News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Daschle Debacle: Some informing updates

[Some very informative journalism has been produced on the Daschle Debacle: one piece in the New York Times and another in The Washington Post.]

As an old news dog who has used that experience periodically in political work, I have often noted something about politicians being voted out of office that does not get talked about. If after many years of successful, untroubled political office, what happens to the relationship between a politician and his/her constituents when they vote the politician out of office?

My first experience with this came with an Illinois congressman, a contemporary of mine, whose family I knew quite well. He ran as a Republican, unopposed a few times, in a very Democratic district.

A member of the House Judiciary Committee, he voted to impeach Richard Nixon. That fascist-base portion of the Republican Party did not let this sin against its creed of power-at-all-costs-imposed-on-all-people go unrequited. They kept trying to dislodge the Congressman, and shortly after I moved to South Dakota they succeeded. They put one of their kind up against him in the primary and launched one of their character-assassination assaults against him. The character-assassin won the primary. He did not win the election. The Democrat won and a Republican has not come even close to taking that seat in the House for the last 26 years.

Rather than return to Illinois and resume a very successful law practice, the Congressman decided to move. On a visit back to my home state, I asked a family member of the Congressman's about his moving. The family member told me that while we like to say nice things and pretend that we honor public service, the hard political fact is that a defeated politician can't go home again. Especially when you have been dumped by your own party. He would return to friends, but the atmosphere created by enemies dominates. It only takes one rotten fart to destroy the sanctity of a church service. It takes only a few malicious resentments in a community to make it a hostile environment.

What had impressed me about this Congressman was that no one understood how the rural and urban cultures and economies intersected with the thoroughness he did. Shortly after he left office, the industrial community he represented crashed. One large community in his district lost 30,000 industrial jobs. The Congressman had the knowledge and the contacts to provide assistance. But he was in the process of creating a new life in a far-away place. When I conjectured to newspaper colleagues about the leadership he could have provided, they replied that he had new responsibilities and new loyalties that needed tending for himself and his family. He had moved on both physically and socially.

South Dakota has dumped a number of incumbents: Sen. Abdnor, Sen. George McGovern, Sen. Larry Pressler, and Sen. Tom Daschle. We assume that politicians understand that they serve only at the behest of the electorate, but what do we do with politicians when we are through with them?

George McGovern returned to Mitchell to live, but not before working for important projects on the national and international level. After being defeated by Abdnor, he involved himself in many ventures of a nature that just are not available in South Dakota. He resides here, makes broad acknowledgment of his ties to South Dakota, but he does not let the state shape his identity. Rather, he keeps insuring that there is a progressive line of thought kept alive in South Dakota

James Abdnor was an administrator in the Small Business Administration after he lost an election to Tom Daschle. He, too, lives in South Dakota, and was an advisor to the John Thune campaign in 2004 against Tom Daschle. There has always been a element of vengeance surrounding Abdnor's continued involvement in Republican politics.

Larry Pressler made an attempt at running for Congress again in South Dakota after his defeat, but his energies have been concentrated quite intensely in New York City and Washington, D.C. Shortly after leaving office, he passed the bar exam in New York. He later established his own firm in Washington, D.C. His relationship to South Dakota is cursory. His talents and his interests are simply not invested in this state.

Now comes Tom Daschle, who has been nominated to one of the most powerful positions in Pres. Obama's cabinet. Like my former Congressman from Illinois, Tom Daschle has moved on. He chose not to retreat quietly to his state of origin. Rather, he has set about to create a life that is not possible in South Dakota.

His tax problems may well obstruct his chances at assuming the post to which he has been nominated. I attempt to make no apologetics or excuses for these matters, other than to say I have been involved in campaign finance reports for the last decade. It is very easy to make mistakes. Sometimes I receive bad information. Sometimes I receive erroneous advice about what to include and how to include it. Sometimes I receive erroneous advice about what to omit. Often peripheral issues that get raised in passing retreat into the ether of memory and then come sailing back like a burning comet to crash at your feet. Corrections and admendments have to be made.

Tom Daschle included charity donations to organizations that turned out not to be charities. He had consulting fees that somehow were not reported. But the big issue is that he was provided a car and driver, and did not report this as in-kind income.

But that is not what is making the crotch knots that so gall the South Dakota pudenda. People remember Tom Daschle driving through the state in an old car, dropping in on constituents like a neighbor. Now they are outraged that he would accept a limousine and driver to conduct his business around Washington, D.C., and wherever else he goes. Some are more irked that he would choose to ride in a driven limousine rather than toot around DuPont Circle in a Ford Pinto, or whatever its current equiavalent is. Of course, the Dementia Sisters at South Dakota Politics have termed it an outright case of tax fraud, and we needn't bother to find out the actual circumstances.

Tom Daschle lost an election in 2004. A majority of his constituents told him he wasn't needed around here anymore. Rather than come creeping back in an old clunker to give succor--pun intended--to the dysfunctioning egos that resent his success on the national stage and would still like to tell Daschle how to live his life as if his destiny rests in ingratiating himself with the perpetually petulant, Daschle moved on. He has new interests and new loyalties to maintain. And for people who keep up intense and productive work schedules, a chauffer-driven car can be a huge time-saver and convenience. I can even imagine how the question of including it as in-kind compensation can slip one's mind. But I am not in a position to know that, although most commenters on this matter claim to be.

People leave this state because they have better, more sustaining prospects elsewhere. That is especially true of politicians elected out of office.

If the Republicans really want to organize like they did on the House stimulus bill, I have no doubt that they could throw up obstructions to Daschle's nomination that could result in his withdrawal.

But he was nominated because he has long outgrown the small-minded and cramped intellectual dimensions of South Dakota. Now, that is something you can really resent.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States