The Age of Janklow

In the new book The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture,” retired SDSU history professor John E. Miller refers to the seven ages of South Dakota politics.

From territorial days to the modern era, Miller offers his take on how South Dakota’s politics have shifted and evolved. He terms the time from 1979 to 2003 The Era of Janklow.

It seems fitting. Janklow served four terms as governor in that 25-year span as well as winning his sole term in the U.S. House. Janklow’s drive, intelligence, feisty nature and connection with South Dakota voters made him the dominant figure in the state.

His announcement Friday that he is suffering from inoperable and apparently terminal brain cancer has devastated people across the state. Those who admired him are saddened, those who recognized his ability and influence are pondering his impact and those who hated him — and there are many of those, too — are either staying silent out of respect or, in some cases, making some cold, uncaring comments.

Janklow, who has been practicing law with his son Russ in Sioux Falls, knows that. He’s aware of who he is and how people perceive him.

I have followed Janklow since his 1974 successful run for attorney general and have covered him since the early 1980s. I last spoke with him when he called The Daily Republic a few weeks ago and he sounded strong, vital and eager for more discussions of politics. I have enjoyed each one we have had and looked forward to many more.

I have a confession: While every editor and reporter I know has had a “Janklow moment,” with him calling at an odd hour with an angry complaint, it’s never happened to me. Of course, I worked in other states for many years, so I missed many of his years in office and chances to anger the quick-tempered governor.

I think he would be the first to admit his temper got the better of him at times. But I also found him thoughtful, sincere, caring, funny and introspective. He admires honesty and intelligence and is fast to reject what he perceives to be phony or self-serving.

This has been a lousy weekend for people who admire the governor, a title that comes to mind when thinking of Janklow for many people, including me. He told me to call him Bill, but it doesn’t come easy. After all, I lived through The Era of Janklow.

The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culturewill be the focus of the 2011 McGovern Conference at Dakota Wesleyan University on Monday, Nov. 14. Editors Miller, Jon K. Lauck and Donald C. Simmons, Jr., along with the men and women who wrote the essays, will discuss the state’s political history.

One of the men who helped shape it, Bill Janklow, is sure to be a primary topic.