Tom Daschle was the man with a plan for dealing with the health care crisis. He is also a man of the people, despite the wave of popular anger that caught him on his way to becoming President Obama's Cabinet Secretary of Health and Human Services.
This Washington drama was like watching a Greek tragedy. Did the former Senate Democratic leader fly too close to the sun after a narrow defeat in South Dakota in 2004? Daschle, 61, clearly got accustomed to some expensive tastes for someone who still looks like a bright-eyed youth fresh from the Midwest.
Outside Washington and political circles, there are no tears for the case of a wealthy man forgetting or overlooking taxes owed on a car and driver service lent by a friend. But those who know and believe in Daschle -- and there are legions of friends, supporters, allies in Congress, a large alumni group of staffers and a few Indian chiefs -- swear this does not nearly tell the full story of the Tom Daschle we know.
Count me in. Years ago, as a reporter for a new weekly, I covered Senate Democrats when he was elected Democratic leader. I remember standing by the Ohio Clock in the Capitol to hear the result: Daschle beat Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut by one vote. A custom took hold: In the morning, Daschle spoke to reporters in sessions called "Dugouts."
A nice dry wit like the fields of wheat in the center of the country pervaded these exchanges with the media. So did an understated modesty that stood out in a Senate crowd. And mixed in with the day's news was a Daschle turn of phrase I jotted down in my notebook more than once: "the noise of democracy." A poetic way to put it, I thought then; now it has a bittersweet streak running through it.
I watched all 100 senators from the press gallery, a free ticket to the best theater in town. It was clear as day Daschle was one of the most trusted, liked characters in the chamber. Sen. Edward Kennedy told me Daschle was a "Senator's senator." And the reason why came across, too, through the sea of back-slapping: he became known for doing the right thing for the right reasons. In that same spirit, Daschle later urged a freshman senator named Barack Obama to run for president, and helped him early and often.
Sens. Daschle and Kennedy worked most closely with Hillary Clinton on her failed universal health care legislation, which never came up for a vote. Thanks to that, Daschle knows the winds and waves of Congress on this topic, combined with his policy expertise. It is no wonder Republican Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor who held the HHS Cabinet post, expressed regret the nation will not have him at the helm of health care reform.
Here's where I should say I contacted Daschle to express interest in working for him as a speechwriter. I'm not saying he's perfect. Clearly, he isn't. But on Jan. 8, In his first Senate confirmation hearing under the gavel of Sen Kennedy, senators lavished him with love on both sides of the aisle, a rare event that Daschle handled gracefully. His old Republican adversary, Robert Dole, showed up to give Daschle a clubby endorsement. The second hearing never came to pass, thanks to Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee.
The stage seemed set for a triumph: coming back to public service and addressing the crisis of 47 million Americans without health insurance. President Obama knows Daschle's withdrawal is a devastating loss, but then there's the noise of democracy -- which could not be ignored.
Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.
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