ONE MORNING JUST before Thanksgiving, several dozen Minnesotans pack into a room in the Hart Senate Office Building in D.C. They’re awaiting the arrival of Senator Amy Klobuchar, who hosts a breakfast every Thursday for constituents who happen to be in town. Outside, the first snow of the season is snarling Beltway commutes, but when the senator finally shuffles in, she’s paired her black slacks and teal jacket with gray felted wool slippers of the sort one might wear to curl up on the sofa with the Sunday paper or maybe pop over to the health-food store to restock on tempeh and sprouted lentils.
It turns out Klobuchar accidentally dropped a two-pound dumbbell on her foot early this morning—her husband joked that she was doing the RBG—and later she’ll good-naturedly show me a couple of toes that have turned an alarming shade of purple (they match the Prince- and Vikings–inspired pedicure she got to celebrate her recent landslide reelection, in which she won 60 percent of the vote—and 42 counties that went for Trump in 2016). Klobuchar is struggling to walk, but that doesn’t stop her from reaching for a pair of babies near the entryway, the daughters of staffer Lindsey Kerr. The twins are wearing onesies that Klobuchar gave them. One is festooned with a map of Minnesota’s 87 counties “because I visit all of them,” the senator explains. The other bears a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”
Klobuchar, who has a wide smile and a neat helmet of brown hair, is also little (five feet four with no help from her flats) and fierce (exhibit A: her starring role in Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings last fall). She and her husband, John Bessler, a law professor seven years her junior, have one daughter, Abigail, a 23-year-old recent Yale graduate who spent the first few years of her life in and out of the hospital, having been born without the ability to swallow (the experience led to Klobuchar’s first political victory, as a citizen lobbyist for a law guaranteeing 48-hour hospital stays for new moms). Now Abigail works for a New York City councilman, moonlights as a stand-up comedian, and, it quickly becomes clear, is her mother’s favorite topic of conversation.
“I want to see what it’s like to have both of them,” Klobuchar says to Kerr, who hesitantly hands her children over with a warning: “They’re heavy.” The senator wiggles a baby onto either hip. “Oh, my goodness. Is this what you really do? Carry both?” She limps into the adjacent room and bellows a theatrically cheery “Good morning” to the scrum of visitors in name tags.
“Soooo cute,” one of the constituents murmurs. “You’re losing one!” points out another: Luzia Tavares, who has nabbed a front-row seat. The senator pivots. “We’re going to give babies to random constituents now!” Before Kerr has time to object, her boss hands one of the twins to Tavares, who bounces her on her lap as Klobuchar launches into a spiel about notable moments in Minnesota political history, her legislative agenda, and the recent controversy over potica (puh-TEET-zah), the pastry that her office flies in from bakeries on Minnesota’s Iron Range (a minor international incident occurred at the Vatican when the pope joked to the First Lady that she must be feeding Trump potica, but the press misreported it as pizza). “It’s a Slovenian treat that my grandma used to make,” Klobuchar explains. “Melania is Slovenian, just like me!” She grins. “I say every time I look at her, it’s like looking in the mirror.”
Later, Klobuchar calls me over to meet Tavares, a preschool teacher and Zumba instructor originally from Brazil. Tavares wants me to know how much she loves Amy Klobuchar. No, she really loves Amy Klobuchar. In fact, she became a citizen a few years ago expressly so that she could cast votes for Klobuchar. “She’s not bluffing; that’s the thing,” Tavares gushes. “She gets respect from people. That’s what I really admire. . . . And she’s a woman. What the heck! It just fills me with pride.”
KLOBUCHAR WAS RAISED middle-class in the suburbs of Minneapolis, the granddaughter of an iron miner and the daughter of a pair of public servants—her mom was a schoolteacher, her father a newspaperman who used his column, she says, to “take on the cause of the little guy.” She often mentions how her sister, an accountant, took a circuitous route through the education system. Klobuchar’s path was glitterier: Yale undergrad, University of Chicago law school, a stint in corporate law before two terms as Hennepin County Attorney (the biggest public law office in Minnesota), and then her successful Senate bid. She loves to brag that when she first ran for the Senate, no one would take her calls, so she raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. (It’s true, attests Sara Grewing, then her state director, now a Minnesota judge, who remembers Klobuchar snapping shut her Motorola Razr flip phone and grumbling about a former flame: “Couldn’t commit then, can’t commit now.”) Klobuchar and Bessler live, I’m told by their friends, in modest homes in Minneapolis and D.C. They like to take hiking trips in Minnesota, up north by Lake Superior or down south in bluff country. The senator is a barre-class devotee. “I like that I don’t hurt myself,” she says. “Let’s put it this way: It’s a reminder that we must all be humble. For me. Because I’m like the worst in the class.” She dresses nicely but treats fashion like a necessary evil. When I admire her necklace—long and dangly with a cluster of beads that she worries while talking—she tells a story about buying it: She was in New York with her husband, had promised to take the day off, but actually needed to make some work calls. So she pretended to go shopping, made her calls, then picked up the necklace at the Ann Taylor across from their hotel as a red herring.
In many ways, the moment with the babies and the injured foot and the ridiculous slippers is classic Amy Klobuchar. She loves to turn a gaffe into a joke, and a joke into an opportunity to win over a crowd. Over the course of the three days I spend with her in D.C. I watch her do it again and again: at a breakfast for Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network; to a roomful of dour antitrust lawyers at a symposium hosted by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth; to an auditorium packed with eager public-affairs students. (I also see her in more serious modes: meeting with lobbying groups—autism researchers, teamsters—listening, empathizing, and promising, but not overpromising, to do what she can.) Klobuchar has great comic delivery and a wry, flat, nasal voice, slightly monotone but crackling with glee. It lends itself to comedy, sort of like a toned-down, upper-Midwestern female Gilbert Gottfried. Her sense of humor is inherited from both parents, who divorced when she was in high school but stayed friends. Her mother died in 2010; her dad, Jim, is still joking around at 90. “He introduced me at his assisted living the other day. ‘This is my daughter. She holds an obscure job in the federal government.’ ”
Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth sees Klobuchar’s humor as strategic. Last year, Duckworth, who recently gave birth to her second daughter, asked Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the Rules committee, for help changing an edict banning babies from the Senate floor. It meant Klobuchar had to field concerns from hand-wringing male colleagues: Would Duckworth breast-feed during votes? Would she change a diaper? Would the baby be required to observe the Senate dress code? “It’s uproarious when she retells these stories, but I know at the time it wasn’t that funny,” Duckworth says. “I think because she’s always laughing, people underestimate what she’s actually doing.”
The confrontation for which she’s most famous isn’t funny at all. In her twelve years in the Senate, Klobuchar has kept a low profile—Washingtonian once named her Congress’s second least likely to get into a scandal—but last fall she made headlines during the Kavanaugh hearings, emerging as a liberal folk hero for her measured, unflappable, unshowy approach to questioning the nominee. In a memorably disturbing exchange, Klobuchar described her own experience growing up with an alcoholic father and asked Judge Kavanaugh directly if he’d ever blacked out from drinking. Kavanaugh answered, toddler-like, by firing the question back at her. She kept her cool, and the nominee, in a rare moment of contrition, later apologized. In her closing remarks, Klobuchar made an ardent plea to move forward with an FBI investigation into Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when both were in high school.
We all know what happened next: Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, soon to retire, broke ranks with his party; the FBI investigation moved forward and in the end provided cover for the Republican majority to confirm Kavanaugh. But one collateral effect was that the world suddenly awoke to the singular charms of Amy Klobuchar, who seems possessed of the kind of common sense, adult-in-the-room moral clarity that feels in alarmingly short supply in our hyperpolarized political moment. Conservatives respected her restraint. “It wasn’t bombastic,” says Charlie Weaver, a Minnesota business lobbyist and so-called Main Street Republican. “I thought she was polite,” observes broadcasting mogul Stanley Hubbard, a Trump donor who also supports Klobuchar: “Remember, Judge Kavanaugh apologized to her because she’s a reasonable, decent person.” At the same time, liberals felt she channeled their extreme exasperation: “She had a very human, realistic response to his ridiculous theatrics,” says Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress. “I think a lot of people imagined themselves in her shoes in that moment. Like, come on!”
Klobuchar was blindsided by the hoopla. “There’s a lot of people that do things to try to go viral,” she says, “but I didn’t do it for that reason, nor did I ever think it was going to get so much attention.” She was “surprised,” she admits, by Kavanaugh’s belligerence. “I did tease our staff afterward. I said, ‘You guys didn’t anticipate that the nominee was going to ask me if I blacked out?’ Mostly I was just. . . . ” She searches for the right sentiment. “It was also kind of sad.”
Alcoholism, as she noted to Kavanaugh, is personal. In her father’s 1998 memoir of recovery, Pursued by Grace, he describes catting around in a drunken stupor and the “gut cruncher” of a family intervention, to which his elder daughter showed up “as a prosecutor . . . with indictments.” Klobuchar tells me,“When you’re only seventeen years old, and you’re going up with your dad to visit your grandma for Christmas, and you see him drinking out of the trunk, and you have to say, ‘No, I’m taking the keys away,’ yeah, that doesn’t happen to most kids that age.” By 1993, Jim Klobuchar had three DWIs. It’s telling that as Hennepin County Attorney, his daughter was an advocate for instituting a felony DWI law in Minnesota.
Klobuchar is a social drinker who clearly enjoys a party. At a gala dinner for the radio and television congressional correspondents she sips a glass of white wine, cracks jokes about needing a drink before leaving to speak at Utah Republican Orrin Hatch’s goodbye party (they cosponsored a school safety bill), and moves fluidly among off-duty reporters who are all too happy to gossip with her. Several people describe her as the person who shuts down the dance floor at a wedding. But she has a cautious relationship to alcohol. “I never had any issues with it,” she tells me. “I’m really, really careful to have just one or two glasses of wine. I think when you grow up with it, you’re much more careful.”
Her father’s now sober and still in AA. She credits his struggles with teaching her something about how to compartmentalize character flaws—not a bad skill in politics. “There are some senators here, and I’m like, really? Wow! I guess you’re perfect all the time?” she says. “I don’t see things in black and white as much as some people. I tend to maybe forgive.”
KLOBUCHAR’S LONGTIME MENTOR, former vice president Walter Mondale, called her after the Kavanaugh hearings. “I told her I thought this put her in a new place nationally,” he remembers.
He was onto something. Klobuchar’s Kavanaugh moment, combined with her impressive midterm margins in Minnesota, an increasingly purple state that seems a microcosm of the rest of the country, has shot her name to the top of the 2020 presidential wish list, particularly among those who believe that the path to Democratic victory runs through the industrial Midwest (where Obama won and Hillary Clinton mostly lost). “With a really volatile Donald Trump,” says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, “to have someone who’s measured, who’s civil, who can talk to moderates and some conservatives while establishing a very clear progressive agenda, that’s a special and unique profile that we don’t see in American politics today.” (Klobuchar’s age doesn’t hurt either: She’ll be 60 in 2020, a decade or two younger than Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden, with a decade more Senate experience than Kamala Harris.) If she runs, says her friend Tom Nides, Hillary Clinton’s former State Department deputy, she’ll face a crowded field, opponents with better name recognition and an uphill fundraising battle. Still, “there’s a scenario where she can be a huge hit in Iowa,” he says. “She’s the real deal, and that’s an advantage.”
Klobuchar is noncommittal when I ask about presidential aspirations. “Well, I love my job now, and I just got off an election, so that’s kind of where I am.” (A couple weeks later, in an appearance on MSNBC’s Hardball, she’s less circumspect, saying she’s considering it.) She does seem genuinely weary post-midterms but also energized by the broader Democratic gains in the House, where the freshman class is diverse in every sense. “You’re not going to agree with every position everyone takes,” she says when I ask about new-guard members such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, who ran on planks like abolishing ICE, which Klobuchar does not support. Still, they could finally make progress on “campaign-finance reform and ethics. I’m excited about the diversity, but I am really, really excited about the potential for change within our system.”
Klobuchar’s own current legislative priorities are all over the map: lowering the cost of pharmaceutical drugs, automatic voter registration, comprehensive immigration reform, expanding broadband infrastructure, tightening antitrust enforcement, bolstering election security, passing the farm bill, getting something done on universal background checks and preexisting conditions. She’s clearly liberal, but her specific brand of politics can be kind of hard to clock. “I think people would be a little stumped if asked, ‘What’s her ideology?’ ” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Former FBI director James Comey, Klobuchar’s law school classmate—he remembers her as “annoyingly smart”— calls the senator “a unicorn in American life” and “more purple than sometimes she’s maybe portrayed.” Jeff Blodgett, a Democratic operative in Minnesota, sees her in the opposite light: “a consistent progressive Senate vote, and she doesn’t always get credit for it.” If you compare her record to Franken’s, they tended to agree more than 90 percent of the time, yet he was seen as a progressive firebrand, and she’s frequently regarded as a moderate.
That’s in part owing to her style. “Parents want their kids to grow up in a world where our leaders are grounded morally,” Klobuchar says, indicating a book on her coffee table, The Road to Character, by notable centrist David Brooks. If she stands for anything, it’s civility, pragmatism, and the ability to make incremental progress in a moment of gridlock. When I ask Missouri’s Roy Blunt, her Republican counterpart on the Rules committee, if she’s a diplomat for the Democrats, he replies, “Absolutely! I would say she spends as much time on our side of the Senate floor as she does on the other.” Two Congresses ago, she backed the most bills signed into law. Last Congress, she brags, she got Trump’s signature on 24 pieces of legislation, on topics from elder abuse to opioids to air-travel ticketing. Her critics turn that around on her, accusing her of playing “small ball,” focusing on uncontroversial consumer protection issues rather than taking on tough fights, or of compromising too much in the name of getting things done (one example: last year’s government shutdown, when Klobuchar was among Senators who brokered a deal that failed to adequately protect Dreamers). Progressives won’t be thrilled to look back at the 2011 State of the Union, when many legislators paired up across the aisle and Klobuchar took then-Senator Jeff Sessions as her bipartisan “prom date.” (They’d worked together on adoption legislation. She voted against his confirmation as Attorney General.)
To many, her disarming performance against a blustering, bullying Kavanaugh seemed a preview of how Klobuchar might fare against President Trump. But her handling of Lindsey Graham was equally noteworthy: After Graham went on a fiery tirade during the hearings, then appeared on Hannity insisting Klobuchar apologize for her part in “a smear campaign,” the Minnesota senator found a way to see past it. “I was infuriated about the chest beating,” she says; still, even after Graham threw the gauntlet, Klobuchar gave a Senate floor speech vaunting their collaboration on synthetic opioid legislation. “Yes, I could have never talked to him again,” she says. But that’s not her. “We had been working on this bill for over five years. We had finally passed it. That was significant. He had agreed to be the lead Republican. He helped me out.”
It helps that she and Graham traveled together with the late John McCain, whose name tends to come up whenever anyone talks about aisle-crossing. “No matter how bad things can get,” she says, “we’ll never lose that. It’s like family.” Klobuchar clearly holds dear her friendship with the late Republican senator and war hero, who died last August from brain cancer. One day his widow, philanthropist Cindy McCain, drops by the office to discuss her work combating human trafficking (Klobuchar has backed several anti-trafficking bills). The two quickly fall into chatting about kids and holiday plans, and with the ease of old pals, start laughing over a photo Klobuchar produces of her and John McCain and Graham in late 2016 standing shoulder to shoulder with a phalanx of fatigue-clad Ukrainian soldiers. Klobuchar sticks out in a parka so fluorescently lime green it glows under the camera flash. “My husband goes, ‘What are you wearing?’ ” she remembers. “ ‘You look like a target!’ ”
“I’m sure John made fun of you?” McCain prods, meaning her John.
“Yeah, he did.” The mood suddenly shifts. “You’re doing well?” Klobuchar asks softly.
“Yeah,” says McCain. “I’m doing well.”
When it’s time to go, McCain, dressed sleekly in a black turtleneck, black pants, and black boots, pauses at the door and looks at me. “Be nice to her, all right?” She glances down at Klobuchar’s feet. The senator has changed from the slippers into what appear to be a pair of faux leather Toms. “Nice shoes,” McCain says, chuckling.
AFTER THREE DAYS in Klobuchar’s company, I am exhausted. The senator, even with her accident (an X-ray shows the toes are not broken), seems unfazed. Our last day together is particularly grueling. There’s the constituent breakfast, followed by a judiciary committee markup. Afterward, she holds an impromptu press conference on revelations that Facebook hired opposition researchers to discredit its critics. Then it’s straight into a long meeting with Beth Ford, the newly minted first female CEO of Land O’Lakes, who wants to go deep into the weeds on dairy issues. In the afternoon, as my energy flags, I accompany the senator to a recording studio and watch her knock out six flawless video messages to constituent groups, ad-libbing anecdotes and editing the teleprompter in real time. (When I compliment this, she turns to Phil, the staffer who wrote the original scripts, and makes a motherly clucking sound: “Ohhh. But they were good anyways.”)
By 6:30 we’re driving to George Washington University so the senator can be interviewed—or interrogated about 2020—by veteran journalist Steven Roberts. It’s snowing again, but for the second night running, Klobuchar mysteriously is not wearing a coat. “Minnesotans don’t,” she insists, and I can’t tell if she’s kidding.
“The audience is GW students?” she asks her deputy chief of staff, Rosa, in the backseat, who reads from her phone: “250 undergrads and grad students, an overflow room, C-Span will be airing. . . .” “What!” Klobuchar squawks. “OK, that’s called burying the lede.”
We have a few minutes to spare, but Klobuchar still has to change her shoes. The car pulls up to a building and we hustle inside. Opera music wafts through the air, and a television set shows a stage with a full choir joining together in song. “Where are we?” asks Klobuchar, but Rosa has mysteriously vanished. “Are they . . . practicing?” A flyer on the door reads “Washington Concert Opera.” “I think we’re in the wrong place.” The music swells as a woman comes over to help. Klobuchar introduces herself: “Hi, she says, in a stage whisper, “I’m Senator Klobuchar. I’m speaking at GW at an event. It’s not here.”
The woman looks perplexed. “I’m a singer. Do you want me to get you the stage manager?”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Klobuchar starts laughing. “What a perfect end to this day.” Hovering between amused and annoyed, she perches on a nearby couch and attempts to pull a brown leather equestrian boot over her injured foot.
After 72 hours on Capitol Hill it’s oddly shocking to remember that there’s a real world out there, where Amy Klobuchar isn’t Senator Amy Klobuchar, possible presidential candidate, but just a regular woman after a very long day struggling to change her shoes in a room she isn’t really supposed to be in. Just as the thought occurs to me, Rosa reappears. Crisis averted. The driver is back out front. The actual venue is a block away. The boots are on. We have just enough time to get there. As we bundle back into the car, Klobuchar tries to explain what just happened. “There was an opera. We were calling everyone. We tried to get their help! The opera people! I did not take to the stage.” She turns back to me. “What opera was it?”
“Sapho?” I say, remembering the sign. “The Washington Concert Opera.”
Klobuchar, satisfied, swivels around in her seat. “In case I want to use it,” she says. And I have every reason to believe that she will.