By Brooke Goggans
If you listen to National Public Radio, you’ve heard the voice of White House Correspondent Tamara Keith, who is currently reporting from the campaign trail. While Keith didn’t set out to cover politics, she knew early on that she was destined to be an NPR reporter. After working in different roles in public radio, Keith settled on the East Coast after landing her dream job at NPR in 2009. A native of California, Keith is married with a 3 1/2-year-old son. Like all working moms, she’s navigating career and family and shares with us why it is important that she makes the distinction that for her, “Life is not hard. It’s complicated but not hard.”
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Southern California. From the time I was 6 months old until I was 8, I was a child actor and model because I grew up in L.A.—and I guess that’s what you do when you’re in L.A. When I was 1, I was in an ad for the California Milk Advisory Board. I was in a diaper, on a billboard.
When did you realize that you were more interested in telling stories than being an actor in the story?
I knew that I was a writer for a long time. I first remember thinking of myself as a writer in elementary school. In fifth grade, I wrote a full-length play that my classmates performed. While many of my classmates were performing in A Christmas Carol, I wrote a play for the rest of us about orphan girls. I knew that I liked writing, and I even sadly, pathetically, went to a summer art camp where all the other kids were dancers and musicians, and my talent was writing poetry, which is not a talent you want at camp where there’s a talent show.
Looking at your career, was there a defining moment when you felt you became a journalist?
There’s so many times when we feel like we’re just playing a part. But there was one awesome moment when it felt like I had done something; when I realized I was pretty good at asking politicians questions that would get good answers. I was in Sacramento, California, and then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was having a press conference, and the state was about to have a cash-flow problem because of a budget fight. I don’t remember the specific details of the budget issue, but as the press conference was winding down, I shouted out to Governor Schwarzenegger something like, “But sir, aren’t you concerned about the state running out of cash?” And he pulled his money clip out of his pocket and said, “Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve got plenty of cash right here,” which of course made the front page of every paper because here’s the Governor holding a huge money clip, flaunting, and there was a real serious issue for the state.
You’ve been covering this presidential cycle. What do you wish more voters knew about this election?
I’ve been wishing for more issues coverage and less horse race. But I think that’s a perennial wish. NPR launched a series this week that I’m really proud of called Politics in Real Life, where we’re actually looking in-depth at some of these issues, like paid family leave and high out-of-pocket costs for health care. We’re starting to really key in on the things affecting peoples’ lives. That is the challenge but also the gift of election coverage in that the potential exists to hear from real people who are motivated to be interested in politics because of something that is happening in their lives.
What is one story that you hope to tell?
I did this series in 2011 where I followed six people who were unemployed, and it’s the highlight of my career-life. It was a really meaningful story and a meaningful experience for me as a reporter. I’d love to do another year with them and chart how the great recession changed their lives, and how it changed all of our lives.
And you know, I’d also like to interview Beyoncé.
What’s a typical day like for you?
There’s no such thing as a typical day. There’s no predictability ever. They say your kids should have routines. How can my kid have routines? I don’t have routines. Right now with the campaign, I’m either on the road or I’m not on the road. If I am on the road, sometimes the day goes from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. and involves being on the radio multiple times, writing a feature and going to three campaign events and everything starts sounding the same. Somehow you’re searching for something new and sometimes I do find something new and big ideas emerge, which is really rewarding. But when I’m at the White House, you get in at 9:30 am and there’s a briefing in the middle of the day and sometimes all hell breaks loose and sometimes it doesn’t. There is just no typical day.
You have a demanding job, a husband and young child. How do you make your life work?
Well, we sort of had a plan: We were married for six years before we had a baby, which was all very much planned. What wasn’t exactly planned was me covering politics and the demands that comes with the political life. My husband and I met in college, and we are both very ambitious people. We complement each other incredibly well, and we’re obviously very forgiving because we understand ambition. He has not scaled back his ambition in the last three and a half years. So we’re both going full speed. Even when I’m on the road, I’m the household logistics coordinator. But I think it is absolutely important and valuable for my kid to see his mom doing really cool stuff and to see his mom having her career—her dream career. I think that’s good for him.
How do you manage all the pressures and challenges of the working-mom conundrum?
Here’s the thing—and I think this is an important distinction—I don’t actually have it that hard. I have a job where we feel very important about ourselves, but it’s not hard. I have a supportive husband and a job that pays me enough that I can afford childcare, and yeah, it’s complicated and it’s one big problem-solving challenge. Every time you think you have a normalized system, everything changes. But I’m very, very lucky. A complicated life is one thing, a hard life is another. So many of the people I meet on the campaign trail don’t have the built-in support system that I have due to circumstances and economic conditions. I interview people who are choosing between feeding themselves and keeping the heat on for their babies. I know how fortunate I am, and I’m lucky that on a good day I get to tell these people’s stories.
What’s the most working-mom story that you have?
I was recently on the campaign bus and got a phone call from the teacher telling me that my son had bitten another kid in school, so I was having to try to mediate that issue while the bus was barreling down the highway. It turns out he was pretending to be a shark. That’s the defense. I realized that he was missing me and acting out while I was out of town.
Is there anything you do to make the travel easier on him?
We started doing various things to try to manage that transition and make it easier for him and for me. I would start freaking out right before a trip because it’s hard to leave your kid, which meant I was freaking out every week. I stopped short of going to Pinterest, but I created a white board calendar. I went to Michael’s Crafts and everything. I bought scrap-booking stickers and put them on magnets, so there would be airplanes and logos for each state that we could indicate where I was and whether I was out of town or not. It was really quite helpful and still is. And then I bought extra copies of his favorite books and took them with me, so wherever I am we FaceTime for story time. I have now read stories at Hillary Clinton rallies, Bernie Sanders rallies, in high school gymnasiums, on moving buses. I hide in janitor closets where Secret Service guys tell me I can go to find a quiet space.
What do you hope your son learns from the life you and your husband are creating?
This might sound silly, but I play softball in the Congressional Women’s Softball Game. One of the coolest moments of his early life, I took him to the batting cages with me and every time I hit a ball he would say, “Wow!” And I thought, a little boy can look up to his mommy in lots of different ways, and as he grows up I want him to see an equal partner.
What do you do for yourself to relax?
I run whenever I can. If I haven’t run in a week I start getting tense or stressed or generally not in a good place, and my husband will say, “When is the last time you went for a run?” It’s like on the movie Inside Out, when they’re sorting all the little glowing balls in the brain. That’s running for me; it sorts things.
If you could have anything real or make believe to make your life easier, what would it be?
I once had a friend say I needed to get a nanny for me—and this is before I had a child. That would still be nice, a personal nanny, or maybe an extra hour every day to exercise. Then I would never have to choose between sleep and exercise.