It is a brutal story, repeated all too often in farm country.
A farmer in a hurry cuts a corner, skips a step, goes against the profoundly serious safety rules taught time and again to his children, and ends up dead.
That’s how it was for Kristi Noem’s dad, Ron Arnold, when in a typical farmer’s rush he went into a grain bin far enough to restore the clogged flow of grain, and ended up sucked down into that granular vortex of death – with a teenage son nearby in witness.
Listening to Noem recall the details of that story in a conference room here at the Journal recently, I shared a glance with another grown-up farm kid – Journal video producer Tim Appel.
And we grew solemn, recalling the close calls of our own family members back on the farm, and the ones that came more than close to visit tragedy on people we knew.
It’s a dangerous game, this tending of the land, a world of whirling edges and lethal weight that can turn the slightest lapse in focus into a missing limb, a tortured torso or an empty chair at family meals.
I wondered how to write that in a column, without turning the column itself into a free campaign advertisement for Noem in her run for the U.S. Congress.
I also wondered whether Noem herself would be comfortable with me writing such a personal story.
A week or two later, she answered that question with her first campaign ad: “When we lost my dad in a farming accident, I came home to help run the family farm,” Noem says, as storm clouds sweep across a small-grain field before the picture switches to an old photo of Noem’s father, in jeans, a work shirt and white western hat, leaning against a red pickup.
“Nobody asked me to do it. It was just the right thing to do.”
It’s a powerful beginning to a compelling advertisement. But I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable the first time I saw it.
The father story, right away, as the lead to her very first mass media campaign pitch?
It seemed too personal, even manipulative, beyond even the normal manipulation of a campaign advertisement.
So I watched it again, and again and again. Then I watched it some more. And I remembered my own father’s death, from cancer, when I was 16, and how it defined who I was and who I was to become.
Ours wasn’t a sudden tragedy. We had months to prepare for my dad’s passing. Yet it wrenched our family in transformational ways, shaping each of us into people of deep wounds and instructive recovery.
Noem’s family had to be so shaped, from the son who witnessed his father’s death to the daughter who left college, came home to work and never left again.
Thinking about that put the ad in clearer context for me. So did a story by Jonathan Ellis of the Argus Leader revealing that a portion of the advertisement with Noem in a pastoral, South Dakota-like setting was actually shot in Texas.
That’s where a Republican media company used by the campaign is located.
Message manipulation? Sure. It’s a campaign. It’s all about message manipulation.
That includes the powerful and poignant references to a father’s death in a farm accident. That’s politics, of course. It’s also an important personal truth.
As always, it’s a voter’s job to separate one from the other.
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org