It was mid-November, and Tim Kaine was not going to be vice president of the United States after all, and some of his fellow senators had an invitation: “They said, you got to come talk about being on the trail,” he remembers. These were colleagues from his weekly prayer meeting, a private bipartisan breakfast Kaine attends, where senators share stories from their lives and faiths. He declined the invitation. “I said: ‘I’ve got to collect my thoughts. I don’t know what I would say.’ ”
His colleagues asked him again in January. Was he ready to talk now? “Nope,” he said. He wanted to do it, he assured them, but still couldn’t figure out what to offer.
In March, they asked a third time and Kaine considered it. If he waited until he knew what he wanted to say, he reasoned, he wasn’t sure he’d end up wanting to say it.
So he went to the prayer meeting. He found himself talking to his fellow senators not about the campaign, but about the effect that its first 72 hours had on his family. How it seemed to him like a combination of a microwave speeding things up, and a magnifying glass zooming in, and maybe also a pressure cooker, jostling everything around.
“Sometimes it seems like a dream, like it didn’t really happen,” he says now, talking about the prayer meeting while eating lunch in rural northwestern Virginia. There is wood paneling on the cafe’s walls, and a lunch crowd of men in jeans and T-shirts. The proprietor had recommended the Big Jake burger, so Kaine, 59, has a half-finished one on his plate, and now he starts to laugh. “Sometimes I wake up and think this isn’t happening.”
“This,” of course, is this: Russia, hacking, leaking, tapping, Obamacare repeals that keep rising from the dead like fiscally conservative zombies. A new uproar every week, a new headline every hour, a succession of columnists writing about how it all might signify the end of the world, or of the Republicans, or of a country that, unbeknown to all of us, has actually been held together by duct tape for a good long while.
The week after the Clinton-Kaine ticket fell, Hillary Clinton retreated to Upstate New York, removing herself from public life except for an occasional woodsy sighting by an intrepid hiker. Donald Trump and Mike Pence set about packing for Washington, planning the agenda for an administration almost nobody had predicted would ever exist. But Kaine — Kaine was back in the Senate. Instead of a partner to the first female president, one of a hundred senators.
Old office. Old shirt sleeves. Old routines: the Monday morning drive from Richmond to Washington, and the questions from fans about his harmonica collection. Kaine was back there for all of it, the elected representative of the only purple state Clinton had managed to win, bearing witness as the new order unfurled.
“I’m sorry you’re not vice president, but senator’s still important,” a fourth-grader wrote to Kaine recently. “Can you please stop my classmates from being deported?”
Old job. Different world. Seventy-five thousand pieces of constituent correspondence reaching his office for the month of February, compared with 27,000 for the same period the year before.
“I used to try public housing discrimination cases,” says Kaine, a former civil rights lawyer. “And I’d be at the counsel table, and it would be me and a guy who wasn’t able to pay me, and the other table would be filled with lawyers getting paid a lot, and I would just be there, really praying that the system worked. Like, if they didn’t have me — I’m it. They wouldn’t have anyone. So I prayed the system worked. And usually it did, but not always.” He shakes his head back and forth, weighing the metaphor. “I’m in that mental space again.”
“The Democrats in the Senate are the only emergency brake on the train,” he says a few minutes later. “This might be the most important period. Maybe I’ll be in the Senate for the next 30 years, and the next two to four years — God willing, it’s more than two years for me — are the most important years I’ll ever spend in the Senate.”
He keeps track of the time, afraid of being late for meetings in Augusta County, which is a gateway to Appalachian Virginia. The White House’s recently proposed budget includes the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which provides funding to the area. The county voted 71 percent for Trump.
“I’m going to work my tail off to get money back to the Appalachian region,” Kaine says, because that’s what it is like to be Tim Kaine now: You could have won, but you didn’t, and there’s nothing to be done about it now, because the country that you tried to warn went and did the opposite thing anyway.
Two months before his trip to Augusta County, Kaine gained as much viral fame as can be achieved via a Senate confirmation hearing, for his operatic grilling of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. He used his allotted minutes to fire off 27 questions about her experience.
“In order to clarify, you never attended a K-12 public school, did you?” he asked. “And your children did not, either? And you’ve never taught at a K-12 public school?”
(DeVos would be confirmed anyway, via Vice President Pence’s tiebreaking vote).
Two days before Augusta County, Kaine decided that he would not support Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch because he worried about the judge’s positions on birth control and abortion. He released a statement saying as much, and, while power-walking to a committee hearing, anxiously checked his phone to see how it was being received. “I could have worked on the verb tense for days,” he said.
(Republicans later unilaterally enacted the “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules to allow Gorsuch’s nomination to go through.)
He chastised Trump for bypassing Congress in his decision to launch a strike on Syria. He asked the president to veto legislation relating to Internet privacy. “I’ve been telling people, it’s shocking but not surprising,” Kaine says of the deluge of recent political developments. The initiatives that President Trump’s administration has been pushing were not, after all, secret initiatives. They were what Trump promised to do during the campaign: Overhaul health care. Curtail admission of refugees. Build a wall. They were what Kaine and Clinton had told people that Trump would do, over and over — the Cassandras of the campaign trail.
On another day, Kaine was in Norfolk, visiting a children’s hospital, where the cost of treating many of the patients is covered in part by Medicaid reimbursements, which could have been affected by the proposed, but ultimately scuttled, American Health Care Act. House Republicans were scheduled to set a vote on the bill later that day.
Kaine toured several floors, stopping to chat with families who had previously signed release forms. He passed through a chemotherapy ward, where small children sucked on popsicles as IVs dripped treatment into their veins. “I’m Tim,” he told the families, one after another, as they talked about their children’s diagnoses. “I’m Tim.”
When Kaine was almost through the room, a mother hurried over. She looked tired, with bags under her eyes. She asked a person accompanying Kaine whether she was allowed to talk to the senator, even though she hadn’t signed a release. She started to cry. “If that bill goes through, these children will be unsavable,” she said. He leaned in close, listening for several minutes.
“Just think about us?” she asked him as they finished. “Think about us, as a person in power?”
As Kaine left, the mother told a hospital staffer that she was embarrassed about getting emotional, and she hoped it was okay for her to have approached the senator. “Oh, you did the right thing,” the staffer told her. “That’s your warrior, right there.”
As he continued his tour, another mom recognized him. “There’s Tim Kaine, honey!” a woman whispered to her small son. “Do you want to get your picture?” the boy shook his head. “But he’s a senator,” she encouraged. “He was almost — he was almost — oh, never mind.”
An older man and woman stand in front of the Waynesboro Senior Center, holding a sign: “Vote Yes for Gorsuch.”
“I can see I’m going to disappoint you on Judge Gorsuch,” Kaine says, exiting his car and reaching out to shake their hands. “I spent six weeks reading up,” he explains, and he just doesn’t think that the man should be in the job.
The couple nod. They expected as much. Kaine stands and chats with them for a while, about vacation destinations in the Midwest, where he’s from — Branson, Mo., Silver Dollar City. The woman tells him that she still remembers the speech Kaine gave at Virginia Tech, after the 2007 shooting that left 32 people dead when Kaine was the state’s governor.
He goes inside, where people from several nonprofit groups have gathered to talk to him about how the White House’s budget would impact their work.
“We’re not good Samaritans,” one man tells him, comparing his center with the biblical parable about a man, a Samaritan, who brings a wounded stranger to recuperate at an inn. “But we’re the innkeepers who allow good to take place. The innkeeper needs to have an inn. Please help us keep the inn open.”
“You know this county,” someone else says. “We went about 75 percent Trump. But they’re good people.”
“There’s no money to be made in our work, but there’s a lot of justice,” says a representative from a legal fund, who talks about taking on the pro-bono case of an older woman who had been tricked into spending her $10,000 savings on frozen meat. “A case like that, you can’t do without federal funding.”
The event organizer hands Kaine a manila envelope of letters from seniors. He takes it and tells the group that he’ll fight for them as best he can, but he knows it’s going to be a tough budget cycle.
“We’ll get some of the funding up, but not all,” he says. “We’re probably talking about where the biggest win is just standing still.”
In the car, a few minutes later, he asks his press secretary to pass him the envelope. He pulls a letter out and reads it aloud.
“Dear Senator Kaine,” he reads. “I am 87 years old. I live alone and do not have my own transportation. If it were not for the senior center, I would be spending a lot of time alone. I have been attending the senior center for twenty years. I do not always feel up to making meals, so it means a lot to come here and enjoy a meal with others.”
He slides the letters back into the envelope. “Yeah,” he says.
“The Book of Job is something that’s really important to me,” Kaine says, back at the rural diner. The Book of Job, in the Bible, is the story of a man whose faith is tested by the loss of his wealth, health and family. “It expresses a profound truth about humanity and causation,” Kaine continues. “What humans tend to do is ask, why am I here now? It’s clearly because of something that came before.
“The point of the Job story is that he’s not where he is because of the past. He’s where he is because of the future.”
Kaine pauses. “I think I am here today, a senator in Waynesboro, more because of something that I’m supposed to do tomorrow than something I did yesterday. And I think in this moment in time, what am I supposed to do tomorrow is assuming a lot of existential importance.”
A few days after the election, a Twitter account, @IfHillaryHad, was created and went viral — the premise being that the feed would recount the days of a parallel-universe administration in which Clinton had won. Clinton sees Merrick Garland confirmed to the Supreme Court, signs climate-change legislation, holds run-of-the-mill news conferences and sends Bill to fetch paninis. @IfHillaryHad has a companion account, @AltVP48, in which a fictional Kaine spends his Saturday nights reading policy papers and coming up with dad jokes.
It’s a portrait of yearning, not for a soaring, impressive presidency, but a gently boring one.
But what-ifs are not a place that Kaine allows himself to go.
“I assume he’s got to have thoughts, when he sees Mike Pence presiding over the Senate,” says Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who considers Kaine his best friend in Congress. But he’s never heard Kaine say anything out loud, and in general, King says, the only difference in his colleague, pre-election vs. post, is that “I think his role is more urgent. He’s fully committed to the Senate.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) has known Kaine for 37 years. He calls him “the most relentlessly optimistic person I’ve ever met.”
Kaine says only that he’s been “proud of his emotional maturity” in recent months. “Where I really was able to look in the mirror and say, you know, I’m comfortable to be in the reality that I’m in, was when I was at the inauguration. I was sitting on the platform, and I was watching the president take the oath of office, and I was watching Mike Pence take the oath of office, and I didn’t think, ‘I wish it would have been me.’ At that moment, I was very peaceful with the role I was playing.”
He finishes his Big Jake burger. “We’re living in a stress test of our constitutional democracy,” he says. “It’s like we took it in for our 230-year checkup, and it’s up on the rack and we’re seeing how the systems work.” He believes the systems will work. He has that faith.
Kaine thanks the restaurant’s owner for her hospitality, wishes a happy birthday to a young man celebrating at a table nearby and heads out to begin his afternoon of meetings.
A few hours later, he arrives at a construction site and sees a few people outside waiting for him.
“We’re not invited,” one middle-aged woman calls out. “We just saw you were coming and wanted to see you. To tell you to keep up the good fight.”
“I will,” Kaine says, stopping to shake her hand.
“With health care,” the woman says.
“With Russia,” the woman’s companion adds.
“All of it,” the woman says. “All of it.”
“I will,” Kaine says again, and the senator goes inside.