Tim Johnson’s secret to success

It’s not difficult to get things done, according to an old saying, if you don’t care who gets the credit.

That may be a fitting tribute to Tim Johnson, one of three South Dakota Democrats who served more than 20 years in Congress in the past six decades. He announced his retirement Tuesday at USD, in a typically low-key event that blended humor with touches of sadness.

Johnson was the least charismatic, the least well-known, the least controversial of the three big Democrats. He was also the most politically successful.

George McGovern was a national, even a global, figure for four decades. Tom Daschle rose to become the Democrats leader in the Senate, and a key adviser and mentor to President Obama.

McGovern, who served for 22 years, ran for president three times, and considered races for the White House in two other election cycles. Daschle, who put in 26 years, pondered runs for the presidency in both 2004 and 2008.

Tim Johnson, who almost certainly will leave with 28 years in Congress, never saw himself as a future president, at least as far as we know. He had other goals.

Johnson mentioned a few on Tuesday as he announced his plans to retire from his business in less than two years: He worked to bring needed water to both cowboys and Indians in South Dakota.

Johnson pushed to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. He backed projects that boosted his home state, using the old, often-arcane rules of Congress, and was a very effective legislator.

And he reached out to Republicans and independents in SD, and enough of them noticed to elect him to the Legislature four times, to Congress five times, and to the Senate three times. He did so, it’s worth noting, by landslide margins in 6 of his 8 statewide races.

The two times he was in close elections, he defeated Republican icons: Larry Pressler in 1996, and John Thune in 2002. Who else in state history defeated such a pair of opponents in back-to-back elections?

No one.

Meanwhile, both McGovern and Daschle ended their careers as defeated candidates, rejected by the voters of their home state. It stung.

Tim Johnson rolls off into the sunset undefeated, 12-0 in general elections, and 15-0 in all races, with a reputation as a decent, modest and successful politician with a wry, clever sense of humor. He is admired by his fellow vote-chasers, too.

I hope he writes an autobiography, because he has been much, much more than just another politician.

South Dakota voters knew that for 36 years.

Johnson retirement would match Mundt’s

It’s long been known as the Curse, or Kurse, of Karl. And no, Carl is not an option.

Karl Mundt is the only South Dakotan elected to the Senate four times, winning 6-year terms in 1948 (when he took office a few days early to gain a seniority edge), 1954, 1960 (when he defeated a promising young Democrat named George McGovern) and 1966.

But Mundt, a Republican, was felled by a severe stroke in 1969, and left almost completely disabled. He refused to resign, and his wife and aides kept his office going for four more years. Mundt was unable to run for a fifth term in 1972.

Will Tim Johnson’s health also end his political career? Johnson, a Democrat, suffered a severe brain bleed in December 2006, but after months away from the Capitol, he returned to work full-time in September 2007. He then breezed to a third term in 2008, and was soon elevated to the chairmanship of the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

But Johnson is still severely impacted physically by the congenital malady that struck him down more than six years ago, and has to be helped from a car to a wheelchair to a chair. He is far weaker and more dependent on his staff than people realize.

Johnson does few public events. When he does return to South Dakota, he only appears before a small, hand-picked group of people in closed-door settings. Johnson, who maintains a lively sense of humor, seems sharp, but he also reads off prepared statements, and at times stumbles and pauses for several seconds as he searches for words.

Can this good, decent, sharp man take on a popular, vital, media-friendly Mike Rounds in 2014? It was one thing for TJ to ignore the little-known, underfunded Joel Dykstra in 2008. The public, and the media, won’t let him do that, and with a real contest this time, Johnson won’t be able to try that approach.

So it may be that like Mundt, who held the Senate seat Johnson now has, TJ’s political career is ended by his lack of health. Johnson has also battled prostate cancer, and broke his right shoulder last year. He is rather frail, so perhaps another Senate run isn’t even a good thing for him.

My best guess is he will head to the barn after winning 12 general election races without a loss, counting the Legislature (4 wins: 2 in the House, 2 in the Senate), U.S. House (5 terms) and Senate (3-0 record). If so, let’s hope Tim, who is 66, has a long, happy post-Senate life. Mundt died 18 months after he left office at the age of 74.

If Johnson does retire undefeated he will be like another successful South Dakota politician, the woefully under-appreciated Rep. Ben Reifel, who left Congress in 1971 after winning five times without a loss.

Reifel, a Republican, was an amazing man with a fascinating biography. He was known as a workhorse, not a showhorse. That is also a good description of Johnson.

Also, if Johnson ran and lost, would be like the other members of the three-term club in South Dakota. McGovern, Larry Pressler and Tom Daschle had to be carried out on their shields when they sought to match Karl.

Kurses, they likely said!

The name on the ballot

Matt McGovern has taken a lot of heat for changing his name from Matthew Rowen to Matt McGovern.

The South Dakota Republican Party, and his PUC opponent, Kristi Fiegen, think it’s an issue worth using in a campaign. As a poll shows McGovern leading, they are using it more and more, although they had to modify the latest attack ad.

I first talked with him about this two years ago, as he explained his choice. His mother, Susan McGovern, is one of George’s daughters. For most of his life, he was known as Matt Rowen-McGovern, although he said people always called him Matt McGovern.

When he came to South Dakota, he gradually dropped the Rowen, until he legally became Matt McGovern. The story’s been told many times.

It seems a wise choice in South Dakota, where the name McGovern has even more impact than it does elsewhere.

Plus, he’s hardly the first politician who is running for office under a name that differs from what he was christened, including three presidents.

Try Bill Clinton. Gerald Ford. U.S. Grant.

Not to mention Spiro Agnew, Gary Hart, and a bunch of other people who placed a fresh name on the ballot, including Shimon Peres, David Ben-Gurion, Nelson Mandela and a lot of other famous, and infamous people.

Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III. His father was killed in a car crash before he was born, and he was renamed for his stepfather.

Ford was born Leslie King Jr., but his mom divorced his father and married a man named Gerald Ford. While the young King was soon called Gerald Ford Jr., he didn’t legally change the name until he was 22.

Grant is an especially interesting case. His real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant. His initials were HUG, and he hated that. His mother’s maiden name was Simpson, and when he was accepted into West Point, a clerical error dubbed him Ulysses Simpson Grant, or U.S. Grant.

He loved it, and ran with it all the way to the White House. His friends, however, called him Sam, short for Uncle Sam.

Agnew’s real name was Spiro Theodore Anagnostopoulos. People called him Ted. He ran for office as Spiro Agnew, and was elected governor of Maryland, and vice president. It was also the name he used when he resigned in 1973.

Hart should be very familiar to Matt McGovern; he was Grandpa George’s campaign manager during the 1972 presidential race, and spoke at the funeral last week. He was born Gary Hartpence, but he shortened his name, and shaved a year off his age, as a young man.

That came back to bite Hart during his 1984 and 1987 bids for the presidency. But unlike Matt McGovern, he wasn’t open and upfront about his changes.

So I would suggest we should drop this name issue. A person’s name is a personal choice, according to the Associated Press Stylebook. What someone chooses to call themselves is what we report.

I learned that when Stephanie Herseth chose to be called Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Her choice. We should respect people’s opinion.

I agree, and it’s Matt McGovern in this corner from now on.

Columnist: McGovern/Armstrong juxtaposition proves it’s better to lose with integrity than win without it

George McGovern lived long enough to be a contemporary of a lot of people, but I’d never heard him mentioned in the same breath as Lance Armstrong until today.

Leonard Pitts Jr. notes the juxtaposition of recent news reports about the two men in a new column:

There is something to be said for simply being who and what you say you are. In juxtaposing these two lives, these two fates, we learn that our parents were right, once upon a time.

Better you lose with integrity than win seven times without.