WOSTER: A man for all demographicsHall inductee Abourezk didn’t let labels stand in his way.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I won’t do any more South Dakota Hall of Fame inductee stories for a while, I promise, but Jim Abourezk joined the group last weekend, and some attention should be paid to that.
Abourezk grew up in the Wood area. That’s Daily Republic country, or was back in the days when the Mitchell newspaper’s western coverage area reached about as far as Wall. In its glory days, Wood was a small community, but it had a general store and gas station, as I recall, and it had a tavern, I do believe.
Abourezk spent some of his younger years tending bar, a fact that will be of importance a bit later in my tale. He ran for U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat back in 1970. In those days, South Dakota still had two seats in the U.S. House. He ran in the 2nd District, essentially the western half of the state.
It was pretty heavily Republican by political party registration. E.Y. Berry had been the congressman for 20 years by 1970. Over in the East River district, a Republican named Ben Reifel had been in Congress for 10 years. Both Berry and Reifel left Congress in 1970, creating two open seats at just the time when Democrats were making a little noise. Abourezk, a Bobby Kennedy supporter in 1968 who the next year led a referendum drive against a piece of utility legislation championed by then Republican Gov. Frank Farrar, jumped into the West River race. When he won the primary, the wire service sent me to cover his underdog campaign against a Republican from Spearfish.
The time I spent with Abourezk as he campaigned that fall was petty eye-opening for a young reporter. I’d liked politics since I read a book of Washington, D.C., intrigue called “Advise and Consent,” by Allen Drury. This was a little different than the book.
We started early on the streets near the Homestake Mine in Lead, talking with every working man and woman who passed by. He followed that with a union-hall meeting, then a gathering of some women’s group and a deal at a bank in Spearfish or Belle Fourche, another stop at a sale barn in Sturgis, an appearance at an early evening meeting in a Rapid City school auditorium, more sidewalks downtown, a radio interview and, gosh, it was almost midnight.
It isn’t true that he debated an empty chair at the school event. There was a chair for his opponent, who wasn’t there, but Abourezk ignored the chair, working his way through what folks used to call a stem-winder of a speech. When Abourezk got wound up, he could really get it going.
Two other things about that long day:
First, before we entered one meeting, I asked him if he might be wasting his time, since the group he was about to engage was mostly Republican. He looked at me like I might not be the sharpest newspaper guy he’d ever seen, and then he said, rather gently, actually, “Well, Terry, I don’t think there’s much chance I can win if I only get Democrat votes, do you?”
Second, I mentioned that it was almost midnight when we finished that radio interview and some sidewalk glad-handing. We were out front of the Alex Johnson, where I had a room for the night. I said I thought I might turn in. Abourezk said he thought he might hit a couple of bowling alleys because “There are still voters up and going.”
Now, most politicians steer clear of bars and bowling alleys late in the evenings. The chances of an altercation increase with the lateness of the hour.
But, Abourezk had spent a fair amount of time tending bar in his younger days. The after-midnight crowd was just another demographic group to him, although I can’t imagine him using the word.
He won that race, and two years later he was in the U.S. Senate. He served one term and stepped down.
It came as no big surprise to me that, years later when Abourezk wrote an autobiography, he called it “Advise and Dissent.” He was never big at following the beaten path.