, was a 46-year-old Vietnam War hero who had already established statewide name recognition with an earlier campaign against George McGovern. With open races for both the Senate and the governor's mansion, there would be no popular Democrats at the top of the ticket to turn out the party faithful. If Mr. Daschle were going to go back to Washington, he'd have to get there largely on his own.
His strategy was twofold: Knock on a lot of doors, then take out a lot of newspaper ads to talk about all those doors he was knocking on. With Mrs. Daschle by his side, he tramped across the eastern half of the state for more than a year, knocking on upwards of 40,000 doors. Then, as Election Day neared, he unleashed a barrage of newspaper ads, showing him at different doors, listening to the concerns of South Dakotans.
The typical ad read like this: "For 399 days when nothing special was going on, Tom Daschle was visiting 40,000 homes in person, working hard, listening, preparing himself to serve you in Congress. He's earned your vote." With only 11 daily newspapers in the entire state, Mr. Daschle could afford to blanket the First Congressional District with ads, slowly building his reputation as earnest, hardworking, and thoughtful-in short, a serious candidate.
But would it be enough? Early returns on Election Day looked grim. Republicans swept five out of six statewide constitutional offices and won two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers. The GOP also took the governor's office for the first time in eight years and won back the Senate seat vacated by Mr. Abourezk.
Things didn't look much better for Mr. Daschle. When the counting stopped in the wee small hours of Wednesday, Nov. 8, he trailed Mr. Thorsness by 42 votes. It looked like he would be swept away by the rising GOP tide.
Then, in a weird precursor to the presidential race of 2000, a locked box of absentee ballots was discovered in Minehaha County, home to the city of Sioux Falls-a discovery that kicked off weeks of canvasses, recounts, and court challenges. Precinct by precinct, both sides identified suspect ballot boxes, brought in lawyers, and argued over individual slips of paper.
Like the electoral equivalent of Chinese water torture, Mr. Thorsness watched his lead erode one vote at a time. A week after the election, his margin was cut to 16. The season's first blizzard buried the state in snow, and still the counting dragged on. Norman Rockwell died, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was assassinated, Mickey Mouse turned 50, and the Rev. Jim Jones led the mass suicide of nearly 1,000 followers in the jungles of Guyana.
Thanksgiving came and went. Four days later, with the initial recount complete, Tom Daschle got his first good news: Out of 129,000 votes cast, he had won by 14. The secretary of state (who happened to be the mother of his old classmate, Lars Herseth) rushed to certify him as the winner.
But the Thorsness camp wasn't satisfied, and a district-wide recount got underway. When freshman orientation started in Washington, the outcome of the race was still so uncertain that both men showed up to get their introduction to the Congress. But even as he was learning his way around the Capitol, Mr. Thorsness was learning the bitter truth: Back in South Dakota, he was losing ground rather than gaining.
In January, when the final numbers at last came in, Tom Daschle had won by 139 votes. Still just 31 years old, he had already survived the toughest political race of his career. Uncertain how to pronounce his name, his fellow lawmakers dubbed him "Landslide." It was meant to be ironic. It turned out to be prophetic.