It was a painful father-daughter confrontation over alcohol, years in the making, that both Jim Klobuchar and Amy Klobuchar would describe as a defining moment in their respective memoirs.
In 1993, Jim Klobuchar was the star columnist for the Star Tribune, a Minnesota celebrity who’d just been arrested a third time for drinking and driving. His daughter Amy, now a U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate, was a young lawyer in Minneapolis who joined him at a meeting with counselors evaluating his addiction.
She recounted a missed birthday party, followed by a drunken tumble in the living room. His intoxication at her high school and college graduations. The time she saw him covertly sip from a bottle stashed in the trunk of his car.
“She was fundamentally there as a prosecutor,” Jim Klobuchar wrote in “Pursued by Grace,” his book about his alcoholism and recovery.
“That arrest and all of its consequences marked the turning point in his long battle with alcohol,” Amy Klobuchar wrote in “The Senator Next Door.”
A quarter of a century later, fighting to break through in the Democratic presidential contest, Amy Klobuchar has made her father’s battle with drinking a central part of the story she’s telling voters around the country. She’s shared it live on CNN, in other TV appearances and interviews, and to party activists in the early voting states.
“It’s part of my life. And when you’re running for president, everything about your life comes out,” Klobuchar said in an interview.
On Friday, Klobuchar proposed $100 billion in new federal spending to fight substance abuse and improve mental health resources. The money would come from a new fee of 2 cents per milligram of active ingredient in prescription pain pills, to be paid by opioid manufacturers and importers.
“I believe everyone should have the same opportunity my dad had to be pursued by grace and get the treatment and help they need,” Klobuchar said.
Stories of personal struggle have become common to presidential politics. Bill Clinton talked about growing up with a poor single mother; George W. Bush followed a path from drinking to religious awakening; Joe Biden persevered through the tragic early deaths of his first wife and daughter and later his adult son.
“The power of authenticity can’t be underestimated,” said Mark McKinnon, who was a media adviser to Bush, John McCain and other prominent politicians from both major parties. “The story of her father is familiar to almost all voters. What that says is she’s like me, she’s not removed from my life and my experiences.”
National polls continue to find Klobuchar in low single digits. But her first major burst of national media attention, last year, pivoted around her father’s drinking.
In a combative Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was facing a sexual-assault allegation from his high school years, Klobuchar set up a question about his drinking habits by first mentioning her own father’s history.
Had Kavanaugh ever blacked out from drinking? Klobuchar asked. He angrily shot back: “Have you?”
Klobuchar responded that she didn’t have a drinking problem. Later in the hearing, Kavanaugh apologized.
“I would say if anything put this into the spotlight, it wasn’t me — it was Judge Kavanaugh,” Klobuchar said later.
The early days of Klobuchar’s presidential campaign were rocked by media reports of mistreatment of her Senate staff, and some national pundits saw a link between that and the stories from her childhood. Klobuchar said she’d been too tough a boss at times. But in the recent interview, she answered “no” when she was asked if that behavior could be linked to her father’s drinking.
Her father’s drinking wasn’t a new story for Minnesotans who have followed her career. Klobuchar talked publicly of her dad’s alcoholism throughout her two decades of public service in Minnesota. She said it often informed her work as a county prosecutor and later U.S. senator.
The younger Klobuchar’s fame has eclipsed that of Jim Klobuchar, now 91 and in memory care at an assisted-living facility in the Twin Cities.
But for decades he was one of Minnesota’s most recognizable media figures: first as a high-profile Minnesota Vikings beat writer for the Minneapolis Star, and then for three decades as a columnist for what eventually became the Star Tribune. The Ely native filed multiple columns weekly, wrote 10 books, hosted radio and TV shows, led mountain climbing expeditions around the world and bicycle trips around the country.
“He had an extraordinary insight into the Minnesota psyche,” said Dave Nimmer, a one-time managing editor of the Star and now a retired journalism professor. Nimmer still visits Jim Klobuchar regularly.
No stranger to controversy, Jim Klobuchar once got suspended by his newspaper after he helped write a speech for his fellow Iron Range native, then-Gov. Rudy Perpich. Amy Klobuchar said her dad’s great passion for politics kindled her own. He was also fond of stunts: For one late-’60s column, he held a piece of chalk in his mouth and let a marksman shoot it out.
Amy Klobuchar was born to Jim and Rose (Heuberger) Klobuchar on May 25, 1960. One of her first memories, she has written, is of her mother crying over a stack of Life magazines on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Jim and Rose had married a few years earlier, and were living in Plymouth. Rose had worked as a teacher, but left the job when Amy was born.
“According to my mom, he didn’t have a drinking problem when they first got married,” Klobuchar said. But by her teenage years, the younger Klobuchar started to see signs.
“One on one, she would mention it to me. She would see him sneaking drinks,” said Heidi Dick, the senator’s friend since high school. “She certainly didn’t let it define her high school experience, but I could tell it concerned her.”
One Thanksgiving, Jim Klobuchar told Rose he wanted a divorce. Fifteen-year-old Amy overheard. Soon she and sister Beth (who now goes by Meagan and doesn’t do interviews) were living with a single mother.
Jim was still a part of her life. They went to Vikings games and on long bike trips. Later he was an energetic campaign volunteer. But, Klobuchar said, “I spent much more time growing up with my mom, by far.” Jim and Rose stayed friends: She picked him up from the police station after the third DWI arrest, almost 20 years after they split. When Rose died in 2010, Amy said, her dad was the first one there.
By the time she was in college, Klobuchar was ready to leave. “Having a dad who was always in the news wasn’t easy,” she wrote. Following one of Jim’s arrests, she said, a classmate scrawled the word “drunk” on her locker. Klobuchar went to Yale and the University of Chicago Law School before returning to Minnesota.
Klobuchar said she applied that knowledge to her own daughter, Abigail Bessler, now 24 and the legislative director for a member of the New York City Council.
“It’s this thing where it is so important when your parent has some fame, to be able to break out and establish your own identity,” Klobuchar said.
As far as she knows, Klobuchar said, her father never drank again after his ’93 arrest. His subsequent column confessing and apologizing for his alcoholism ran on the front page. He retired from the Star Tribune in 1995 and wrote two books in quick succession: one about his journalism career and the other about his drinking.
Jim Klobuchar’s drinking is a story line in both those books, and in his daughter’s memoir, which covers many of the same incidents. But there’s a scene in her book that’s in neither of his, and it shows a fuller portrait of the family that produced Amy Klobuchar.
It was the morning after Jim sprung the divorce on Rose. Amy had run out on foot from their home, spent the night with a friend.
She wrote about it in her 2015 book, four decades after it happened, and described it again last week:
“The next morning when I get back, I remember my friend’s dad bringing me back, and there’s my mom out shoveling the driveway. Stoically doing this. I won’t say resigned. Just kind of mad, there in the snow. But doing it.”