Sen. Tim Kaine speaks to students about public service, Syria

Sen. Tim Kaine (D - VA)

When Trevor Tezel (SFS ’14), president of GU’s College Democrats, prefaced Thursday’s much-anticipated speech by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) with a stern reminder of the university’s speech and expression policy, the specter of partisanship seemed to already loom large over the event. Within minutes of Kaine’s opening remarks, though, it became clear by the audience’s captivated silence that any such fears of disruption were ill-founded.

Kaine’s speech, touted as “A Conversation on a Life in Public Service,” was co-sponsored by the Campus Democrats, the Georgetown International Relations club, and the Georgetown Office of Federal Relations. Kaine was introduced by Mariel Jorgensen (COL ’16), a resident of a town near his current home in Richmond, VA.

Kaine began with a round of perfunctory “thank you’s and “it’s-great-to-be-here’s,” and then launched into the story of his journey into national politics. Kaine is a native of Kansas City, MO, with blue-collar Catholic roots. He attended a Jesuit high school before earning a B.A. from the University of Missouri, and went on the study law at Harvard University. There, Kaine found himself, much like Taylor Swift, feeling somewhat confused “at 22 years old”; therefore, he embarked on a yearlong Jesuit mission to Honduras in 1979. In the settlement of El Progreso, Kaine described a series of “pivotal” experiences that propelled him toward “a life for others.” His time in Honduras taught him not just Spanish, but also, as he emphasized repeatedly, humility.

Kaine returned stateside and completed his studies at Harvard. For the next 17 years, he pursued housing discrimination cases as a civil rights lawyer in Richmond. His public service career began, as he described it, “I got mad at my City Council one day.” Later, Kaine elaborated that his dissatisfaction as stemming from latent racial discrimination in some of the leadership levels of city government. He successfully ran for an open council slot, going on to become Mayor of Richmond, Lieutenant Governor then Governor of Virginia, and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He was elected to his present seat in the U.S. Senate in 2012.

The speech then turned to Kaine’s experience in the 113th Congress. The Senator began by saying, “I’d never really wanted to be in the Senate—I’ve kind of had an accidental [political] career.” He went on: “Governors are notoriously unhappy in the Senate. If you were a mayor or a governor as I was, you’re at the top of your pyramid… and then you go into the Senate, and they immediately tell you what number you are in [terms of] seniority—I’m 95th of out 100.”

Kaine readily acknowledged the present dysfunction in the upper house of Congress, but stressed that he still enjoys his job. “I’m not in the unhappiness caucus; I have great committees,” he said. Of the polarization in the Senate, Kaine exposed his belief that much of it came from ideological differences, but a large part of it was the result of a simple lack of communication and teamwork. “That’s bad,” he said, “because most of the lessons you need to know [about communication] you ought to have learned by about the fifth grade.”

The final subject on the docket was the hot-button topic of Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Kaine highlighted the tremendous difficulties that lay in  making any decision that might imperil the lives of Americans, or worse, propel the nation towards war. In particular, he cautioned against unilateral military action in the mold of the 2011 intervention in Libya, despite such decision-making being authorized by the War Powers Resolution of 1973—a legislative act that he criticized heavily. The senator, who has a son in the U.S. Marine Corps, asked,”If we can’t reach a consensus between the President and Congress that a mission [in Syria] is worthwhile, what right do we have to ask somebody to go give their life for [such a] mission?”

Photo: Andres Rengifo/Georgetown Voice

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