Between the Lines: The lessons of Former Gov. Bill Janklow

Some people love him. Some seem to abhor him.

William Janklow proved, in what likely will be his final public appearance last Friday, that he still has the ability to deliver a powerful message.

Janklow announced Friday he is dying of brain cancer but will undergo treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. The Republican had two separate eight-year stints as governor, one starting in 1978 and the other in 1994.

He was elected to the U.S. House in 2002 but resigned after causing a fatal traffic accident in 2003.

News organizations across South Dakota were quick to publish stories that best can be summed up under the heading, "This is Bill Janklow's life." The stories stop just short of being a eulogy, but are enough to cause one to reflect on a single man's life in politics and his effect on the vast landscape of our state.

There are "Janklow moments" that no doubt many South Dakotans wish never happened. The closing of the University of South Dakota at Springfield. The boot camp-like philosophy at the State Training School in Plankinton that contributed to the death of a girl there. The rushed sale of the state cement plant in Rapid City to a company in Mexico. The commutation of the sentences of 36 prisoners at the state penitentiary to ease overcrowding.

There are other examples, however, in which the former governor endeared himself to his fellow citizens. Who can help but feel a bit of gratitude when thinking of how he single-handedly led the response in Spencer following its destruction by a tornado?

He changed South Dakota drastically for the better by recruiting Citibank here. Janklow provided legislation in 1995 that changed state aid to schools and cut local property taxes. He helped save rail service in much of the state and was a national leader in connecting classrooms to the Internet.

He thrust himself into a variety of situations in a classic, no-holds barred style. His methods made his opponents weary, and encouraged his proponents to not hesitate to defend his sometimes bombastic method of doing things.

There's no question that he got things done. Sometimes, he didn't care how many people were upset at the manner in which he reached his agenda.

Looking back during his time of service in South Dakota, Janklow proved to be a good teacher. His lessons included how to best get things done, and, at times, in a style that was never perfect, how not to approach a problem.

In the process, he formed some strong "unlikely" friendships.

In the late 1990s, Janklow was leading the pack in political influence within South Dakota's borders. Then U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle was, at the time one of the most influential and powerful men of the Democratic Party in Washington, DC, rising to the ranks of Senate minority leader.

One might expect that, once you mix these two men together, you'd naturally get a highly partisan debate on whose political philosophy is more fitting to help entice fundamental progress both nationally and in South Dakota.

Daschle and Janklow proved that's hardly the case, however. The two men, in their years of working on similar issues together, grew to be close friends. They learned that cooperation, not political bickering, leads to progress.

Daschle and Janklow discussed their political philosophies in a joint appearance in February 1999 on the University of South Dakota campus. The W.O. Farber Center for Civic Leadership hosted the event, entitled "When Partisans Become Allies: A Conversation with Gov. Bill Janklow and Sen. Tom Daschle."

Daschle said during the program that people often get the idea that Republicans and Democrats never get along because the media has a tendency to focus on conflict rather than positive political accomplishments.

"I think part of it is media-driven, and I'm not blaming the media," Janklow said. "There are always people who are trying to spin their stories. Politics has gotten to the point where the derogatory gets attention. It's those people who want to try to stop something that get all of the press."

The notion of term limits, both in the state Legislature, and in Congress, he added, is devastating.

"South Dakota has waited 110 years to have a senior person in a political party in a position where Sen. Daschle is," Janklow said at the 1999 forum. "He's four or five Senate seats away from being the majority leader. Good grief! Is there anybody in this state that doesn't understand the significance of that, what it means for South Dakota, what it means if he's a person who performs for this state, and we should subject him to term limits and throw him out, just because his time is up? What kind of new-tech idea is that?"

"Bill Janklow is one of the smartest men I know," Daschle said. The audience erupted in laughter and applause.

Daschle's response to Janklow's comments not only elicited a strong response from the capacity crowd in Farber Hall. It also demonstrated the true friendship that was forged as these two political titans of the state worked together.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin also pointed out Janklow's willingness to set aside political ideology and cross philosophical and even party lines to get things done. She lost to Janklow in the 2002 U.S. House race only to gain the seat in a special election in 2004, after Janklow resigned.

"Especially these days, people want to quickly label people on the ideological spectrum," Herseth Sandlin told the Rapid City Journal. "And that's very hard to do with Bill. And I think that speaks volumes for him and what kind of leader he has been for South Dakota."

Today we live in a day and age when it seems about the only thing for certain to be accomplished in Washington is partisan bickering by politicians of every stripe. Let's hope, as our state continues to reflect on the life and times of Bill Janklow, that we never forget what he and Daschle learned from experience – cooperation, not political bickering, leads to progress.

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