Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why State Troopers Drive The Governor

Terry Branstad and his team have let SpeederGate drag on for three long weeks, in a classic example of bad messaging. The incident, involving a fired state trooper who reported the governor's van traveling at close to 90 MPH, brought with it a lot of face-palming, and we Democrats are reveling in the schadenfruede. When the other team makes an unforced error, you take the base.

But the controversy about why Terry Branstad's driver gets to speed when the governor is running late, while the rest of us get pulled over and ticketed, begs a question.

Why is it that state troopers drive the governor around, anyway? A lesson from Iowa history shows that the governor's safety on the road is a serious issue.

On the night of Sunday, November 21, 1954, Governor William Beardsley was driving from Ames to Des Moines. The governor and first lady Charlotte Beardsley had paid a weekend visit to their son, Dan, at Iowa State. This was pre-interstate, so they were on old Highway 60.

Beardsley was in his final weeks as governor. The former state legislator, who had defeated incumbent Robert Blue in the 1948 Republican primary, was voluntarily stepping down after three two-year terms, and getting ready to hand off to another Republican, Leo Hough. He was looking forward to returning to his farm and pharmacy back home in New Virginia. But he never had the chance.

That night, the governor, at the wheel, crashed into the back end of a truck. The first lady was seriously injured. Governor Beardsley was killed.

"The people of Iowa have lost a devoted public servant whom they elected three times as Chief Executive of their State," said President Eisenhower in an official condolence.

Ironically, Beardsley was known for roads and highway issues during his term:

Beardsley was an enthusiastic road builder and successfully persuaded the General Assembly to adopt a road-building program. In 1953 he reported that "there has been more construction of highways during the last twelve months than in any other given period in the history of our state."He was especially proud of the miles of farm-to-market roads that had been built. Highway safety was another keen concern of Beardsley's. The Iowa State Highway Patrol was expanded, and emphasized safety education as much as law enforcement. Driver training classes in the high schools turned out safe drivers.

Lt. Gov. Leo Elthon succeeded Beardsley as governor for a few weeks. Elthon had been re-elected - this was back before governor and lieutenant governor were a ticket - so he went back to being lieutenant governor once Hough was sworn in as scheduled.

After that, state troopers took over the job of driving the governor.

So SpeederGate isn't just a question of privilege for the powerful, though that's certainly an issue. This is a matter of the governor's safety, bigger than anyone's personal taste or distaste for the present occupant of the office, bigger than anyone's party agenda. The people have chosen the governor, any governor, to a position of great responsibility, and that power should be handled responsibly.

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