VERMILLION — Six weeks later, U.S. Sen. John Thune can still envision the chaos around him as protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Thune recalled the Jan. 6 events for the Press & Dakotan during a visit Thursday at the University of South Dakota.
During the Jan. 6 demonstrations, the senators at first didn’t realize the full intensity and scope of what was occurring outside the Capitol. Then the rioters breached the building, and the lawmakers feared for their lives.
“It was scary. We were barricaded in there,” Thune said. “A bunch of guys were up against the wall (on the other side of us). One guy was screaming my name and yelling profanities.”
Security officials quickly evacuated Vice President Mike Pence along with congressional leaders, including Thune as part of the GOP leadership.
“This was surreal. It was the U.S. Capitol, and I think it caught everybody off guard completely,” Thune said. “(The crowds) started overpowering the Capitol, and we weren’t able to hold (the protestors) back. They came and whisked Pence out, and (Sen. Chuck) Grassley took over and adjourned.”
With the demonstrators breaching the Capitol, the congressional leaders were moved to a safe place, Thune said.
“We got whisked out by security detail. We were taken to Fort McNair, and I was there with Leaders (Mitch) McConnell, (Chuck) Schumer and (Nancy) Pelosi,” he said. “We started working on getting the Senate opened up again and getting additional reinforcements so we could get back to work. We were on the phone with a number of colleagues, getting some of them to abbreviate their challenges and forego having to object (on the Electoral College vote).”
Thune isn’t sure whether to expect a repeat of those kinds of incidents in the future and what it will take to keep lawmakers safe. He pointed to a nearby security detail escorting the senator and his staff.
“I hope it’s something we never have to deal with again, and it was an aberration. I hope we can get things opened up again so people can come back,” Thune said.
“I want people to have access to the Capitol. This is their building and their seat of government, and at the same time we need to protect it. I hope we see that day sooner rather than later when they have access again.”
Thune spoke Thursday to a group of USD students enrolled in a leadership course for their master’s degree in public administration. South Dakota’s senior senator graduated from USD with a master’s degree in business administration (MBA).
“When it comes to leadership, we need young people who are grounded, principled and are willing to do whatever hard works is necessary to keep our communities and states moving in the right direction. I congratulate you on that (decision),” he told the students.
Thune described himself as not one seeking a political career. As a high school student, he met then-U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor of South Dakota during a random encounter at a hardware store in his hometown of Murdo.
After earning his MBA, Thune had aspirations of working in business or government. Abdnor’s office called him, and he worked for a time in Washington before returning to South Dakota.
Thune ran for and won South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat and was re-elected twice.
“In 2002, I took a shot at the Senate. It was a very hard-hitting and expensive campaign that got a lot of national attention. I lost by 524 votes. I had taken my shot at the Senate and went on to do other things,” he said. “The other Senate seat came open two years later, and others encouraged me to run. We had a secret ballot in my family about whether I should run again for Senate. It came back 3-1 in favor of running, and I was the ‘no’ vote. I ran, and this time time, I eked out a victory by 4,519 votes. Here were two Senate campaigns, going for one of 100 seats, and a total of 5,000 votes decided the two Senate elections.”
Those close elections show the power of the ballot box, Thune said.
“I tell people, every vote makes a difference. Don’t take it for granted,” he said. “It’s our way of making things happen in this country. You need to make change if you want to see change. If a door opens, don’t be afraid to push it open and see what’s on the other side.”
Currently, politics reflects the deeply divided culture, Thune said.
“In a democracy, elected officials reflect the will of the people,” he said. “Democracies tend to be reactionary. I really believe politics reflect the culture, and the culture drives things. I think it’s better for the country if they see Congress working together and working with the new (Biden) administration.”
When asked about leadership qualities, Thune mentioned consistency, honesty and defining reality by speaking the truth, even if it’s unpopular.
In addition, good leaders are willing to surround themselves with people reflecting the leaders’ culture and style, and the leaders should be willing to delegate responsibility and listen to other opinions. He also spoke of the importance of seeing things through another person’s eyes and building relationships based on trust and respect.
A major problem is today’s polarized society is that each side only follows the news outlets and social media that reflect and reinforce their own opinion, Thune said.
“The challenge we have today is that people’s sources of information are so polarized. Nobody accepts new information, just whatever reflects their own,” he said. “The social media platforms and the tech companies have the algorithms and feed you more of the same thing you’re hearing and getting right now in your echo chamber.”
“Don’t get into a bubble where all you hear is one side of the issue. That is really challenging,” he added.
When asked his favorite personal and political leaders, Thune mentioned his father and Abdnor as early influences.
“My dad was a very humble guy in terms of character. He passed away last year and was 100. He was a World War II fighter pilot and the first in South Dakota to play Division I athletics,” the senator said.
“Jim Abdnor was a down-to-earth guy with integrity, and he treated people well no matter where you were in your station in life. He was very humble and part of a unique group of people.”
At the presidential level, Thune admired qualities such as Ronald Reagan’s hope and optimism, George Bush’s punctuality and respect for others’ time, and Bill Clinton’s knack for connecting with people and showing the common touch.
Thune also mentioned his powerful colleague in the U.S. Senate.
‘I know he’s not popular with (a number of) people, but Mitch McConnell is as gifted of a legislative strategist as anyone I have ever seen. He understands the Senate, he understands its rules, and he has an understanding of the Senate’s role through history,” Thune said.
“He wrote a book called ‘The Long Game.’ If you play the daily news cycle, you will get sucked into it, like a day trader, and base your actions on it. If you play the long game, that means not just looking at that day’s news cycle has to say but where you want to be in the arc of history, how we fit in and how it advances the cause.”
Thune wished the USD students the best in the future.
“The United States is different than other places around the world because we have hopeful optimism,” he said. “I hope these younger leaders reflect that.”
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