Off Camera

Mike Johanns: Saturday Service

At top, Safeway employee Eddie Glaze helps Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and his wife, Stephanie, pick out a watermelon. At right, Johanns speaks at the unveiling of the MyPyramid Plan, a symbol and interactive food guidance system.
At top, Safeway employee Eddie Glaze helps Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns and his wife, Stephanie, pick out a watermelon. At right, Johanns speaks at the unveiling of the MyPyramid Plan, a symbol and interactive food guidance system. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)

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By Laura Blumenfeld
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Cabinet secretary was scrubbing his toilet, working white bristles around the rim, the sting of Clorox in his nostrils.

Chores . He makes a list on Saturday morning. Clean, wash bed, polish shoes, fertilize flowers, mow and trim, vacuum car, wash dog, sew on button . . .

By lunchtime, Mike Johanns, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, has buffed, dusted, swept and oiled upstairs and down in his Arlington home. In the laundry room, he twirled a mop face-up, running his fingers across the terrycloth.

"It's really cool. Great to pick up dust," Johanns said. His bedspread was thumping in the dryer.

During the week, dressed in a black suit, Johanns runs a $94.7 billion department with 110,981 employees. On the weekend, his black suits lie in the back of his car -- drop off cleaning -- as he unwinds with old habits from the farm.

On the dairy farm in northern Iowa where Johanns grew up, he woke at 5 a.m., and he still does. He was 4 years old when his father gave him his first chore -- holding the hose to fill the hog tanks. It was dark, minus 10 degrees, and his fingers stiffened inside two pairs of gloves. His parents milked cows, side by side.

"It was a very disciplined life," said Johanns, 55, touring his house, bending to pick up lint in the kitchen, to pluck a hair from a table in the den.

On the farm, Mike delivered piglets from their grunting mothers. He shoveled the muck in the barn. Before school he'd wash his boots, but when his boots warmed up in the classroom, they smelled like manure.

After school, he did more chores.

"He relaxes very poorly," said Johanns's wife, Stephanie, as she crossed the parking lot with him at Safeway. She is smiling and confiding, a wink in her green eyes. Next to Stephanie, Johanns is mild. He is milk; she is honey. They met when they were both serving as county commissioners in Nebraska, before Johanns was elected governor. It is his second marriage.

"We don't do anything alone," Johanns said.

"Better when you do it with your best friend," Stephanie observed. She drives him to work on the way to her telecommunications job, handles his e-mail and gives him cash because he doesn't have a checking account.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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