Gov. Kristi Noem shares a lot of stories about her late father, Ron Arnold, that are intended to portray him as the South Dakota embodiment of John Wayne. Noem doesn’t seem to realize that with every story she tells, she’s also creating her own public psychological profile.
Recently, she spoke to a National Rifle Association gathering in Indianapolis, where she shared a memory of hunting with her dad when she was 10 years old.
They were stalking elk in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains when he told her to “hunt your way back to camp.” He said he’d meet her there at dark, and then he disappeared over a ridge.
“To a 10-year-old girl, this was terrifying,” Noem said. “And as strange noises came and darkness fell, I had to rely on my instincts and my horse to find my way back to our tent.”
Noem said she learned years later that her dad followed her at a safe distance and was the source of some of the noises, which he produced by “scratching trees and growling.”
Noem’s 2022 memoir, “Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland,” includes similar tales.
There was the time her father grew irritated with his children’s inability to move an ornery cow into the barn. He stormed toward the cow, wrapped his arm around its neck and “began punching her giant black nose,” according to Noem. She and her brother watched as their dad lost his footing and became pinned under the angry animal. Noem and her brother had to draw the cow’s attention away to save their father.
In another story, Noem was 12 or 13, riding with her dad in a semi as they hauled a load of corn out of a field.
“As we started rolling down the road, he suddenly remembered that he needed to bring another vehicle home too,” Noem wrote. “So he turned to me and said, ‘Here, come take the wheel. Take the truck home.’ His only advice: ‘Make your corners wide.’”
Noem had never driven a semi but somehow managed to get it home safely.
A different driving adventure didn’t turn out as well. Noem was 14 when a farmhand told her to back a semi out of an outbuilding on a busy day during the fall harvest. She accidentally backed into and wrecked her dad’s pickup, which was parked behind the semi. Noem went out to the fields, climbed into her dad’s combine and broke the news.
“He sat there, his jaw clenched, hands gripping the steering wheel, staring at me for a long time. Finally, he said, ‘All right. Get out,’” Noem wrote.
That story is followed in Noem’s book by a memory of fixing fences with her dad. When she didn’t produce a needed tool immediately on demand, he barked, “Listen, you should know what I need before I know what I need!”
In young adulthood, Noem clashed with her father. They had a heated argument about the management of the family farm that ended in a verbal blow-up.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Noem recalled saying. “I can’t do anything right for you.”
“Fine,” her dad responded. “Find yourself a job somewhere working for somebody else who lets you do anything you want.”
Noem did just that and got a job in town. Several months later, in 1994, Ron Arnold climbed to the top of a grain bin, got sucked into a pocket of corn as he was trying to break up its crusted surface, and was instantly buried. Rescuers eventually extracted him, but he died later at a hospital.
In one of the saddest and most revealing sentences in her book, Noem wrote, “It was not a big surprise that Dad would take a risk like he did that day in the grain bin.”
During the aftermath of the tragedy, Noem made a defining decision.
“No matter what I did,” she wrote, “I would live my life to make him proud.”
That deep-seated resolve drove her to save the family farm after her dad’s death, earn a seat in the Legislature, topple an incumbent for a seat in Congress, and become South Dakota’s first female governor.
But Noem also inherited – and embraced – her father’s stubborn and risk-taking nature.
Those may be the qualities that drove her to defend her administration’s “Meth: We’re On It” public health campaign even as much of the nation mocked it; to shun masks during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic while claiming she knew better than many scientists and doctors; to subject the Black Hills National Forest to wildfire danger during a politically motivated fireworks show with then-President Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore; and to spend much of her time as governor fixated on national politics.
Of course, Noem would not agree that any of those things are mistakes. But she makes clear in her book that she’s acutely aware of all the ways she’s like her father, both good and bad.
“Growing up with a father like mine was challenging, exciting, exasperating, and inspiring,” she wrote.
She added in her NRA speech, “It made me who I am today.”