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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The matter of obituaries for the living

Bill Janklow's announcement of his impending death from brain cancer is a test of journalistic integrity.  He was undeniably a political force and his announcement recalls incidents and episodes in his career that are overcast with deep, dark shadows.  Which incidents and episodes prevail in the mind is probably dependent on one's partisan alliances, but for journalists they pose a problem in how to summarize his life.  The fact that he is alive and sentient to read the accounts will make journalists shape their stories according to their beliefs in how the dead and dying should be treated.  And in some cases to maintain the obsequious posture  that they always displayed toward Janklow.  Their decisions will give historians plenty to  ponder and evaluate as they grapple with making an assessment of Janklow's legacy.

Most obituaries these days are written by or for the family of the deceased, full of cloying sweetness and smarmy assessments of the deceased's life, often totally fabricated. Their objective is not so much to memorialize the deceased as to avoid anything that might embarrass the family.  In years past, obituaries were written by reporters and were carefully confined to the facts of a person's biography.  If the family wanted smarm and professions of sweetness, that is what the memorial bulletins handed out at the funerals were for.  Major papers like The New York Times assigned accomplished writers to write biographies of public figures so that the newspaper had the obituary material on file and could pull it out for publication within minutes of the person's death.  I think the increase in diabetes in the country could well be related to reading too many of those sugary paeans of praise that pass for obituaries today.  I was once sitting next to a college dean at a funeral service for a college president when, for his wife's benefit, he crossed out the first sentence in the obituary on the church bulletin and penned in, "This man was a supreme asshole."  His wife took it from him, crumpled it up, and stuck it in her purse so that nobody else would see it.  But not before she had scribbled an "amen" in the margin.

The idea of a wake and a funeral is to celebrate a person's life by concentrating on the positive achievements and ignoring those minor detractions from perfection that everyone possesses.  A worthy life must be acknowledged for its worthiness.  But in some lives the detractions cast too dense a shadow to ignore, and they define a major aspect of the persona.  In  some cases predatory and heedless menace are the persona.   In Bill Janklow's case, there is no question that he accomplished things and worked hard for the state, but in some quarters he is regarded primarily as a destructive and damaging force.  The problem for the press is how to handle the conflicting aspects of his career.  For the most part, the press accounts on the occasion of Janklow's announcement were either personal anecdotes that avoided a larger look at his life or were collections of quotations from other public figures

One of the comments regarding Janklow from another politician was that people should not allow his manslaughter conviction for running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist be their most prominent memory of Bill Janklow.  For a number of people, that incident is one in a long string of incidents that recall the shadowy side of Janklow.  While the legacy media came up with fond memories, which did hint at the darker perceptions of him, Internet sources, particularly those based on Indian reservations and those dealing with civil rights, recalled the menace and the damage Janklow represents to them.

Those recollections are not based upon mere political disagreements.  They are based on basic moral issues of a more personal nature.  One of the laudatory memoirs tries to make the case for Janklow as a kindly friend and parent and asserts that what Janklow did was intensely personal.  There is some truth to that:  Janklow defined himself to some as a particularly vicious enemy with an agenda of personal destruction.

There are things that Janklow did that can be criticized as politically questionable.  His support of the ETSI coal slurry pipeline, a scheme eventually abandoned, seemed a bit ignorant and silly.  On the other hand, the state purchase of the old Milwaukee rail line was a government intrusion that preserved an important piece of infrastructure.  His pushing for the repeal of usury laws to give South Dakota a large niche in the credit card industry certainly brought growth to the state, but also some exploitative and destructive credit practices.  Janklow did form alliances with Democratic politicians, such as Tom Daschle, to get things done for the state, and he did accomplish things.

But some of those accomplishments had destructive effects.  His idea for turning juvenile detention facilities into boot camps resulted in the death of 14-year-old Gina Score and the revelation of practices that eventually led to their abandonment.  He purged the Board of Regents of any professional educators and established it as a body of lawyers and political loyalists who served the governor, not the people.  But the Janklow Indian wars were an episode that for many will represent the Janklow legacy.

Larry Kurtz of the interested party blog calls attention to a very instructive piece by Lakota journalist Tim Giago, which gives an outline of Janklow's war on Indians. The shadowy past of William Janklow is cast on the Indian reservations. He began his law career as a Legal Aid lawyer on the Rosebud Reservation.  That is where one of the most troubling accusations against Janklow originated, which Tim Giago summarizes.  He was eventually barred from practicing law on the Rosebud by a tribal judge on the basis of a rape accusation by Jancita Eagle Deer, for whom Janklow acted as a guardian.   She testified that while driving her back to her lodging after baby-sitting for the Janklows, he raped her.  When those allegations were covered in Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Janklow sued the author, the publisher Viking Press, and Newsweek, which included the allegation in a review, for libel.  He also threatened and temporarily closed book stores which sold the book.  His suits were dismissed on the First Amendment basis that the author and publications were reporting on the legal actions surrounding the allegation, not originating or making the allegation themselves.  It is an allegation that lingers and was intensified by the events surrounding Jancita Eagle Deer's life and death.  She was involved in AIM activities and was urged by the organization to make her charges against Janklow.  She offered her testimony in the hearing which led to Jankow's disbarment by the tribal court in October 1974.  In April 1975, she was killed in a hit-and-run on a highway in Nebraska, an incident that was never fully investigated or explained.   Her mother, Delphine Eagle Deer, pursued the rape allegations after her death and was found beaten to death on the Rosebud reservation nine months later.  The unexplained, violent deaths are part of the murky shadows that create suspicion and distrust.

There is also a tribal police report from the Lower Brule Reservation that states that Janklow was chased down by tribal police at Fort Thompson in 1973 for drunken driving.  When he was stopped, he wasn't wearing any pants, according to the report.

In 1974, Janklow was elected attorney general of South Dakota and succeeded in a number of prosecutions of American Indian Movement members.  He was elected as a conservative law-and-order attorney, but many native Americans wryly question what law and what order?

As one who has been involved with organizations and activities that work on wrongful convictions, I am acutely aware of the unreliability that exists in accusations that are not carefully documented.  The failure to investigate murky incidents and to document the findings contributes to the conspiracy theories that surround the perception of Janklow.  They are fed by people who have experienced Janklow's bullying and vindictiveness.

Janklow is a reason why I switched political parties when I moved to South Dakota.  I was what is called a Lincoln Republican in Illinois, although I was alarmed when the party in that state became dominated by corporately-allied conservatives who refuted almost everything that Lincoln represented.  But on my way to South Dakota to find a house after taking a job here, I heard Janklow, recently elected governor,  give a speech over the car radio that convinced me he did  not represent any of the values I held.  I knew about him, as I was active in a group called the Intertribal League, a group of native Americans in the Quad-Cities of Iowa and Illinois.  Some of the young people associated with that group were getting active in the American Indian Movement, and Janklow was prominently named as a concern of theirs.

My only personal confrontation with Janklow was one I invited.  As a congressman, he was invited to Aberdeen to make a speech at the dedication of a huge flag which flies in Wylie Park.  I was part of that dedication as the honor guard from a Civil War re-enactment group.  Janklow gave a speech devoted to militarism;  he said it was not the poet, the reporter, the lawyer, or the organizer who have us or freedoms;  it was the soldier.  In a snarky newspaper column, I took exception to his statements because they are, first, a distorted falsification of who and how our freedoms were established and are maintained, and, secondly, because he seemed to be justifying the police state he sometimes commanded.  He responded through a piece probably written by a staff member.  He belittled the fact that I attended the event as a re-enactment soldier, a play soldier, as he termed it.  The response did not even consider that I am, in fact, a veteran, and my participation in re-enactments stemmed in part from my knowledge of the manual of arms from being a drill instructor.  Nor did it occur to him that I could be proud of my own service.  I did not diminish the role of the soldier, but took exception to his excluding every endeavor but soldiering as the source of our freedoms.

In the course of trying to figure out why he would make such a contention, I discovered that he had plagiarized that portion of his speech from a poem that circulates on the Internet.  (You can see it below.)
The whole incident is consistent with a reckless negligence of the sort that in courts is regarded as the product of malice.  For many, when they think of his manslaughter conviction, they will also recall numerous other incidents, particularly those related to his war on the Indians.

I often thought that the jail sentence he served for the manslaughter conviction pointed up the weaknesses of our criminal justice system.  I wished there would have been some way to make him do community service of the nature that earned him a good reputation as a  Legal Aid lawyer on the Rosebud.  Janklow has talents that could be used in a redemptive manner.

Still,  I, like many, am saddened by his cancer.  It does make one thing about the positive things he accomplished and was capable of doing, and I wish he could be alive quite a bit longer to extend the good things he did and erase that dark legacy that will shadow him for many people.  

*The plagiarized Internet poem for whom the author has not been established.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer,
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protestor to burn the flag.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States