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?
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.