By Travis Gulbrandson
Sen. John Thune said that if someone enters politics, they must maintain their character and moral strength.
This was among his messages to the attendees of the 67th annual South Dakota Girls State, which is being held at the University of South Dakota this week.
“If you know who you are and you know what you believe, you stay anchored and grounded in that,” Thune said Tuesday morning during a presentation at Aalfs Auditorium. “A lot of times temptations will come at you, or you get buffeted by a lot of various challenges people face in public life, it keeps you kind of grounded.
“That means you’ve got to stay really rooted in your beliefs and the principles that are important to you,” he said.
Thune said the things that keep him most anchored are his family, community and state.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here in South Dakota, and it’s very easy for people to go to Washington, DC, and … kind of forget what they’re about, who they are and what they’re there to do,” he said.
In short, listen to your conscience and the people you represent, he said.
“Once you lose that, then you just become an unanchored, untethered person, and it’s easy to be persuaded and pushed in different directions,” Thune said.
The Girls Staters had the opportunity to ask the senator questions following a short speech, among which was what Thune feels is the most difficult aspect of his job.
Thune had two responses. First, he said it is difficult to find enough “bandwidth” to keep up with everything that is going on, between committee memberships, Senate hearings and votes.
“There is so much stuff coming at you every single day, and so many things to try and stay on top of,” he said.
The second answer regarded Thune’s “frustration in not seeing a direct result in things that you’re doing.”
He said he always tells people that in Washington, there is a lot of activity, but not a lot of productivity.
“People are very busy, but they’re not getting a lot done, and it’s frustrating to me that we don’t get more done when you look at the problems that we have in this country,” Thune said. “On the other hand, there are things that are very rewarding, very fulfilling.
“When you work on something and you actually do get a chance to see it become a law, something get done, something that will benefit the people that you represent, that’s what keeps you motivated,” he said.
Thune encouraged all the Girls State attendees to be active during the week, and said he hoped some of them might be inspired to enter politics as a result of it.
Thune himself is an alumnus of the 1978 Boys State.
“I didn’t grow up aspiring to go into politics. I grew up in Murdo, SD,” he said. “My life began and ended with the city limits of Murdo. It was before the Internet, before cell phones, so it was a world that a lot of you … probably wouldn’t be able to identify with all that much.”
His first political inclinations followed a meeting with a congressman when Thune was a high school freshman.
After completing graduate school, that congressman – by then a senator – offered Thune a job on his staff, a position he held for four and a half years.
“I guess what I concluded from that experience was, if the timing and the opportunity were right, it might be something I would like to do some day, and so it was really that experience that opened that door,” he said. “Honestly, it wasn’t something I was looking for or looking to do.”
At the time of the offer, Thune and his wife had just gotten married and were living in Pierre, but they decided to go to Washington for at least a couple of years.
“What I would say to you about that is, if things come along in your lives that are unexpected opportunities, don’t be afraid to walk through that door,” Thune said. “Sometimes you may be planning on going a certain direction, and doors will open to you and opportunities will present themselves. Don’t be afraid to walk through that door and just see what’s on the other side.”
He said he hopes “walking through that door” would be something the Girls State attendees would do throughout their lives.
“Your being here means obviously that somebody recognized leadership abilities in you, and so I want to congratulate you for the things that you’ve already been able to accomplish, and the things that are ahead of you,” he said.