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Jane Ahlin column: In classic tragic theater, the hero destroys himself

The story playing out after the fatal crash in which South DakotaCongressman Bill Janklow was speeding, ran a stop sign, and collided with a motorcyclist, echoes classic themes from theater. In tragic plays, heroes are not brought down by the vil...

The story playing out after the fatal crash in which South DakotaCongressman Bill Janklow was speeding, ran a stop sign, and collided with a motorcyclist, echoes classic themes from theater. In tragic plays, heroes are not brought down by the villainy and treachery of others.

Rather, they suffer character flaws -- moral failings or lapses in judgment -- which do not appear to be serious until they happen to intersect with a particular set of circumstances. And then the world around the heroes begins to unravel, and their fate is sealed.

They struggle with the inevitability of the course they themselves have set in motion, and it is a struggle made more difficult by their own hubris -- that pride or arrogance that convinces them they are not bound by the same rules and limitations of other people. But nothing they do changes their fate.

Judging by his news conference last week, Janklow is in the "struggle" phase of his tragedy. On one hand, the enormity of his misdeed appears to have shaken him to his core; on the other hand, he seems to be in denial. While insisting he "couldn't be sorrier," he also admonished reporters that he was aware of "how fast [they] drive." And although maintaining that it was impossible "to express the sadness and the sorrow and the grief" he was experiencing, he explained that he was not ready to resign by saying, "I don't know what's appropriate at this time, candidly, and I do give it a lot of thought."

It is not hard to sympathize with Janklow in his pain over causing the death of Randy Scott and his confusion over having his own life irrevocably changed in an instant. (He also suffered a head injury in the crash which for now is affecting his mental processes.) However, sympathy that people have for Janklow, who has commanded a strong political following for many years, has nothing to do with his responsibility for a man's death. Janklow's reputation for driving fast and hard was part of his larger-than-life persona long before the fatal accident that took Scott's life, and it was his pattern of recklessness at the wheel -- not an isolated incident -- that led to a split second of tragedy.

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Whatever the legal outcome eventually will be, Janklow should have announced his resignation from Congress at his news conference.

Instead, mistakenly equating political viability with moral principle, he appeared to be propelled by the hope that his legal and political problems might be dealt with, allowing him to stay in office.

The shadow of rationalized wrongdoing loomed large in what was said and what was implied during the press conference. Like many other politicians, Janklow does not think that anyone can represent South Dakota as well as he can; therefore, he has rationalized that he has an obligation to continue in Congress if at all possible. Barring a felony conviction or a precipitous drop in the South Dakota polls, he undoubtedly will stay in office.

He also appeared to be rationalizing his bad driving record with the old "but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-the-rest-of-you" excuse. (His long-standing pattern of recklessness, which we've learned included a near-miss last December when he reportedly ran a stop sign at the same intersection where Scott died, weakens that excuse.)

In defending Janklow, there are those who point to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., as an example of someone who survived politically after causing the death of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, who drowned when the car the two of them were in went off a bridge in July 1969. Suspected of having been drunk and well-known for womanizing, Kennedy failed to report the accident until the next day, and the accident became a scandal. He barely survived politically, and his survival came at great cost to his political party and to the country. In fact, more than 30 years later, although he is a powerful senator within the Beltway, Kennedy remains unable to speak with moral authority for the people of America.

It's possible that Janklow, too, can engineer political survival. Ethically, it wouldn't be appropriate, but it would fit right into the plot of a classic tragedy.

Ahlin teaches English as an adjunct faculty member at Minnesota State University Moorhead and is a regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. E-mail ajane@qwest.net

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