A couple of months ago, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., agreed to go on the air with radio personality Dave Pratt, who regularly chats up country music stars and other celebrities during his morning show on Phoenix radio station KMLE-FM 108.
Pratt always keeps the conversations spontaneous and breezy and the last thing he wanted was a career politician on a soapbox during a re-election campaign.
So he asked Kyl if he’d watched the past weekend’s NASCAR race. Of course, Kyl replied. He’s an unashamed NASCAR wonk. He watches the weekly races on television or listens to them on satellite radio.
Kyl offered the radio audience a spontaneous encyclopedic assessment of current state of stock car racing. He analyzed drivers’ tactics, ran down the changes in the Nextel Cup points standings, and opined on Phoenix International Raceway’s increasing stature with NASCAR.
“I had no idea what a NASCAR fan he was,” Pratt said. “He was definitely into it. I mean, wow.”
The live broadcast went so well, Pratt later called Kyl’s aides to ask whether he would consider doing a weekly segment on NASCAR racing.
Now every Monday morning, between music tracks by Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Alan Jackson, the fourthhighest ranking member of the U.S. Senate analyzes the nuances of race tracks, bumpdrafting and restricter plate regulations.
It’s fitting, really. NASCAR is the only sport that matches Kyl’s pace.
He’s friendly enough, but is always mindful of his schedule. He rarely has the time or the stomach for lengthy oratorical introductions, excessive gladhanding and happy chatter that come so naturally to most politicians. He’s the anti-J.D. Hayworth.
Kyl’s conversations are short, blunt and focused. He’s all business, all the time. His re-election campaign doesn’t have a theme song, because, really, that sort of thing is just a waste of time.
Kyl also tries to maintain his privacy, despite holding public office for 20 years. He declined to be interviewed or photographed for this article at either his town house in Phoenix or at his cabin in the White Mountains. He instead chose to do both at his Phoenix office — between other appointments.
Kyl never planned to enter public office, but he seemed to be steering for it his entire life.
He grew up in Nebraska and Iowa, where his not-quite-namesake father John (with an h) Kyl, a Renaissance man of Great Plains attributes, worked as a farmer, teacher, chamber of commerce executive, clothing store owner and television newscaster.
When an Iowa member of the U.S. House of Representatives announced his intention to retire, friends and colleagues encouraged the elder Kyl to seek his office. After all, he had the business connections and the TV face — and as it turned out, the perseverance. John Kyl lost his first attempt, but won two years later. The son attended a few campaign events, but he was in final years of high school in the town of Bloomfield and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to his father’s latest career move.
Young Jon also was having health issues caused by pneumonia, so his doctor recommended he move to Tucson. He enrolled at the University of Arizona and arrived for class in 1960, never having been west of Nebraska.
During his second or third week at UA, he found his way to a college-level Sunday school class at a local Presbyterian church where he met nursing student Caryll Collins.
The relationship raced forward. Kyl didn’t have her phone number, so he studied the list of Collinses in the Tucson phone directory until he narrowed the likely possibilities to two. He got her on the first call.
She asked him to a Sadie Hawkins dance a couple of weekends later. “We dressed up and went out and danced and decided we liked each other,” Caryll said.
Their courtship brought them back to church frequently. “Her parents lived in Tucson and the bottom line was this: If I wanted to win their hearts, I went to church with them on Sunday mornings,” Kyl said.
Their romance sped along. They married during Kyl’s first year in law school and had their first child nine months later.
A few years after arriving at UA, Kyl took a greater interest in his father’s new political career and filled a summer position in 1963 as an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill.
“Going back to Washington, that was a big deal,” Kyl said. “That was a very historic summer in Washington.”
The civil rights movement took center stage in the months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
On June 11, 1963, the University of Alabama desegregated under the watch of federally deployed National Guard troops. On June 12, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi and days later buried in Arlington National Cemetery. On June 17, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law requiring prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. On July 25, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union agreed to a nuclear test ban treaty. And on Aug. 28, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech before 200,000 demonstrators at the Lincoln Memorial.
Back at UA, Kyl joined the debate team and argued about trade issues, labor policy and health matters. He usually won.
“What that does is prepare you to organize your thoughts into a coherent and usually fairly concise presentation. You don’t have a lot of time, so every word has to count and you marshal your arguments, your evidence,” Kyl said.
Still, he never entertained the idea of entering politics himself.
After he finished law school at UA, he moved the family to Phoenix and practiced law with Jennings, Strouss & Salmon, where he remained on staff for nearly 20 years.
Kyl initially did trial and real estate work, and later focused on water rights issues, largely for the water and electric utility company Salt River Project.
During that time, he prepared three cases for the U.S. Supreme Court. He won all three. The most important was the last big case he handled.
It established two precedents concerning water rights — when different interests within a state compete for water, all claims, including claims by Indian tribes, must be decided by the same court; and furthermore, the proper court is the state court. Indian leaders previously had argued that their claims could be decided separately in federal court.
Kyl became increasingly involved in the Arizona Republican Party scene, worked as a race official at PIR where he was nearly killed by flying wreckage, and served as chairman of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.
Then-U.S. Rep. Eldon Rudd called him on July 4, 1985. “I’m not going to run for reelection next year. I really think you ought to think about it,” Rudd told him, according to Kyl’s recollection.
Kyl discussed it with other Arizona political figures, who encouraged him. He spoke with his professional associates, who encouraged him. He talked to his father, who did not.
The elder Kyl, who by then had served in the House from 1959 to 1965 and 1967 to 1973, was planning to retire and move to Arizona to spend more time with his son’s family.
“He response was very interesting. He said, ‘Why would you want to do that? Most of the guys get elected to Congress so that they can get a job like you’ve got,’ ” Kyl said.
Kyl won the House seat and served from 1987 to 1995.
He planned to challenge Sen. Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat, who was stained in the Keating Five banking and political contribution scandal, but DeConcini retired before he had the chance. Kyl won the open Senate seat and has held it for two terms.
He focuses his energy in Washington on intelligence and counterterrorism measures, border enforcement, immigration, judicial appointments and water rights. He sides with President Bush more than 95 percent of the time, according to an analysis by the magazine Congressional Quarterly.
Kyl is detail-oriented and does his best work behind the scenes, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins recalled that shortly after she took office in 1997, Kyl approached her about a coming vote on a test-ban treaty, an area in which she had little expertise at the time.
He met with Collins in her office, explained each provision in the bill and offered the arguments on both sides of the matter. When she posed a question he couldn’t answer, he arranged for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to brief her.
“You’ll be shocked to learn that some of my senior colleagues don’t take the time to do that sort of thing,” Collins said sarcastically.
Kyl also is a master of the congressional process, an expertise that has earned him national accolades but also occasionally tripped him up.
For instance, Kyl and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., inserted into the Congressional Record what they said was a “live” discussion about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But the exchange turned out to be scripted. Still, Kyl and Graham cited the “conversation” in a Supreme Court brief.
The incident raised questions, especially after Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens took exception to it in a legal case. But Kyl contended the notion of inserting comments into the formal record is a common practice that becomes part of the formal discussion and thus fair game for a legal brief.
He’s adept at walking through political minefields, especially when the issue involves his friends and allies.
He declined to speak out against Bush’s policy on detainees’ treatment because friend and campaign chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was opposing Bush on the torture issue.
Similarly, Kyl avoided criticizing Pederson’s current immigration policy because it’s virtually identical to McCain’s.
In recent weeks, Kyl has been less gentle on Pederson. In this campaign, he’s come up against a well-financed, politically experienced opponent.
But Kyl is in a race. The checkered flag waves for only one.
Jon Kyl in his own words
About his favorite NASCAR driver: “The one I’ve been rooting for strongly this year is Jeff Burton, the 31 car, Richard Childress Racing. I know him a little bit. He’s a family man and a very decent guy and he has a real shot with Childress.”
About working as a motorsports official:
“As I look back on it, it was kind of stupid actually. . . . Stuff was flying off the cars and I remember in one case, something flew by me. If it had been about four feet closer, I wouldn’t be here today.”
About an important learning experience: “I remember that in law school, the first time I went into court, the judge asked me a question and I said, ‘I think . . .’ He said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. I couldn’t care less what you think. Give me some law.’ And I’ve never forgotten that.”
About his middle name, Llewellyn: “It’s a Welsh name and the reason I have that name is that the week that I was born, just a few days before I was born, my parents got word that one of their best friends had died on the Bataan Death March. His name was Llewellyn Whitmore and so they gave me his name.”
About his father’s insight into Congress: “He knew a lot of the vicissitudes.”
About the election: “It’s about a choice between two people. They both graduated from the University of Arizona. They both had humble beginnings. They both had some success in life. One made a lot of money; the other went into public service.”
About Jim Pederson: “He has no experience in dealing with any of these matters. His approach seems to be very superficial, and, frankly, written by other people back in Washington. Many of the parts of his campaign are exactly the same as other Democrats who are running nationally this year.”