A South Dakota hero has a great fall

  I was probably the only 3-year-old in South Dakota to own a "Janklow Sucks" t-shirt during Bill Janklow's second of four terms as governor. Janklow served two terms from 1978 to 1986 and two more from 1994 to 2002; in 2002 we elected him to represent our state -- which has fewer people than metro Tucson -- in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Our longtime leader inspired strong reactions from nearly everybody in South Dakota, ranging from disgust to adulation. Judging by the length of his career, most felt admiration. My parents who outfitted me so outrageously stood with the minority. So I'm not the best constituent to write an elegy for my representative's political career. Here goes nothing.

On Aug. 16, Janklow's Cadillac hit a Harley-Davidson and killed its rider--a farmer, volunteer firefighter and Vietnam veteran. Janklow drove through a rural stop sign at 71 mph. On Monday, Dec. 8, a jury in his hometown convicted him of second-degree manslaughter and reckless driving. After the verdict, he resigned from Congress, leaving South Dakota unrepresented in the House until he is replaced sometime next year.

Janklow's tragic flaw was his arrogance. That road was his, and no motorcycle had any business being there. Though no police officer dared give him a ticket while he was governor, Janklow collected a dozen speeding tickets in one four-year period between terms. But in that flaw gleamed his allure to voters. The rationale was something like, "He's a little harsh, but by God he gets things done." More importantly, he talked a tough line.

You could hear it in the 1970s, when, as a newly elected attorney general, he complained, "Ten years ago a person in this state didn't have to lock his car door." Many South Dakotans mourned the same small-town paradise lost, and at the time followed Janklow in blaming it largely on the radical American Indian Movement. Only months before he was elected attorney general in 1974, Janklow famously remarked, "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leaders' heads and pull the trigger." His most significant victory over Indian activists, however, was a tear gas attack on some young Yankton Sioux activists -- not involved with AIM -- who occupied a pork-processing plant for a day.

As governor, Janklow created the illusion of lowering crime rates by converting the University of South Dakota at Springfield into a prison, and later by building juvenile boot camps in the state. In 1999, at one of those camps, a young girl collapsed and died during a summer training regimen. Janklow blamed low-level officials and rolled through the scandal.

In his 2002 legislative agenda, he updated his fear-baiting: "It will blow your mind to see how quickly perverts jump on the Internet with kids…. (W)e need to get them locked up." Locks on the prison, he hoped, would end the need for locks on cars.

The first time I saw Janklow in person, I was eight, dragged by my dad to a political meeting. The governor wore a gray suit. My chest tightened in my sweatshirt; it was not as if I'd glimpsed a movie star or the president -- he was more like a bogeyman.

In a state like South Dakota, we often spot our politicians standing in line at the movie theater or wiping chocolate sundae off their chins at the Zesto. Bill Janklow was different. In high school I lived in the state capital, Pierre, during his third term as governor. One day in physics class, my friend Matt related an odd encounter from the night before. He'd been cruising at 28 mph in a 30 mph zone along Pierre’s main artery, when a Cadillac's headlights surged up behind. The car tailgated Matt past the capitol, then roared up beside him. The impatient driver barked, "Too damn slow! You're driving too damn slow!"

The driver, of course, was Gov. Janklow. His desire to control the road, and the state, looks much darker now in retrospect. But we should have seen this tragic accident coming. South Dakota's voters gave Janklow the right to drive like a tornado, and, in such a small-town state, it was only a matter of time before he swept someone down. Maybe the jury recognized the small role they as voters played in Randy Scott's death; I hope my fellow South Dakotans have come to see that Janklow's crusade for order finally resulted in disorder.

Janklow's fall marks the end of an era in my state's history, a full quarter of South Dakota's statehood and a reign older than I am. Though I was raised to rail against him, I can't deny that Janklow shaped me more than any other politician probably ever will.

Josh Garrett-Davis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is an editorial intern at the paper.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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