Cover Story

Mad Daschle

He advanced quickly from senior-class president to foreign-policy aide for the Senate's most outspoken anti-Israel lawmaker to one of Washington's youngest congressmen. Today, he's one of the most powerful men in the world, able to derail many presidential plans, yet little is known-and even less is written-of his early climb. Here's a view of the lower rungs

Issue: "Who is Tom Daschle?," Oct. 12, 2002

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.

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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.


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