WASHINGTON, D.C. —South Dakota's senior senator sits in an office once held by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, a famous bison head protruding from an adjacent room, recounting driving over to Philip, South Dakota, for piano recitals.
"My mom insisted, even growing up in Murdo ... that we knew something about music and culture," said Sen. John Thune, who added his mother required an hour of mandatory reading in summers. "She wanted us to read the good stuff, and then we all took piano."
Musical protégé is a new wrinkle to the well-worn image of John Thune as the Marlboro Man from South Dakota. He’s tall, conservative and delivers his opinions on Democrats wrangling two bills with the ease of a basketball coach talking X's and O's.
“There were always complaints about [President Barack] Obama kind of being too aloof or not engaging and all that, but I saw more of him than I do of Biden,” Thune said. "I mean [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell doesn't hear from him, and they were, you know, they have a relationship that goes back a long ways."
Thune, too, has a tenure that goes back a long way in D.C. First coming to Congress in 1996, when his favorite television show, "Seinfeld," still released new episodes, Thune is now minority whip, in an office studded with bison and stuffed pheasant just steps from the regal Senate chamber.
But the three-term senator is not yet ready to announce a reelection bid. He says he's waited until January to announce before. He wants to avoid a divisive campaign season. And there's also that “political environment."
"There's a disenfranchisement and antipathy toward the 'establishment' that kind of is pervasive," Thune said.
During a summer recess, Thune said both he and his wife encountered the entrenched feeling of the MAGA wing of the GOP.
The previous December, Trump called out Thune by name on Twitter. On Jan. 6, Thune cast ballots to certify Biden's 2020 election, an otherwise innocuous act that became instantly politicized. By this August, two West River men said they would primary Thune, though only Mark Mowry of Spearfish has filed with the Federal Elections Commission, reporting $7,500 in the bank.
"I've always felt that the best sanitizer is always the truth," said Thune, who had decried "madness" in a hastily arranged news conference on the evening of Jan. 6.
So far, a stop-the-steal fever has not overtaken the South Dakota GOP, as has shaped up in neighboring Wyoming. But as he noted in a committee hearing with a Facebook whistleblower, Thune laments people's information source.
"The algorithms that the big tech companies use ... just reinforce what [voters] already believe," said Thune.
Plus, beyond baseless election fraud allegations, there are more traditional concerns South Dakotans have about Washington, D.C.
"People in South Dakota have always been a little bit leery of government," said Thune.
Pheasant-hunting back in South Dakota, Thune said a longtime basketball referee told him that he's "never seen our country going downhill so fast."
The causes, to hear Thune, read like the nightly broadcasts on Fox News Channel: a border crisis, anxiety over inflation, vaccine mandates, and "what our kids are being taught."
"They sense they don't have any control over [these issues]," added Thune.
Sometimes this can boil over.
While Thune's name has been mentioned as a frequent attendee at bipartisan informal gatherings at West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's houseboat, the senator also confirmed reports he hollered at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, two weeks ago following a late-night vote to lift the debt ceiling.
“I'm usually pretty even-tempered,” said Thune. “But I thought what Schumer did ... [to] just make this incredibly partisan speech was completely tone-deaf, and I told him in a fairly spirited way."
The senator politely laughed that he wouldn't tell the reporter "everything I told" Schumer.
For now, Thune is comfortable in his role. He pauses, with a cup of coffee in his hand, a morning after Senate Republicans filibustered an election reform bill, with socialite Paris Hilton touring the Hill and the House voting to subpoena former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, for information about a meeting held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., on the night of Jan. 5.
“Having a position in leadership enables me. I'm in a position that very few South Dakotans have ever had to really impact the state and the people that I represent in a positive way,” observed Thune.
Asked if Thune saw his 2022 reelection as a “veritable cakewalk,” with millions in his campaign war chest, the senator interjected, “You never know.”
At 60 years old, he is far from ending a career that could still span decades more. Even if voters back home are "hotter" than in previous years, he still sees himself as a useful conduit of their perspective to D.C.
"I'm somebody who has always believed that politics ought to be about appealing to people's hope, not preying on their fears," said Thune. "It's kind of my job to listen to them."
As polarization spreads, some wonder, "how long can this amateur piano player keep up this tune?"
"I was a good sight reader," said Thune, but he joked his sister and brother were always better playing by ear.