Ill senator seldom in the spotlight by choice
Washington — (AP) Tim Johnson is a rare senator who almost never has sought the spotlight. Asked by a local columnist if he ever tires of being described as boring, Johnson replied: Not at all.
"He's not one of the flashy stars that's always looking for the camera in D.C.," said Bill Richardson, head of the political science department at Johnson's alma mater, the University of South Dakota.
But long before the two-term senator's medical crisis this week, Johnson won national attention by keeping Democrats guessing about whether they could count on his vote.
He bucked his party by being only one of three Democrats to vote to confirm Justice Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court. He voted to ban late-term abortions. He said yes to a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, anathema to most in his party.
And then there was perhaps the defining vote of Johnson's career: whether to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. Johnson voted yes, though he had a very personal reason to vote no: his oldest son, Brooks.
Then 32 and a staff sergeant with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, Brooks would be among the first sent to the region, Johnson knew.
"I talked to Brooks prior to this vote and his response was, 'Dad, you do what is right for the country and I'll do what is right as a soldier,"' Johnson recalled. "I said on the (Senate) floor that it's very likely I would be sending my own son into combat."
Brooks has since returned safely and had a son, one of Johnson's three young grandchildren, according to the senator's Web site.
Political drama was nowhere to be found in Johnson's childhood. So low-key was his family that Johnson didn't know his parents' political affiliation until he went to college (they were Democrats).
The political bug bit Tim Johnson at 17, when he attended the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco.
He earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of South Dakota and opened his law practice in Vermillion, S.D., in 1975. He was elected to the state House three years later and went on to serve in the state Senate.
In 1986, Johnson, who acknowledges that some find him "dour," was narrowly elected to the U.S. House seat vacated by Tom Daschle, who had been elected to the Senate.
A decade later, Johnson defeated Sen. Larry Pressler, then the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Johnson was barely re-elected to a second term, beating Republican John Thune by only 524 votes.
Wednesday's medical emergency was not Johnson's first brush with severe illness. In 2004 he battled prostate cancer. His wife, Barbara, has twice faced breast cancer. The couple has three children and three grandchildren.
Columnist David Kranz of the Sioux Falls, S.D., Argus Leader - the one who asked Johnson if he minded being considered dull - wrote that all the fuss over his illness "would be appalling" to the steady, unassuming senator.