Any reporter who covered Bill Janklow for any length of time probably had a call that went something like this one, which came sometime in the early 1980s.
Me: “Argus Leader, this is Kevin.”
Janklow: “Your mother can’t be very proud of you this morning."
Me: “Uh, governor? Is that you? My mother? What?”
Janklow: “I know your mother. She’s a good woman. She voted for me. She sat in my office one day and talked about how much she liked me. She must be pretty disappointed in you today.”
Me: “Well, first, she might have voted for you but she gave birth to me. So I think I’ve got you there. Second, uh, are you saying you didn’t like the story?”
Janklow: “Didn't like the story? Are you kidding me? Half of it was wrong, and where’d you get that ridiculous quote about …”
Let’s just say things got interesting, from a language standpoint, after that. They always did with Janklow, who some liked to call Wild Bill because of his Old-West-gunfight style of dialogue and penchant for putting people on the defensive with a carpet-bombing word attack if he didn't like something they did or said -- or wrote.
Add a populist political style and a flamboyant public personalty and some people might compare him to Donald Trump. Which is just what a Democrat friend suggested I do on this blog.
I thought about it for a week or so, and then asked for some help. So, call this a conversation about Bill Janklow and Donald Trump, between a guy who knew Janklow pretty well and a reporter who covered him for quite a while.
Joel Rosenthal is the guy. I’m the reporter. You know the other guys.
Janklow, who died of brain cancer five years ago at the age of 72, was perhaps the biggest headline maker ever to sit in the South Dakota governor’s chair. I wrote the stories under a number of those headlines. Joel Rosenthal was in a few.
So I called called Rosenthal, a Sioux Falls businessman and former state Republican Party chairman, and asked if he'd chat a bit about the guy he knew so well and admired so much, and the other guy, the new president -- with whom Rosenthal isn't nearly as enchanted. Like me, he had to think about if for a while. But finally, he couldn't resist.
We are not breaking new ground here. Last year the Janklow-Trump question was addressed by Noel Hamiel, a retired newspaperman who grew up on a farm just down the draw from our place northeast of Reliance and went built a reputation for excellence in the South Dakota news business.
Noel concluded there were probably more similarities than differences between the two men, including their populist style and rambunctious personalities.
More recently, widely experienced South Dakota newsman Tom Lawrence looked at the two men. And Lawrence decided he didn’t buy the comparison, even though he allowed for some clear similarities in style and the tendency to do battle with the media and drop verbal napalm on the opposition.
Lawrence touched on a key difference that Rosenthal and I will discuss in a bit: intellectual data banks.
“The major difference is their search for knowledge,” Lawrence wrote in a column I read in the Black Hills Pioneer. “Janklow was a reader, a thinker, a person with a desire to learn and grow. Trump does not seem to have any of those qualities, which is why some of his supporters like him.”
As aggressive as Janklow could be in a debate or in pursuing what he wanted, he was even hungrier in his consumption of information. I’ve never been around anyone any smarter, any better read in terms of non-fiction, fact-based data, especially as it pertained to the law and government and any issue that might be touched by the tentacles of either.
Unlike Trump, Janklow devoured books. He devoured magazines. He devoured newspapers, even though he wouldn’t admit it, and he might call you long after you wrote a newspaper story to chew you out.
“What story?” you might say. “Wait, I wrote that three weeks ago.”
“Yeah,” he might answer. “I just got around to reading it. I never read your stuff but somebody gave it to me. And it's all wrong."
"Wait," I likely answered. "All? It can't be all wrong. I'm sure I got my byline right."
Believe or not, he liked answers like that, which didn't deter his attack. Or prevent him from offering mounds of information or testimonials about why what you wrote was wrong.
And he had quite a munitions repository of that stuff. Because along with more traditional journalism, Janklow collected, consumed and retained mounds of technical data, budget analyses, scientific research and reports from state officials. Rosenthal says that’s a stark difference between Trump and the guy who served four terms as South Dakota governor and also served a year in the U.S. House before a vehicular manslaughter conviction ended his political career.
“Bill was an exhaustive, compulsive and comprehensive student,” Rosenthal said. “He loved to learn. He could really dig into the details and understand most any subject including medicine, engineering, science, early childhood development, corporate finance, criminal justice and many more subjects.”
Trump likes to fight with reporters, but not with much actual or factual information to back up his arguments. He sometimes just seems to be making stuff up, or passing on something that somebody else made up or distorted or exaggerated.
Janklow would take some liberties with the truth. But mostly he had a lot of factual basis for his arguments. And he was exceptionally quick and articulate in making those arguments.
I know. I was in a few of them, and usually lost.
Rosenthal rejects the Janklow-Trump comparison almost entirely:
“The strong similarities between Bill Janklow and Donald Trump are their strong personalities and their ability — albeit in different ways — within their spheres of influence to dominate the news.”
True, that. But …
“That’s pretty much where the similarities stop,” Rosenthal said.
Well, wait. How about ego? No shortage of that in either man. Rosenthal doesn’t argue with that.
“To be an effective elected office holder requires a large ego,” he said. “It is required to internally process criticisms inevitably made against you.”
But Janklow handled the criticism better than Trump does, Rosenthal argues. And I’d agree, although Janklow could get pretty bristly about stories he didn't like and especially about what he considered to be personal attacks. But he had thicker skin than Trump. And he was more likely to respond with a direct harangue in person or by telephone, sometimes at rock-concert sound levels and with a degree of profanity that could shock a first-time target.
Janklow’s arguments came from a gifted lawyer whose father was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in Germany following World War II. Trump’s arguments include a lot of sophomoric tweets or wandering verbal digressions into irrelevant personal attacks.
A Chicago kid who came back to his mother’s hometown of Flandreau after his father died, Janklow felt profound loss and understood economic and family challenges at an early age. That shaped him in ways Trump couldn’t understand, Rosenthal said.
“Donald Trump was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” he said. “Janklow’s father passed away in his childhood and by most accounts in his adolescence Bill was a juvenile delinquent. The consequences of that is empathy for differing social and economic classes.”
Janklow was also different in military service, which Trump avoided. Janklow served in the Marines, an option instead of the criminal justice system that was offered by a judge in Flandreau. And it was a boot-camp-tough change in direction that Janklow later credited with reshaping him as a person. He also had experience in public service, beginning as a legal services lawyer on the Rosebud Reservation and then winning election and serving a term as South Dakota Attorney General before running for governor and winning in 1978.
Trump is a newcomer to government, although he and Janklow share a sort of populism that couldn’t be entirely contained by a political party.
Retired SDSU political science professor Bob Burns of Brookings, a Janklow friend since their childhood time back in Flandreau, told me in an interview shortly after Janklow’s death in January of 2012 that Janklow took the smart road to power in South Dakota — as a Republican.
It was every bit as much about pragmatism and it was about Republican beliefs, Burns believes.
”I think he adopted the Republican Party label for pragmatic purposes that really enhanced the likelihood of being elected," Burns said.
Trump, who has been registeredd with the Democratic and Reform parties as well as the GOP, did something of the same in the presidential race as a Republican who had many doubters in his own party. And he did it without worrying about raising much money, because he had plenty of his own and attracted free media like no other.
Janklow was a more traditional recipient of Republican Party support, but he was also independent enough to raise a lot of money outside the GOP mechanism, Burns said.
"If you look at the campaigns, he really didn't rely on the state party or end up indebted to it. He had his own organization, which was a network of family and friends more than anything,” he said. “And he was very good at raising money to support his campaigns.”“
Trump shows pretty traditional Republican angst over federal regulation and spending, and seems committed to cutting programs to cut budgets — while increasing defense spending.
Like many conservative Republicans, Janklow believed in efficiency in government and would cut to balance budgets. But unlike some conservatives, he embraced the essentials of government and their role — sometimes to surprising degrees — in the lives of South Dakotans and projects he hoped to advance.
Those plans included a successful purchase of important segments of rail lines in South Dakota and a plan that never worked out to use Missouri River water to pipe coal slurry from Wyoming mines to power plants in southern states.
"I don't think he had a lot of reservations about what government should be able to achieve," Burns said. "You don't buy a railroad with a limited view of government. You don't try to sell Missouri River water with a limited view of government.”
Rosenthal added to that in that same 2012 RCJ story:
"He wasn't scared of government. We have so many extreme conservatives now who hate government you wonder why they even want to govern," Rosenthal said. "In Bill's case, he didn't hate government. He wanted to govern. And he wanted to help people.”
Trump has bashed the news media — calling reporters the most dishonest people on earth, part of a failing industry and the enemy of the American people -- even more than he has criticized the government. And already some media outlets have been denied the same access as those Trump and his White House staffers consider to be friendlier.
Janklow could play that game, too, in his own way. And he could hammer away at a particular news outlet or even a reporter. But he tended not to make broad-brush condemnations of the news media like Trump does. And he never denied an outlet access to a news conference or briefing that I’m aware of. He would show favorites if he thought some other outlet was being unfair, or had just angered him.
He stopped doing individual interviews with Argus Leader reporters for months once, or maybe it was twice, while I worked there. But even then he didn’t try to deny Argus reporters access to regular news events or prohibit them from talking to other state-government officials.
He did something else from time to time to separate himself from Trump: He apologized to reporters he fought with. Not often. Not profusely. But he did.
I got a couple of those apologies myself, including one that came after a loud, testy exchange when I was in the Argus newsroom doing an interview with Janklow by phone. It began with me requesting some information I believed I should get and, after he refused, quickly developed into heated back and forth.
Janklow was just finishing a harangue when I interrupted: “You know, you should see a counselor. You’ve got problems.”
“I should see a counselor? You should see a counselor!” he shouted back.
I can’t remember if he hung up or I did. But five minutes later he called back and apologized, and said he’d have a staffer fax the information I wanted.
I can’t see Donald Trump doing that.