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Archive: U.S. Senate majority leader isn’t exempt from calling his mother

Tom Daschle has the means to pick up a pretty slick Mother’s Day gift if he so chooses. After 54 years of living, though, he knows the smart thing to do is simply pick up the phone. What Betty Daschle wants more than anything else Sunday is the chance to visit with each of her sons, and the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate is not exempt from checking in with his mother. Not that he wouldn’t. He knows the routine.

“I go to Mass on Saturday night so I’m ready for my calls on Sunday,” says Betty Daschle while scanning newspapers at her best-known son’s Aberdeen office. “It’s a special day for me.”

Family day: None of her four boys live anywhere near Aberdeen, but Sunday is still family day in the Daschle household. It’s the day Tom and his younger brothers Dave, Greg and Steve are expected to spend time with Mom — even if it’s via the telephone. And even if it’s not Mother’s Day.

“I’m always happy to hear from all of them, and Tom usually calls at 9 a.m., so I know when to look for his call,” Betty says. Generally, she doesn’t discuss politics with her son. “We talk more about family unless there’s something I need to know.”

And for the time being, Betty doesn’t need to know whether her son plans to run for president in two years — even though the nation seems to be clamoring to find out.

“He doesn’t talk about that (with me) because he doesn’t know himself, I think, what he plans to do,” she said.

What Tom is undoubtedly doing, though, is writing a book, working to get fellow Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson re-elected in November and running the Senate as he sees fit. And that means he spends plenty of time in the spotlight — where his mom can keep an eye on him.

“When I see him speak on TV, I still think, ‘Oh, is that really my son?’ “

It is. Clippings: While Betty doesn’t tape many of Tom’s television appearances, she clips every newspaper story she finds. She’s been doing it since he first ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977. Every weekday morning, she stops by the post office at about 7:30 to pick up the latest newspapers from across the state. After that, she heads to her son’s outreach office where she unlocks the door, flips on the lights, fires up the copy machine and starts a pot of coffee. Then, usually with help from one of her friends, she dives into the papers, flipping through each page of five dailies and 25 or so weeklies. Any story that might be of interest to her son or his staff is cut out and faxed to his Washington office. And she sets aside every story, picture or political cartoon in which Tom appears.

“Anything,” she says. “Any time he’s mentioned, so he has to take the bad with the good.”

Betty now has more than 50 scrapbooks, many boxed up for safe keeping. It used to take six months to fill a relatively small book. Now, a large black binder is filled in 60 days or so.

“I like to read everything I can about (Tom, Johnson and Rep. John Thune, R-S.D.) and even our local candidates. I always have to check what they’re saying about Tom.”

Sometimes, though, what’s being said about her son isn’t very flattering. If people disagree with Tom on an issue, that’s one thing. But the special interest groups that have run a barrage of negative advertisements against him since he’s become majority leader are quite another. Betty’s take on those ads isn’t surprising.

“I don’t like them,” she says. “I don’t like them one bit, but I feel Tom has proven himself and (the ads are) not going to take the effect they want them to have.

“Tom votes his conscience, and I would hope everybody would rather have him do that than vote party-line.”

Politics: Nowadays, Betty says, she occasionally seeks political advice from her son — perhaps more than he ever sought it from her. She and her husband Sebastian “Dash,” who died in 1997, weren’t terribly active in the political scene while their kids were growing up.

“I think we were always Democrats, but I know Dash’s father and my father were Republicans because the banker was Republican and they depended on his advice,” Betty says. Somewhere along the line, though, Tom’s involvement with the Democratic Party surpassed anything his parents did. Eventually, he decided he wanted to run for public office on the national level — a far stretch from his boyhood dream of being a professional singer. The former Boy Scout, Melgaard Park confection store operator, neighborhood grass-mower and driveway-shoveler and, by his mother’s account, very average member of the Aberdeen Central High School basketball team is now one of the most powerful men in the nation.

His parents didn’t always know what to think about their son’s political aspirations, but they didn’t stand in his way. Former senator and one-time presidential candidate George McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota, gave the address at Tom’s high school graduation and, his mother says, “he really liked what he said and joined his campaign.”

Her son was also a big fan of John F. Kennedy. While attending South Dakota State University in Brookings, Tom helped stage a mock vote during the 1968 election. Students on campus cast ballots for their favorite candidates. The event was a big success, Betty says, and her son’s venture into politics was all but set. After graduating from SDSU in 1969, he served three years in the Air Force before spending five years as an aide to Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D.

1977: Then, it was time to go it alone. He entered his first U.S. House race in 1977 when he was 30 years old.

“His dad said, ‘Oh, my gosh, Tom, you’re not well-known.’ And Tom said, ‘I plan to (knock on) 40,000 doors and maybe I’ll be known then.’ “

His door-to-door campaign is now somewhat of a legend — probably because it worked. Tom won that vote by just more than 100 votes and hasn’t lost an election since. In 1986, he jumped to the Senate by defeating popular Republican incumbent Jim Abdnor in a close race. He became leader of the Senate Democrats in 1996, winning the minority leader position by one vote over Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. He took over as majority leader last spring after Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party to become an independent, giving the Democrats a 50-49-1 advantage. Through it all, he’s made sure not to forget his Sunday calls to his mother. Snack maker: In return, Betty helps out at his Aberdeen office. Not only does she clip newspapers, but she is the primary provider of snacks for staffers, hauling in treats of all sorts.

“I don’t make (snacks) every day, but when I do, they get a taste,” she says as a plate of homemade goodies on the wooden table at which she works awaits consumption.

Betty mixes 12 gallons of party mix at a time, sending it to her sons, her seven grandchildren, friends who are having birthdays and, of course, saving some for the office. Up at 5:30 a.m. most days, she brews a pot of coffee, exercises, checks out the news headlines and leaves for Tom’s office where she spends much of the morning. Then, she usually heads back home to do some cooking, baking or gardening. She may even spend a bit of time fretting about life’s little problems. Ants in the basement, stubborn hot water heaters and the need for car repairs don’t go away just because your son is a Washington bigwig. Betty is also a member of three bridge clubs and, she says, “I love to dance, but I haven’t danced since Dash passed away.”

The Ward Hotel was one of the couple’s favorite spots, so she was happy to read recently of the plans to restore it. A Roscoe-area native and the second oldest of 12 children, she has no plans to move away from Aberdeen. It’s the community she’s called home for more than half a century — the community she raised her family in.

After a long courtship, Betty married Dash in 1946.

“We were engaged and he asked me to wait one year (until he returned from serving in Europe during World War II, before getting married). I said, ‘A whole year?’ and it turned out to be four years.”

Dash was one of the owners of Nelson Auto Electric from the time he returned from the war until he retired in 1990 at age 73. Once their youngest son was in school, Betty sold Avon before working part-time in the Northern State College post office and, later, at Pheifer Furniture. She always managed to get jobs with hours that allowed her to be off by the time her sons got home from school. Home: She still lives on the Hub City’s south side in the same house she and Dash had built and moved into in 1948 when Tom was 9 months old. Back then, it was the only house for some distance. Now, Betty is surrounded by neighbors on all sides.

“(Tom’s old room) is the guest room. It’s the biggest room in the house. It’s everybody’s room, I guess, but he still occupies it the most.”

When back in Aberdeen, Tom stays with his mom and gets a home-cooked meal.

“He always wants to take me out to eat, but I never get to visit (face-to-face) very much, so I say, ‘No, I’m cooking for you so we can visit.’

“I get to see him more than the other boys, but it’s so brief,” Betty says. Brief. And a little different than it used to be. As Senate majority leader, Tom has at least one security agent with him even when he visits his hometown. The guard stays in a motel as opposed to staying with the Daschles, but he’s never far away. And, in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks, that’s a comfort to Betty.

“When the news came out about Sept. 11 and the anthrax letters, he called before the TV news (broadcast it),” she said. “He wanted me to hear it from him.”

Since then, her son has tried to shed some of the heavy security, but his mother wishes he wouldn’t. “I think I appreciate it more than he does. I feel better about it.”

That’s probably because she admits she’s inclined to worry about him. To calm her nerves between Sunday phone calls, mother and son have another way to communicate.

“If I write him an e-mail late at night, I know I’ll have an e-mail back before 5 a.m.,” she says. “He’s an early-riser and so am I.”

Family: Tom asked Betty to make the trip to Washington for Mother’s Day like she has for every Christmas since Dash died. She declined, though. Greg, a teacher in Japan, just left Aberdeen to visit Tom. And Dave, who lives in Colorado and manages sales and pricing for a supermarket chain, is in town to visit Betty. Greg and Tom may make a joint Mother’s Day call from New York this weekend as one of Tom’s daughters is graduating from Syracuse University. A call from Steve, executive director of a home for troubled young people and families in Seattle, is expected as well.

“I think they’re all proud of him and enjoy the news they hear,” Betty says of Tom’s brothers.

Like their mother, they often hear the “Are you related to Tom Daschle?” question. If they take after her, they’re proud to answer yes.

“It’s always a good feeling to know that Tom has earned that and gotten there,” Betty says of his prominent position. “To know that he’s in on the decision-making — he’s in my prayers constantly.”

Especially on Saturday nights — when she’s at Mass so she can be home to take his Sunday morning call.

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