Tim Kaine doesn’t know what a dad joke is.
“I still have no idea,” said Kaine, the senator from Virginia and Hillary Clinton’s former running mate.
If Kaine, 59, were to look back at Twitter from the time he was onstage at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia last year, he might have a better idea. There was something about his earnestness, his dopey smile and his aw-shucks attitude during his speech that made Kaine seem like the kind of person who might respond to someone saying “I’m Never Hillary” with “Hi, Never Hillary. I’m Dad.”
The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri — one of the many, many people to take note — tweeted: “tim kaine knows he can’t replace your dad but he wants you to know you can talk to him about anything.” She continued: “i bet if tim kaine has leaked voice mails at the DNC they were all reminders to stay hydrated.”
Kaine had become “America’s Dad,” and he couldn’t quite figure out why.
“I never knew there was such a thing as a dad joke,” he said. “I guess it has something to do with benign obliviousness, which I plead guilty to.”
I had called Kaine on a sleepy day in August for advice. In October, I too will become a dad in America, and out of sheer terror have taken to getting tips from the people I talk to most. As a political journalist, that means seeking counsel from politicians (hey, beggars can’t be choosers).
I suppose I could do worse than getting advice from people in politics. A lot of what I worry about, they worry about: Can babies survive going outside in the swamp’s summer heat? Is it appropriate to dictate statements on behalf of your son when he gets caught having secret meetings with the Russians? And most important, how do you juggle a demanding job in the nation’s capital with keeping a tiny human alive (and doing so in a way that he might actually grow up to like you)?
“A couple of years after we moved to the White House, when Chelsea was in high school, we had what may have been our only argument,” former president Bill Clinton wrote in an email. “The subject is long forgotten, but I remember telling her, ‘As long as you’re in this house, being president is my second most important job.’ ”
For Clinton that meant playing cards and having dinner with his daughter whenever he could, and working to make her friends feel welcome in a house that can seem unwelcoming.
“I followed a few simple practices,” said Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican nominee for president. “First, when I came home from the office, I put my briefcase by the door and never gave work another thought: I focused my entire attention on Ann and my kids. Sure, emergencies were exceptions, but my standard practice was to leave work at work.”
Romney was lucky. Email hadn’t been invented when his boys were young. He never had to balance bottle-feeding a baby with the existential dread of scrolling through Twitter in the dead of night. From the various politicians and D.C. denizens I spoke with, it’s clear that today, the smartphone is the greatest impediment to being a good parent (Maggie Haberman, a star Trump chronicler for the New York Times and mother of three, said she once filed an entire story on her BlackBerry from her son’s kindergarten graduation ceremony).
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has gone to some extreme measures to combat this problem.
In 2013, Flake took two of his sons on a trip to a deserted island, where they would survive by spearing fish and scavenging for coconuts.
“It was worth the risk just to have time without cellphones, without electronics,” Flake, 54, said. “Just to have five or six days with their dad.”
But what about being a good dad for the other 360 days of the year? Flake says the best advice he ever got about that came shortly after he first arrived to Congress, and it came from his Arizona congressional colleague, now-
former senator Jon Kyl (R).
“He told me to involve my kids as much as I can in this job,” Flake said. “They were either going to resent this life or revel in it.”
This past summer, one of Flake’s sons served as a page in the Senate.
“It’s great,” Flake said. “Not only did I get to see him more, but he had to call me sir!”
Okay, great. But how does that help me? There is no page program at The Washington Post, and I’m pretty sure my son will have to be at least 18 before he can become an intern here. One concern that I kept asking politicians about is whether it’s possible to be any good at your job with a young child at home. Most everyone dismissed that worry as misplaced.
“I never felt like having a kid held me back in any professional way,” said Jason Kander, a 36-year-old rising star in the Democratic Party. “But I do worry that my professional life hinders my ability to be a good dad. I think I’ve been able to navigate that, but I worry about that all the time.”
Because Kander has been a politician for much of his adult life, he’s got a very political way of approaching parenting.
There are moments in every childhood, Kander says, that stick with that kid forever. It could be any random moment, something that if you ask the parent about years later, he’ll have no recollection of.
“I think of those moments as when my son is recording,” Kander said. “You never know when he’s recording, so I try to be as thoughtful and present as I can be with him whenever I can.”
(Yes, this can sound like the paranoid thoughts of a Senate candidate who has spent years being followed by Republican trackers. But the principle is good enough: Try to be good to your kid as much as possible; you never know what will stick with him.)
That seems like a lot of pressure. Isn’t it okay to sometimes be off your game? Do I really need to worry that the one time I mess up will be the thing that stays with my son forever? I can’t be the only person who wonders whether he’s cut out to succeed both professionally and as a parent, right? Is it normal to become a father while also feeling like you don’t know anything about being one? Can I be as good a dad as my dad has been to me? One former Hill staffer told me it was important to remember that “children are basically ingrates,” and another told me to remember “having a kid makes everything better.” Can it really be both of those things???
“It’s okay not to know everything,” said Kaine, soothing as always. “We were real nervous when we first became parents. We didn’t even know what jaundice was. It took a friend coming over and saying: ‘Why is his face so orange?’ ”
This was comforting. Kaine became a father at the age of 32 after being married for six years, and the same will be true for me. I kind of already know what jaundice is. And I definitely know what a dad joke is. So at least in that respect I’m ahead of America’s Dad.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m going to be fine after all.
(Hi, Going to be Fine After All. I’m Dad.)