Woster: Is there any bipartisan camaraderie left?

You don’t see many straight-forward apologies by elected officials these days.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

One of the first examples of actual bipartisan harmony I witnessed as a South Dakota legislative reporter occurred near the end of the 1970 session.

It was a Thursday evening. Legislators would adjourn for good the next day, having finished everything they were going to get done that session. A mid-morning start on Friday, a few procedural matters and they would scatter back to their homes. It was a time to kick back a little.

That is what Joe Barnett, a Republican from Aberdeen, and Jack Adams, a Democrat from Chamberlain, did. They shared a meal at a local motel, laughing at memories of a few of the session’s quirky moments. Then they started singing, old standards, mostly Irish ballads. I found it remarkable.

I was young and it was all new to me, but even today I remember what an outstanding moment it was. Without accompaniment, without a hint of self-consciousness, Joe and Jack harmonized their way through half a dozen songs. They traded melody and harmony as they went. Several other legislators gathered close. They knew better than to try to add their voices to those songs.

During the 29 days of the session that had passed, I watched a few times as Joe and Jack took opposite sides of House debates. They clearly were dedicated to their political positions, and they presented their cases calmly but forcefully. With the political feuding over for another year, though, that night they were just two South Dakota guys who knew some of the same songs. Their faces lit up as they sang, showing their enjoyment of the music and the moment.


Sometimes that moment comes to me when I’m feeling hopeless about the current mess that much of politics has become, especially at the national level. Too often, what I see and hear leads me to wonder if all our elected leaders know how to do is fight. Folks used to step back after a fight. They used to act a lot like the singers I remember from my first session as a reporter. These days, it seems, many political figures can’t even figure out that a fight is over.

I think it’s much worse at the national level. I’m sure a fair amount of bipartisan camaraderie still takes place among South Dakota legislators. There are many members of good heart. I still know some of them. But it doesn’t seem as easy-going as it did years ago.

Adams and Barnett arrived at the state House the same year, 1967. Adams’ only stayed through 1970. Barnett kept running for re-election every two years. He died in office in 1985. During his tenure, he became House speaker and Republican majority leader.

His prints are on most of the important legislation enacted during a generation. Some folks might have forgotten his name, but they still live under the influence of laws he helped enact.

I recall a time when Barnett, in a rather emotional floor speech, made a personal remark about an opponent on a bill. I hadn’t seen him treat anyone with anything but respect, so this was out of character. He thought so, too. As soon as he could get recognized again, he apologized to the other legislator and to the rest of the House members.

It wasn’t one of those “Sorry if anyone was offended’’ apologies, either. He took responsibility for his comment and said it would never happen again. As far as I know, it never did.

You don’t see many straight-forward apologies by elected officials these days. You seldom see apologies at all, not until public pressure and media scrutiny has forced an offender’s hand. Looking back, I’m more impressed now than I was at the time that Barnett offered his apology without pressure. He knew what was right, and he did it.

Perhaps that moment wasn’t a big deal. And maybe that evening when Barnett and Adams harmonized on a selection of Irish ballads wasn’t as significant as I’ve made it out to be in my memory.


Maybe it wouldn’t matter if more people acted the way those guys did back then. It seems to work, though. Maybe it still could.

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Opinion by Terry Woster
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