Sometimes when I used to report on the South Dakota Legislature, I’d keep a separate file of funny or interesting quotes I heard in interviews, in committee meetings or in the halls outside the House or Senate.
My friend David Kranz called that practice “carrying a second notebook.’’ Some reporters, I gather, actually did carry a second notebook to store up the odds and ends that didn’t fit in any active story but that might someday be useful in a story or column. I usually just wrote such tidbits in the back of whatever notebook I happened to be working with that day. Later at the computer I’d transfer them to an electronic file.
(This might be a good place to note that while Kranz told people to carry that second notebook, he rarely did it himself. At least that’s what I observed when I watched him work. He’d often return to the press room with a battered reporter’s notebook that had scribbling on every page as well as on the back and front covers, along the margins of pages and wherever else he could find room to write even two or three words. He’d also sometimes return with a pocketful of napkins, too, and other scrap paper he’d written on after he ran out of notebook room. A time or two early on, he wrote things on the inside of matchbook covers he found on windowsills or desk corners. A second notebook would have been simpler, but it was a kick to watch Kranz frantically patting his pockets while a messy pile of ink-covered napkins sat next to his keyboard.)
Anyway, every so often, usually to give readers a break from the stories of the important stuff, I’d pull up my electronic second notebook and compile those quotes into a story. I thought those stories added a human element to a process that sometimes seems complicated, distant and heartless. I recalled those kinds of stories the other day when a lobbyist friend posted a comment during a discussion of ethics, news reporting and politics. The talk was about whether to take “freebies.’’ My friend quoted what he called a “legendary’’ lobbyist as having said, “If you can’t eat my steak and drink my whiskey tonight and vote against me in the morning, you shouldn’t be in Pierre.’’
In an evening committee many years ago, I heard a similar sentiment. An old-timer from out west told his colleagues something to this effect: “Yes, I went to their dinner. If they think that means I owe them a vote, they don’t think much of me. And I don’t think much of them.’’
I remember talking with a legislator from Herrick, down in Tripp County about the business of voting on issues. Harold Sieh became a legislative leader. He chaired the House Appropriations Committee for some years, and while he had legislative power, he never really became comfortable with exercising it.
“If you can sleep at night during session,’’ he said once, “you’re probably arrogant or not very bright.’’
He was involved in the vote that turned the state college campus at Springfield into a state prison. He said it was the most difficult vote he took in all his legislative years. “It’s one of those votes that breaks your heart.’’
For many years, a quiet, unassuming guy named Curt Jones represented Democrats in the northeast part of the state. He became fast friends with a Republican lawyer from Yankton named Don Bierle. They disagreed on a bunch of issues, but they always laughed about it. Bierle once described Jones to me this way, “He’ll give you that grin and that ‘aw, shucks’ manner, like he’s kicking a clod in a corn field, and skewer your best bill while you’re still feeling sorry for him.’’
Many years after he left the Legislature, I saw Jones at a public meeting on some tax issue. I asked if he’d ever consider running for the Legislature again. He gave that “aw, shucks’’ grin and shook his head. “I’d forgotten how much talk there is compared to results.’’
Results are important, but sometimes the talk makes for good stories.