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LAWRENCE: Abdnor knew how to take a joke -- even one on him

When people talk about Jim Abdnor, they don't bring up a long list of legislative accomplishments, or recall a stirring speech he gave during his more than 30 years in politics and government.

They talk about the man, the humble guy from Kennebec who rose to the U.S. Senate. And they also smile, because Jim Abdnor was funny, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

He was usually in on the joke, according to the staffers and friends who worked with him and remained close to him after he left public office in 1989.

Abdnor knew people got a kick out of his at-times goofy manner. Mitchell City Councilman Ken Tracy was a longtime friend of Abdnor and last saw him a few days before he died.

Tracy said his family was close friends with Abdnor. "Everybody in Kennebec lives pretty close, just a few blocks away," he said. Tracy worked for Abdnor, traveled with him and greatly admired him.

But Tracy said Abdnor was also a comedic character at times.

Abdnor took Tracy and a friend to the movies once, and they entered the theater in the dark. Abdnor tried to move slowly through the crowd, but he tripped. Pop and popcorn flew through the air, and people erupted in laughter. A few weeks later, they decided to try it again. This time, Abdnor said, they would sit in aisle seats. Once again, the theater was dark. Abdnor moved toward a seat and plopped down -- right on top of a woman who was already seated there.

Tracy laughed recalling the stories. After a while, Abdnor laughed it off, too, he said. I witnessed an event that left egg on Abdnor's face as well. It was 1980, and Abdnor was leading George McGovern in all polls in their Senate race. It was a year when the Reagan Revolution was rolling across America.

McGovern struggled for issues that would boost his chances. He challenged Abdnor to a debate and the Republican, with his slight speech impediment and no great talent at public speaking, turned him down.

McGovern tried to make it a major issue, but it seemed to have little traction.

Enter Gerald Ford.

Ford was a former president who had discussed running as Ronald Reagan's vice-presidential candidate that summer. He was still a popular national figure.

Ford came to Sioux Falls on Sept, 12, 1980, to endorse Abdnor. I was a student journalist at South Dakota State University. My friend and fellow SDSU Collegian staffer Pat Butler, now the managing editor of the Rapid City Journal, and I decided to cover the event.

After the room was swept by the Secret Service, forcing the assembled national and local media to leave our coats, notebooks and cameras behind, Ford took to the podium. Abdnor and Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican then in his first Senate term, sat behind him.

Ford gave a brief speech endorsing Abdnor and called for questions. Chuck Raasch, the first reporter to pop up, asked him what he thought of debates in campaigns, since President Carter, Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson were also squabbling over sharing a stage.

Ford was asked, "Should all candidates take part in debates?"

You could see the pleading in Abdnor's eyes: Don't do it, Jerry!

But Ford, who had curtly and profanely declined to be briefed on the South Dakota Senate race by Abdnor's team before the event, plowed ahead.

Mike Freeman, whom I knew from SDSU campus politics, was a 22-yearold press secretary on that Senate campaign. Mike told me recently that Ford, who was nursing a sore knee and was a bit cranky, was certain he didn't need to be advised what to say during the press conference.

So he answered the debate question, not realizing the damage he was doing.

Debates are a key part of American politics, the former president said, unwittingly taking McGovern's side. Every campaign should include debates, Ford said.

Abdnor looked stunned.

The news reports and headlines, including one in The Daily Republic, all had the same theme: Ford calls for debates! Abdnor, a staffer told The Daily Republic, was privately furious.

But he survived that bit of friendly fire in the campaign. Abdnor went on to crush McGovern and earn his only term in the Senate.

When I discussed the story with Lee Schoenbeck, a former state senator who was an aide and friend to Abdnor, he said Abdnor recalled it all too well over the years.

In fact, he would tell it time and again over the years, reveling in the unexpected humor in politics and life. His staffers and friends chuckle about it now, too.

And that's a good way to remember Jim Abdnor -- wearing a smile and laughing.