The Tragedy That Shaped Tim Kaine
The most painful part of Sen. Tim Kaine’s résumé is one reason why Hillary Clinton has added him to her ticket.
Editor's Note: Clinton indeed selected Kaine as her running mate.
When Seung-Hui Cho sprayed bullets at Colin Goddard and his classmates in a Virginia Tech French class on April 16, 2007, Tim Kaine—then Virginia’s governor—was in Japan. Despite that, Kaine was the first public official, elected or otherwise, to visit Goddard in the hospital.
In an election year where the rate of mass-casualty events at home and abroad has raised questions on how the candidates would help heal shaken communities, Kaine has the unfortunate credential of having done just that.
His response to the Virginia Tech massacre and its aftermath—at that point the largest mass shooting in U.S. history—won him loyal admirers on both sides of the aisle.
When Cho opened fire, Kaine—now a Democratic U.S. senator and a rumored top contender to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate—wasn’t anywhere near Blacksburg, Virginia.
He had just left for a trade mission to Asia. When staff woke him in the middle of the night, just five hours after he landed in Tokyo, he immediately decided to get back to Virginia. But getting a flight to take you halfway around the globe takes time, even if you’re a governor, so he passed the hours hanging around the Tokyo airport, watching the news on TV, and feeling, in the words of one of his staffers, “powerless.” When he finally got back to the U.S., he flew into Washington and then to Blacksburg on Air Force One with President George W. Bush and the first lady. They would speak to the Virginia Tech student body at a convocation ceremony.
Kevin Hall, then his press secretary, met him when the plane landed. Hall said he hadn’t been able to communicate much with Kaine, so he called a grief counselor and found a few Bible verses that he thought the governor might be able to use in his remarks, cramming his notes onto index cards and scraps of paper.
“As soon as the governor landed, I rushed up just to see what he needed and if he could use anything I’d prepared,” Hall said. “And I remember him thanking me for it and going, ‘I think I’m going to be ok.”
Delacey Skinner, his communications director at the time, said she talked with him over the phone about the general points he wanted to hit: that people should seek comfort in each other. Then governor—still jetlagged from two trans-Pacific flights—spoke to the student body without notes.
“You can go beyond grief to isolation and feeling despair,” he said, addressing the families of the deceased. “Those haunting words that were uttered on a hill on Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’ Despair is a natural emotion at a time like this. They’re all natural, they’re all appropriate. But let me ask one thing of you, this community, as you wrestle with your sadness, as you wrestle with your own feelings of anger, of confusion, as you wrestle with the despair—even you family members who have lost people close: You do not let hold of that spirit of community that makes Virginia Tech such a special place. Do not lose hold of that.”
He praised the students for the way they supported each other—“You taught something good yesterday, even on a dark day, to people all around the world, and the world needs that example put forward”—and talked about the story of Job and urged the students not to lose their sense of community. And in one of the worst days in Virginia history, he offered comfort.
“It really was a remarkable thing, that this jetlagged guy knew the right tone and the right thing to say to a community that was just wrenched with grief,” Hall said.
It was no small thing.
Tucker Martin, then a press secretary for the state’s Republican attorney general, Bob McDonnell, said Kaine’s words helped the community start to heal.
“Say what you will about someone’s political positions,” he said. “In a moment of crisis, you learn about their character, and I think that moment spoke volumes for Gov. Kaine.”
Kaine and his staff stayed in Blacksburg for a few days after the shooting, meeting with parents and visiting hospitalized survivors. That’s when he spoke with Goddard, who had been hit by four bullets.
“Gov. Kaine was in Japan and he was actually the first official to make it to my bedside—sooner than anybody from Virginia Tech or anywhere else in the state of Virginia, and he was across the globe,” Goddard said. “That, I think, just really shows the kind of person that Sen. Kaine is, and that he’s been always concerned with the wellbeing of those directly impacted by tragedy first.”
Goddard said he was on a morphine drip for the governor’s visit, so he didn’t remember much of their conversation. But the visit still had an impact.
“I love the guy,” he said.
Goddard went on to become involved with organizations pushing for tighter gun laws, including Everytown for Gun Safety, where he is a senior policy advocate. His father, Andrew, also started doing advocacy work on the issue, currently as legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety.
“[Kaine]’s a very empathetic person,” Goddard’s father said. “He understood, I think, the effect it was having on our family, being involved in such a huge national issue, and he was very open.”
Hall said the governor’s time in Blacksburg wasn’t heavily scheduled or coordinated; there weren’t staffers doing advance work or setting up photo-ops. Instead, they went from hospital to hospital meeting with survivors and their families. And they sat in on meetings between law enforcement, university leaders, and family members.
In the following weeks and months, Kaine worked with Republicans to close a legal loophole that let the shooter purchase his guns. And he set up a review panel to examine how the school responded to the attack and make recommendations. The college and the state began the arduous process of healing, and now—eclipsed by a host of other horrifying mass-casualty events— the Virginia Tech massacre feels more like a piece of history than a source of grief. But in the forty-eight hours or so after it happened, that healing didn’t seem inevitable. And many are still grateful to Kaine that the pain wasn’t worse.
“He made really tough, really quick decisions,” Martin said. “He was empathetic, he was measured, and he was very, very strong. In hindsight, it all probably looks fairly simple -- of course he did what he did. But in the moment, thinking about the decisions he had to make, he got them right.”