WOSTER: Janklow: Man of his (last) wordIf you were a news reporter, you fought with Gov. Bill Janklow. It came with the territory.
If you were a news reporter, you fought with Gov. Bill Janklow. It came with the territory.
Janklow died this week at the age of 72. He was a member of the U.S. Congress after he served as governor and attorney general before, but I always called him Governor.
“It’s just Bill.”
“Not a chance, Governor.”
I mean, he served as governor twice as long as any other South Dakotan in history — 16 years in a span of 24 from 1979 through 2002. Simply put, he was the single most constant presence in my career as a reporter.
After he had been governor for a while, most reporters had become aware that he didn’t mind grabbing the telephone to explain what he thought was inaccurate in a story or what he didn’t like about the way an issue was handled. When he first came to Pierre to work in the attorney general’s office as a special prosecutor, not many reporters had worked around a public figure quite so, ah, “direct” in his press relations.
I had my first fight with Janklow in 1973, while he was working for Attorney General Kermit Sande. “Fight” is a pretty dramatic word. What happened in our first encounter was this: I wrote a story based on an interview. He didn’t like what I’d written. He sought me out, told me what he found objectionable, and we argued about it for a while. I thought he was wrong. He thought I was wrong. Each of us pressed our thoughts vigorously.
We argued about a lot of stories over the years. It wasn’t always pleasant. I disliked confrontation. He didn’t seem to mind it so much. I can say I became a more accomplished reporter through my dealings with him. I made sure I read bills and reports before I asked him questions about them. I did my homework on issues. I tried to frame questions in specifics, not generalities. Those are all pretty basic things for a reporter, I know, but it’s easy to get lazy.
He did not take kindly to lazy reporters. A great way to initiate a healthy give-and-take was to say, “Governor, a lot of people say . . .”
Certain response: “What people? Who says that?”
By the nature of our positions, we shared numerous South Dakota events and experiences over the years. I recall a trip from Pierre to Aberdeen in his vehicle as he campaigned for the Republican nomination for governor in 1978. The engine overheated on the return trip. We stood in an empty farmyard halfway between Aberdeen and Redfield watching water trickle from a drain spout into a jar. I think it took several fills of the jar to replenish the radiator so we could get back on the road. Thinking back over the years, I still find it hard to believe someone who became so influential in this state was ever standing in a light drizzle in a muddy farmyard trying to catch enough water to fill a radiator, but there you go.
I watched him stand out in the mansion yard one evening and give my younger son instructions on hitting a thrown baseball. His approach to that task was every bit as intense as his approach to political issues. The younger kid shed a few tears when his batting coach moved out of the mansion late that year.
Our arguments seemed to decrease in number and intensity over the years. Perhaps each of us mellowed as we grew older, and perhaps we picked our confrontations more carefully. One of the last significant arguments came not over news but medical choices. As I made plans for cancer surgery, I got a summons to the executive office and a stern directive to get another opinion before the procedure. We discussed it quite a long while, actually, considering that South Dakota was in the middle of a legislative session and we both had other things to do.
I stood firm. A couple of nights later, the phone rang at my home. Nancy answered. Bill Janklow was on the line, suggesting she and I read a new report on prostate cancer he had read in one of the medical journals.
It was a point to me for standing firm, I guess. Last word to Janklow. Who’d have figured that?