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South Dakota's old political guard pays tribute to Tom Daschle
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Former governor and U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow, a Republican, was one of several who acknowledged the service and career of former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, a Democrat. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)
Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle made his first public appearances in South Dakota this week since losing his re-election bid to Sen. John Thune. Daschle has been speaking around the state and meeting with Native American leaders. Tuesday night he spoke at the University of South Dakota. Several dignitaries paid tribute to Daschle's 26 years in public office.

Vermillion, S.D. — Tom Daschle joked that earlier this year, he joined the ranks of the 10 million people in this country who are unemployed. He says he misses his colleagues at the Capitol, and misses some of the perks that came with being Senate minority leader most of all.

"The other day Linda (Daschle's wife) and I were going to a dinner and I got in the car. A couple of minutes later Linda joined me and she said, 'If you want us to get to that dinner, you better get in the driver's seat.'"

Daschle says he isn't planning a run for public office again, but admits he's too young to say never.

Daschle spoke Tuesday afternoon to about 1,000 people about the politics of freedom. He used the speech to criticize the Bush administration's Social Security reform proposal. Daschle says any private investments should be in addition to, not in place of, Social Security.

Daschle is spending this week saying thank you to the people who supported him over the years, and he's allowing people to thank him. He says he's most proud of the constituent work his staff did to help South Dakotans in need.

There may be occasions I can say things in a way that you can't when you're in elected office, and I look forward to that.
- Former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle

Daschle says he isn't finished helping people. He now wants to work with Native American leaders to determine how he can best help children on Indian reservations.

"My wife Linda and I have always had a real active interest in fetal alcohol syndrome. We'll be working on NOFAS, (a national FAS organization) and also working on health and education issues, and find a way to be supportive of that -- and also economic development."

At a private dinner, Daschle was honored by former U.S. Sen. George McGovern and USA Today publisher Al Neuharth. Former Gov. and U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow also paid tribute.

This was Janklow's first public speech since leaving Congress more than a year ago. Janklow was convicted of manslaughter for a traffic accident that killed a Minnesota motorcyclist.

Janklow, a Republican, and Daschle, a Democrat, don't hide their friendship. Daschle greeted Janklow by putting him in a headlock, and Janklow responded with a bear hug. Janklow talked about how much Daschle helped the state, saying his work touched millions of people.

"Tom, if the worst thing they can ever say about you is your word is good; if the worst thing we could ever say about you, is you gave a damn about people; if the worst thing we could ever say about you is you used your talents to try and enrich the lives of others; I guess we don't have much very good to say about you, do we? I guess we really don't," Janklow said.

The event was a tribute to the state's old guard -- Tom Daschle, George McGovern and Bill Janklow, the likes of which South Dakotans won't see again.

Bill Richardson, chairman of the University of South Dakota political science department, says Janklow and Daschle looked vibrant when speaking on stage. He says the two will be major forces in politics for years to come.

"They are no longer personifying their parties, no longer the face of their parties. But they'll be behind the scenes, and they'll be stiffening spines, helping raise money if needed, if asked, for the next generation," Richardson said.

The next generation is Republican Sen. John Thune and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth.

Daschle is a consultant now, and he's been appointed to a commission on election reform. Many say he's on the road to becoming an elder statesman, something Daschle says he leaves for now to the generation that come before him.

"I don't quite feel elderly enough to be an elder statesman. But I recognize there may be occasions I can say things in a way that you can't when you're in elected office, and I look forward to that," Daschle said.

Daschle, who lives in Washington D.C., says he plans to be in South Dakota about once a month.