Woster: Abourezk was the happy, gently sarcastic warrior of politics

After one term in the House, he ran for U.S. Senate and won. He served one six-year term and retired from elective politics.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Former U.S. Sen. Jim Abourezk, a loud, laughing and hard-charging guy who never really conformed to the way Congress operates, died this past week. He was 92.

Born in Wood and raised in the Rosebud country in south-central South Dakota, Abourezk worked at all manner of jobs — bouncer, rancher, car salesman and engineer in the western South Dakota missile fields — before earning a law degree and, in 1970, winning a seat in the U.S. House.

After one term in the House, he ran for U.S. Senate and won. He served one six-year term and retired from elective politics. I always figured he was too unconventional to put up with the slow pace and stuffed shirts in Washington, D.C.

If, as they say, Hubert Humphrey was the Happy Warrior of politics, Jim Abourezk was the happy, gently sarcastic warrior. Sometimes, his sarcasm was not gentle. He did not suffer fools gladly or quietly. On the other hand, he accepted, reached out to, those society had blessed with neither position nor privilege.

Abourezk was great fun for a reporter to cover. If he was happy, you knew it. If he was angry, you knew it. If he was tired, well, I guess I never stayed up long enough to see him tired. He was tireless. I saw that when I covered his public activities.


One evening in the 1970 race, he did a version of the empty-chair debate when his Republican opponent didn’t respond to an invitation for a joint appearance. Years later, as a U.S. senator at a Rapid City rally for presidential candidate Morris “Mo’’ Udall, Abourezk strapped on a guitar and joined the house band to sing a rollicking version of “Rag-time Cowboy Mo.’’ The audience, mostly senior citizens, ate it up.

“I need to attract attention,’ he told me in the fall of 1970 as we rode through the Black Hills after a pre-dawn meeting with gold miners at a union hall in Lead. “If I don’t get Republican votes as well as Democrats, I don’t have a chance.’’

After the Lead meeting, he walked neighborhoods in Belle Fourche, stopped at a home where a volunteer’s basement printing press churned out campaign material, made a run through the Sturgis sale barn during a cattle auction and headed for Rapid City to shake as many hands as he could reach.

Around 10 p.m., we parted ways outside my downtown hotel. I headed for bed. Abourezk headed back to the campaign trail. Bars and bowling alleys were still open, he said. A lot of potential voters were still awake.

Campaigning in a bowling alley or a bar this late? Sounds like trouble, I said. His hearty laugh turned heads all along the street. I think I can handle it, he said.

Abourezk was solidly built, a block of a man who, indeed, looked like he could handle himself. When we first met, I thought of those old-time dairy workers who tossed heavy milk and cream cans around like stuffed teddy bears. I could picture him charging head-long at any opponent, without hesitation. A bouncer in a tavern learns never to hesitate.

As he served his years in Congress, I could imagine him being frustrated as all get out by the pace and ceremony. He wanted to charge ahead, not hold another planning meeting.

Unlike many, Abourezk was never in danger of hanging on too long in Congress. He used his time there to advocate for native people and others without a voice. Then he left to continue the fight in other arenas.


Our last real conversation came when he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. I had the honor of introducing him at a luncheon. Before the program, we reminisced with much laughter about people and events from early days. As the serving line opened for the brunch, he grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Are you going to tell about the time I had myself paged over the loudspeaker at the Sturgis sale barn?’’

I was and did. It was classic Jim Abourezk. And when I told the story, he laughed as hard as anyone else in the place.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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