John Thune, sporting quarantine beard, goes full-on ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’

The nuances of the Senate are ‘lost even on most of us who work there,’ the majority whip says

A lot has changed, but the Senate is still a cooling saucer, John Thune tells kids in a new educational video. Above, the majority whip speaks in the Capitol in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A lot has changed, but the Senate is still a cooling saucer, John Thune tells kids in a new educational video. Above, the majority whip speaks in the Capitol in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 7, 2020 at 12:30pm

South Dakota’s John Thune understands how hard it is to keep kids entertained. And as the son of educators, he also understands the important role teachers play in making sure the next generation of voters understands the American political system.

That’s why the Senate Republican majority whip has taken to social media with a “Schoolhouse Rock!”-esque lesson (sans jingle) on how government works.

Heard on the Hill caught up with Thune to ask about his new quarantine beard, the challenges of social distancing in a collegial atmosphere like the Senate, and why he isn’t your typical grandpa.

HOH: How are you doing today?

THUNE: Well, we’re hanging in there. 

HOH: You’re the majority whip. I know you’re not whipping any votes or anything, currently, with the Senate out. But are you in constant contact with members?

THUNE: Yeah, some members and, of course, staff. Most people are operating out of their home offices. Thank God for technology because you can still do some things. We had a big conference call Thursday with all our members, [plus Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert]. We got an update on where things are, the financial aspect as well as the health care crisis.  

HOH: How often are you doing these caucus conference calls?

THUNE: Well, I think it’ll depend. Probably on a somewhat regular basis. A lot of it Thursday was about how the Paycheck Protection Program is going to work. A lot of our members just have a lot of questions. So we’re staying in touch as best we can. Most times when Congress is out of session, you’re out tooling around your state, everybody’s out doing constituent meetings, or maybe fundraising trips. These circumstances are very, very unusual. 

HOH: I saw your video about civics and the legislative process. What gave you that idea?

THUNE: You know, I grew up in an education family. My dad was a teacher, coach, athletic director, and drove the bus. It was a small school, so he had to wear a lot of hats. And my mom was the school librarian. 

I was just thinking of how hard this has to be for parents and for teachers, to keep the kids interested. They’re trying to come up with different ways of studying, and I thought, “We’ll just give them some content, if they want to mix it up a little bit, talk about how government works, talk about the Senate.” Normally, when I’m in the state, particularly during the school year, I do a lot of government classes, a lot of school assemblies. Especially in the smaller schools, sometimes it’ll be K-12, sometimes 6 through 12. 

HOH: Do you have any thoughts about the state of civics education in this country?

THUNE: There’s always this perception that young people are disenfranchised from politics and unlikely to vote or participate in the process out of disillusionment or cynicism or lack of interest. It’s important that we start reinforcing at an early age that the way you have a strong democracy is through active citizenship. My two Senate campaigns, the first two, were decided by a combined total of 5,000 votes. So every vote does matter. But I do think that kids are paying attention more, and that’s a good thing. If you’re studying out of the textbook, it’s pretty abstract. I compare it to eating shredded wheat: dry but nourishing. 

HOH: Do you have any more videos planned during the pandemic?

THUNE: You know what, we’ll take a look. [Laughs.] We’re talking about doing something on how a bill becomes a law. The question is, can you find ways to make it interesting? Because as you know, the nuances of how the Senate works are lost even on most of us who work there most days, let alone trying to communicate that to a bunch of students. 

HOH: I told my Heard on the Hill colleague that I was going to be talking to you, and she wants to know what’s up with the beard.

THUNE: When you’re quarantined and hanging out in your basement and dealing with this whole coronavirus thing, I thought, “You know what, I’ll let it go for a couple of days.” And my wife didn’t complain too much about it. So I will see. I know it’s not really consistent with my image.

HOH: Have you been able to see your grandkids any?

THUNE: Yeah, a little bit. Our daughter is due at the end of the month with her third, and so everybody’s paying attention to make sure that she and her family stay healthy. So I’ve been keeping my distance from the grandkids here. And I got a couple in D.C. One of my daughters lives out there. They keep sending us videos of stuff they’re doing to keep the kids entertained. 

HOH: Is that personally taking a toll? 

THUNE: Yeah, that’s really hard. I mean, I’m a very social relational person. I like to be out, mixing it up with people and interacting. All of us have to be resilient and just kind of grind through it, knowing that the best way to get to the other side is to adhere to these basic principles and look for those days, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when you can hug your grandkids again.

HOH: A lot of senators tend to be older and fall into that vulnerable age range. I know when you guys were in session, some were not adhering to the physical distancing rules

THUNE: I think everybody’s trying, but for sure we can do better. It’s a collegial body by definition. To do work, you come together. The best information you can gather about what’s going on in your caucus is not by trying to contact people through phones or through staff; it’s when everybody’s on the floor, and you have a chance to huddle. I found it really challenging those last few weeks to have those conversations with people from six feet away. And in the end, the confines of the Senate are not conducive either, really, to spread it out. You’ve got all those desks there and the well. 

We made some changes to how people could get recognized and made the votes longer so people could get in and get out. But it’s very contrary to the way that a collegial body like the Senate, or the House for that matter, works. So we’ll see going forward. 

HOH: What was your reaction when you found out that some people did have the virus? Like Sen. Rand Paul?

THUNE: Yeah, well, we were all surprised by that. Many of us who’d been around him were concerned. But everybody became much more keenly aware of how important it is that we do keep our distance. I saw a marked improvement in social distancing after that information was out there.

HOH: Are you or your colleagues nervous about coming back later this month, if this continues to escalate?

THUNE: A lot of it will be driven by what’s happening on the ground in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. They all implemented pretty strong measures to try and keep people apart. So if we do need to come back in, the rules could be significantly different than the last time we were there. Most of our members have concluded that for the country, we’ve got to take care of business. If this crisis continues to evolve in a way that requires additional attention from Congress, our members are committed to doing it, knowing full well that it presents some inherent risk. We don’t really, at this point, have many options or choices. The way we get things done and legislate in this country is all governed by coming out and voting. 

Now, a lot of this stuff can be done remotely. You can start a lot of the discussions, and even putting bills together can be done through staff remotely. But in the end, I know [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell certainly is of a mind — and I think other members of our leadership and individual members believe — that we need to do whatever we need to do to stay ahead of this thing.

HOH: What would those rule changes look like?

THUNE: Well, I don’t know that there would be any rule changes other than just probably some more guidelines. Again, for example, maybe just encouraging people to come to the chamber, come to the back and vote and then move out from there. There are practical things that you could do just in the way that logistically you manage that. I hate to speculate, because I just don’t know at this point.

HOH: I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that you are a granddad. Is there some kind of blood sacrifice that you perform every year to stay looking as young as you do? 

THUNE: [Laughs] Well, I’m very committed to getting to the gym in the morning and working out. I do a lot of work with weights, a lot of core stuff. Right now, I’ve got a bad back, thrown out by probably doing a little bit too much. When you get older like I am, you just have more and more things start breaking down. I’ve got plantar fasciitis now. I try to get a little variety, and then just try to manage the injuries. Which isn’t getting any easier.

HOH: Do you have some workout videos planned for the kids?

THUNE: Yeah, I guess we can do that, give kids something to keep them active. Maybe we’ll show them some of the things that 60-year-old guys do to stay fit.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

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