The Washington Post, in a front page story on Friday, declared that the career of Congressman Bill Janklow (R-SD) is over. Unfortunately, the Post’s prediction is virtually certain to be correct. That having been said, I will always be grateful to Janklow for facing down the left at a key moment in our history.
Janklow is perhaps South Dakota’s most enduring politician. He was elected Attorney General of the state in the 1970s. Then, he was twice elected Governor. South Dakota’s constitution forbids governors from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms. However, once a governor sits out four years, he can run again. Janklow had been gone from the governor’s mansion for nearly eight years when he decided to run again for his old post. He was elected governor in 1994 and reelected four years later. His fourth term was coming to a close in 2002 when the state’s at-large congressman vacated his seat to run for the U.S. Senate and so, after having served nearly sixteen years as governor, Janklow set his sights on Washington and won.
Actually, Janklow had tried once before to be sent to Washington. He ran in the Republican primary against then-U.S. senator Jim Abdnor in 1986. Janklow had argued that Abdnor, who had defeated George McGovern in 1980, was too weak to be re-elected to a second term. Janklow was indeed right, but South Dakota’s Republican voters handed him a rare, albeit narrow, defeat. As it turned out, Abdnor then lost reelection to then-U.S. representative Tom Daschle (D).
Throughout his long career, Janklow was known for having a lead foot when it came to driving. He even acknowledged this a few years ago when delivering a State of the State address to the legislature. Only Janklow wore his many citations for speeding as a badge of honor. As it often does, the penchant for speeding catches up with those that have it and, unfortunately, Janklow was no exception. A few days ago, Janklow, traveling about 75 miles per hour in a 55 m.p.h. zone, ran a stop sign and struck and killed a motorcyclist. Charges are pending.
Meanwhile, go back to 1986. We had put together what became known as the Religious Right. We had been successful in activating religious people to get involved in the political process.
The left, still reeling from their stinging defeats in 1980 and 1984, was starting to regroup. People for the American Way announced that it had assembled a coalition of leftist groups that would confront the Religious Right wherever we were active. They would paint the activities of religious activists as illegitimate.
I decided that this had to be met head on. So, I was able to persuade a Catholic priest, a prominent Religious Right minister, and an Orthodox Jewish rabbi to appear at a press conference with me to confront head on what People for the American Way intended to do.
Still, the effort lacked political credibility. I had dealt with then-governor Janklow on several projects during the last few years. I called Janklow, explained the situation, and asked if he would join us at this press conference. He was somewhat reluctant at first, not because he didn’t agree with the project but because of the time commitment of flying to and from Washington. He also had to receive clearance to use the state plane.
It was touch and go but he did come and thank God that he was able to make it. Our press conference was carried on C-SPAN and played again and again and again. Janklow was fantastic. Whereas our clergy panel was rather polite, Janklow seared People for the American Way. He was very tough and he warned that if the leftists did try to intimidate people from the Religious Right from exercising their constitutional rights they would find themselves dealing with him. He was so credible that after the leftists watched this performance they were nowhere to be found in the 1986 elections and haven’t been seen since.
Janklow was known for being decisive and tough throughout his long political career. Observers in South Dakota were amazed that this four-term governor would want to serve in the House, where an individual member, unless he becomes a committee chairman, has a hard time exercising any executive authority. But Janklow gave no indication that he was dissatisfied in being a congressman. Some say he was biding his time so he could take on Senator Tim Johnson (D), who had to rely on significant help from Senator Daschle last year to just barely win reelection.
Now that confrontation will almost certainly never happen. Even if Congressman Janklow manages to escape the most serious charges that could be imposed, killing a motorcyclist will always haunt him because the incident clearly was his fault.
It is a most unfortunate end to a remarkable political career, one that during a shining moment, found the then-governor coming face to face with evil and prevailing. Perhaps the Good Lord will have mercy on Bill Janklow because of that moment of courage.
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