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Richard Ben Cramer

cramerThe Best Political Book No One Bought

Before Richard Ben Cramer, the campaign political book genre was dominated by the great Theodore White and his remarkable Making of the President series. That changed after the appearance of Cramer’s monumental door stop of a book on the 1988 presidential campaign.

Now every book about American politics is measured against Cramer’s masterpiece – What it Takes: The Way to the White House. Cramer’s book, a classic piece of “new journalism,” not only provided the inside account of the campaigns of politicians like Richard Gephardt, Joe Biden, Gary Hart, Bob Dole and the eventual nominees, George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, but also offered fascinating, in depth profiles of the candidates. It was a book about character as much as politics and it has become a classic for political junkies and Cramer and his approach have become a role models for a new generation of writers who see politics as less an insiders game and more a study in character and motivation.

[One might argue that the 1988 campaign did a great deal to shape the current presidential campaign environment. Just remember some of the moments: Biden’s plagiarism, the Willie Horton ad, Dukakis is a silly helmet in a tank, Bush 41’s “read my lips” and Lloyd Bentsen’s put down – “you’re no Jack Kennedy” – delivered at Dan Quayle expense.]

Politico has produced a must read profile of Cramer with insights into his book – the book was panned by reviewers when it came out years after the ’88 election and never sold well – that is also a great look into what now passes for political reporting. Most big-time Washington reporters continue to focus their political coverage on the inner workings of the campaign. It’s reporting analogous to covering a baseball game – report on the balls and strikes, throw in a little strategy, compose a clever opening graph and you’re good to go.

Cramer’s book – he claims to have done more than 1,000 interviews – concentrated instead on why these remarkable men came to be where they found themselves in 1988. He was interested in who they were as people and what made them tick. This approach – the motivations of people, their background and the details of their lives – is vastly more enlightening to voters than most of what we get in more standard political reporting.

I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t get more of the kind of reporting Cramer does, in addition to the fact that it is darn hard work, is that candidates generally hate this kind of reporting. As Cramer told Booknotes interviewer Brian Lamb in 1992, most politicians aren’t introspective. They never spend 15 minutes thinking about who they really are and what they really hope to accomplish. Cramer’s book gets to these questions.

The big book of the 2008 campaign was Game Change by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, a book full of gossipy detail and the interesting, but not always insightful, “inside baseball” of politics. Cramer, never one to mince words, is dismissive of Game Change because, as he told Politico, it “almost religiously eschews any understanding of who [the candidates] are.”

Cramer became disillusioned with reporting on politics after the initial tepid response to What it Takes – he still owes his publisher $200,000 from the advance he received – and hasn’t written about politics or candidates since. Instead, Cramer has produced books on baseball, including a book on Ted Williams and a devastating biography of Joe DiMaggio, and is now at work on a book on Alex Rodriquez.

It’s never too early to get ready for the next presidential election – candidates are already planning trips to New Hampshire and Iowa – so, if you haven’t read What it Takes, haunt a used book store and lose yourself in one of the best political books ever written. What it Takes is a classic.

And thanks for checking in here during 2010…a Happy New Year to you and yours.

A Good Movie

kings speechThe King’s Speech

In a year of generally lackluster output from Hollywood, there comes at the end of the year a truly exceptional film from – England.

With inspired performances from Colin Firth as the second prince and future king, George VI, and Geoffrey Rush as his Australian-born speech therapist, The King’s Speech provides a mostly historically accurate period piece look inside the British monarchy in the days leading up to World War II. The would-be king, called Bertie by his hard and cold family, has been a life-long stutterer. The thought of standing at a microphone and proclaiming is mostly unthinkable. Until, that is, having exhausted other avenues of professional help, he turns to a small-time actor turned speech therapist who helps unlock the mystery of the stutter.

The movie really works on several levels. It is a look at England in the run up to the war. The bit roles for three British prime ministers – Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill – are just right.

The film also, in a tight and believable way, provides insight into the still scandalous affair Bertie’s older brother, the eventual King Edward VIII, had with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward, who abdicated in 1936 for the “woman he loved,” is portrayed, as he was, as a selfish, boorish cad with apparent pro-fascist sympathies. Edward’s shocking decision to give up the throne made the not terribly well prepared Bertie the king.

The movie is also about the breakdown of class and social lines in the 1930’s that allowed a outwardly rather stuffy and shy member of the royal family to engage a long-term friendship with one of his subjects, an outgoing and very worldly man.

Maybe the best scene in the movie is when the King and Queen, played with perfection by the superb British actress Helena Bonham Carter, show up at the speech therapist’s flat. Its funny, insightful, clever and played just right.

Should you think nothing good is coming from the big screen these days, take heart – England rules with The King’s Speech. Here’s the trailer. Go see it.

On This Day

FDRFDR’s Arsenal of Democracy Speech

Seventy years ago this evening – December 29, 1940 – Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of the most important speeches of his presidency and helped set in motion a vast expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign affairs.

Fresh from re-election a month earlier to an unprecedented third term, Roosevelt used one of his tremendously effective “fireside chats” via radio to proclaim America “an arsenal of democracy” determined to aid a beleaguered Great Britain that seemed to be on its last legs against Hitler’s powerful army and air force.

Speaking from the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House, Roosevelt said this would not be “a fireside chat on war,” but rather “a talk on national security.” He proceeded to lay out what he saw as the threats to the United States if the British, blockaded and bombed, were forced to capitulate to the Germans. While the speech was widely praised and well accepted, not everyone, to say the least, agreed. [You can hear the full speech, including the fascinating CBS announcer’s introduction here.]

The non-interventionist bloc in Congress remained very strong in 1940 and 1941. Roosevelt was concerned enough about the anti-war sentiment in the country that he made comments near the end of his 1940 campaign against Republican Wendell Willkie that he would have to eat. He famously said “our boys are not going to be sent into a foreign war.”

Montana’s progressive Democratic Sen. Burton K. Wheeler condemned Roosevelt and his advisers as “warmongers” and Wheeler urged the president to utilize his position and leverage to seek a negotiated end to the fighting in Europe. (Idaho’s William E. Borah, a Republican, who had died in January 1940, surely would have agreed with Wheeler and other leading non-interventionist like Ohio’s Robert Taft and California’s Hiram Johnson, both Republicans.)

Roosevelt followed up his “arsenal of democracy” speech with legislation – forever known as Lend-Lease – that gave the president, in Wheeler’s view and it was a credible view, vast new powers – even dictatorial powers – to aid those countries, debt free, that the president deemed vital to America’s national security. By the end of the war in 1945, Lend-Lease had supplied $50 billion (more than $750 billion in today’s dollars) in material to Britain, the Soviet Union, France and China.

There is little debate that the aid was essential to the war effort. No less an authority than Josef Stalin confirmed that when he told FDR that American equipment had allowed the Allies to win the war. There is also little debate around the fact that Lend-Lease, and Roosevelt’s administration of the program, finally and forever shed the American foreign policy cloak of non-intervention or isolationism. With Lend-Lease, the country was committed to full and unrelenting international engagement and the country has seldom looked back since the act was signed into law in March 1941.

Fundamentally, what Montana’s Wheeler and Idaho’s Borah, among others, were objecting to was the inherent expansion of presidential power in the realm of foreign policy. Wheeler repeatedly warned of the rise of “an American dictator” who would run over the top of the Congress in the establishment of foreign policy.

History has recorded that FDR, while not always candid or even completely honest about his intentions, used his vast foreign policy power with restraint and with a deep commitment to democracy. But those who opposed Roosevelt, even if now mostly forgotten, have also been validated by history. The steady expansion of presidential power in the area of foreign policy that, in many ways, began on a December evening 70 years ago continues to this very day.

The United States has spawned no dictator as Sen. Wheeler feared, but we do have a commander in chief whose power to involve the country militarily in every corner of the globe is routinely unchecked and often not even really debated by the Congress. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy is well recognized for its sweeping impact on domestic policy, but the 32nd president’s legacy in foreign policy is just has profound and it began with a speech on this day seven decades ago.

To Be Thankful

Grand CanyonA Grand Canyon

Looking for something to be thankful for this holiday season?

Lift a glass to the memory of the 26th President of the United States. He saved the Grand Canyon – saved it, I’m convinced, so that I could have the marvelous experience of standing at its rim on a cold, clear Christmas Day knowing that there are some things too perfect to let the heavy hand of man intrude.

Theodore Roosevelt called the Grand Canyon “the most wonderful scenery in the world” and compared it to “ruined temples and palaces of bygone ages.” It is a temple and thank God Roosevelt had the vision and grit to protect it from the zinc and copper miners who were – its hard to believe today – determined to exploit the Canyon in the early days of the 20th Century.

On May 6, 1903, as part of his celebrated “loop tour” that took Teddy to Yellowstone, Yosemite and eventually the Grand Canyon, Roosevelt stood at the south rim and spoke words that still ring with universal truth and his vision. TR’s trip, the longest and most ambitious ever taken to that point in presidential history, is recounted beautifully in Douglas Brinkley’s fine book The Wilderness Warrior.

Reflecting on the majesty of what the locals called “the big ditch,” Roosevelt said simply, “You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. Keep it for your children and your children’s children and all who come after you as one of the great sights for Americans to see.”

When Congress failed to act on his request to protect the Canyon as a National Park, Roosevelt took his own action on January 11, 1908. Now, there’s something to be thankful for.

Merry Christmas

Christmas TreeGhosts of Christmas Past

I was blessed as a kid growing up with a big and diverse extended family. I loved all my aunts and uncles and many cousins were great friends and playmates.

I remember that one uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, always seemed to have the latest gadget or the newest must have thing. When digital cameras were still a distant dream, my uncle had the 1960’s version of instant photography gratification – the Polaroid Land Camera. Make a picture, wait 60 seconds and like magic you had a small, square color picture.

This uncle had an American Motors Rambler, a mostly forgettable automobile that nonetheless was a bit of a novelty when it was introduced. And, apropos to Christmas, uncle had the first aluminum Christmas tree I ever remember seeing.

The shimmery, silver tree came in a big box. You had to assemble it limb-by-limb and once fitted together you could switch on a rotating light with three colored gels that, when positioned just right, constantly changed the tree color from green to red to gold. My mother loved her brother, but was appalled by that tree.

Only one type of tree ever graced my mother’s living room – a real, “live” tree, dripping with tinsel, many, many uniformly sized colored ornaments and tiny little colored lights. Mom was fastidious about most everything. She ironed the dish towels, never, ever left a bed unmade and never went to sleep with a dirty dish in the kitchen sink. Christmas trees in her world were natural, green and, if not just perfect in size and shape, subject to certain engineering modifications. I can still see her cutting off an unneeded lower branch of a big tree and grafting it into a naked spot higher up that just didn’t quite conform to her notion of what a proper tree looked like. She would use black sewing thread to hold the grafted branch in place. Not a chance that this woman would embrace the artificial tree movement.

It’s funny the things you remember from long ago. I certainly remember that cutting edge aluminum tree, but also can see mom standing on tip toes hanging long strands of tinsel, insisting that each piece be absolutely straight. I once offered to help, but was politely and firmly told there was only one way to decorate a Christmas tree and I was welcome to help, if I did it her way. I watched.

While I did not inherit mom’s fascination with Christmas tinsel, I did get her natural tree dominate gene. And like a visit from Marley’s ghost, all these years later, I can see clearly the living room, mom’s tree, my Christmas stocking and my brother’s and the little Christmas figures she would haul out every year.

Memories – those ghosts from years past – are the real joys of Christmas now. No coal for me and no fake tree. Just a lifetime of memories and mother decorating her tree.

Merry Christmas and happy memories.

Net Neutrality

plugsMessing With a Good Thing

I remember years ago interviewing then-Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Perry Swisher, a smart, opinionated and cantankerous former state legislator and newspaper editor and reporter. Federal Judge Harold Greene had just issued his landmark decision – we are still living with the consequences – that “broke up” Ma Bell. I wanted to know the Commissioner’s view.

Swisher, an old school kind of guy, said of the 1984 break up of AT&T, and I think I can quote it correctly after all these years: “Judge Greene took the only perfect thing in the world and screwed it up.”

Swisher may or may not have been correct about the big break up of the phone company. After all, that decision arguably sparked decades of innovation in how we use telecommunications, but it also vastly complicated for the technically challenged among us the range of options, approaches, gadgets and applications.

Still in all, the change was probably inevitable. The famous Judge Greene, for example, often observed, as the The Washington Post noted upon his death in 2000, “that the telephone industry grew up in the copper wire days when it was a natural monopoly, and that when microwaves made it possible to bypass the wooden pole network, the monopoly could not last.”

I couldn’t help but think about former-PUC Commissioner Swisher and Judge Greene as I’ve read the avalanche of coverage around the Federal Communications Commission decisions on “net neutrality.” I don’t pretend to be an expert, or even a reasonably well-informed observer, of what role the FCC should play in managing access to the web. I do know, like Judge Greene in the early 1980’s, that FCC commissioners can make decisions that fosters innovation, access and nearly unimaginable new applications, or they can “screw up” something that seems to be working pretty well as is.

The FCC’s decision seems to have something for everyone to dislike.

National Journal and PC Magazine have good summaries of what the FCC rules mean. One thing it surely means is that the political, regulatory and economic debate about how to run the Internet is really about to get very heated and very interesting.

My requirements are pretty basic, if the FCC is listening. I want equal access from my desk top or my wireless device and I don’t mind paying reasonable fees for that access, but I don’t want my Internet provider deciding I can’t access some other providers content. Like the Judge Greene decision, as complicated as it once made the simple act of finding a long distance carrier, I want to unleash the marketplace, but I also want a tough cop, sort of like we need on Wall Street, making sure my access is secure.

In other words, I want the best of the capitalist approach with just the appropriate delicate balance of regulation and oversight that protects the user and not just the provider. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Obama’s Comeback

Obama smilesNever So High, Nor So Low

It was as predictable as a Christmas sale. Make way for the Obama Comeback stories.

Immediately after the mid-term “shellacking” of Barack Obama and his party, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker breathlessly and instantly analyzed the election under the headline – “In Republican Victories, Tide Turns, Starkly.” The President, Baker analyzed, “must find a way to recalibrate with nothing less than his presidency on the line.”

Wow. What a difference seven weeks makes.

A lead story at the Politico website carries the headline: “Obama Rebounding.” Reporter Jennifer Epstein expands a tiny uptick in Obama’s poll standings – his approval/disapproval now stands evenly split at 48-48 in the latest CNN survey – into the insight that more Americans support the President’s policies than any time since mid-2009.

Say what? What happened to the guy who couldn’t find his groove? What became of the fatally wounded re-election bid? In that November 3 Times piece, former House Republican leader Dick Armey, a voice of the Tea Party, flatly predicted that Obama has “already lost his re-election.”

What’s going on here is that politics sometimes resembles another game – baseball. Every day is a new game and, while every team looks unbeatable through a winning streak and impossible in a slump, seldom are the players ever as good or bad as they appear. The ups get exaggerated and so do the downs.

The other phenomenon in plain view is the absolute fascination of the national media with the “comeback narrative.” The so called “media elite” from the Times to Time, from Fox News to Politico can’t operate without a simple, concise narrative. Every storyline needs, well, a story and there is no better political story than “the comeback.” Need more proof? USA Today supplies it with a headline: “Obama Sets Up As Comeback Kid.”

Seven weeks is a lifetime in politics, particularly in a political environment as volatile as ours; an environment influenced heavily, it must be noted, by relentless and often misleading coverage of the latest poll numbers. Here’s a thought. Rather than sitting around the Beltway cracker barrel, how about some political reporters go out into the country and talk to voters? They just might learn something.

A few things are obvious, even if they don’t fit neatly into the political narrative of the moment. The President has had a good lame duck session, he did recalibrate his stand on extending the Bush tax cuts and, as yet, the country sees no serious challenger to him in 2012. Meanwhile, by some accounts, Obama is quietly remaking his White House staff for the run up to his re-election and positioning himself as a reasonable, mid-ground alternative to the current faces of the GOP – Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. Also obvious, Obama is a good politician who displays the ability to grow in office. By the same token, he is not as good at the political game as his 2008 election made him look, but he is also not as bad as the recent mid-terms made him look.

For Obama, like all politicians, the highs are always lower than they seem and the lows are always higher.

In truth, as Michael Cooper astutely pointed out in the Times in the wake of the mid-terms, a good deal of political “analysis” is not just spin, it is mythology.

But, political time and myth will march on and the national media will soon need to invent new narratives. In a few weeks, Newt and Mitt, Sarah and Haley will be showing up in places like Manchester and Waterloo and we can read and contemplate the unfolding of the endless presidential campaign. It will, no doubt, be the most important election in our lifetimes. You heard it here first.

All this reminds me – and reminded Michael Cooper after the mid-terms – of the late Polish philosopher and political thinker, Leszek Kolakowski. Once a hard-headed Stalinist, Kolakowski came to see the Communism of his youth as a fraud and he eventually became a leading intellectual of the Solidarity movement in his native land. He won a MacArthur genius award and his work was celebrated by, among others, the Library of Congress.

Kolakowski promulgated what he called the “Law of Infinite Cornucopia,” which holds that for any doctrine one chooses to embrace there is never a shortage of arguments to support that view.

So, welcome to the remarkable Obama comeback or, if you prefer, wait for “proof” that it never happened.

Railing Against Rail

trainThe Politics of Trains

I’m going to admit my obvious bias right up front: I love trains. I love travel by train. I collect visits to train stations. I am enamoured with the rails.

I’ve ridden the overnight Red Star from St. Petersburg (Leningrad in those days) to Moscow. I’ve taken the train from London’s Victorian-era Kings Cross Station to Edinburgh. I vividly remember a warm day in Italy and the leisurely train ride from Milan to Florence and on to Lucca. I once flew to Los Angels purely for the pleasure of riding what may be Amtrak’s best train, the Coast Starlight, from LA to Seattle. I shared a cigar break on the platform in Eugene with the sleeping car attendant. In New York, I go to Grand Central Station just to watch the people and have a drink at the famous Oyster Bar.

One of my earliest memories – I must have been about four years old – is of an overnight train trip with my brother and mom and dad. We had a double sleeper compartment and, while I would have liked the upper berth, my older brother got it. Still, when dad took my Buster Browns and sat them in the passage outside the compartment and informed me that the sleeping car porter would shine them and return before breakfast, I thought this is what the good life must look like.

As a junior high schooler growing up in the old railroad town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, I loved to go downtown – the Union Pacific mainline actually divides the heart of Rock Springs – and watch trains, particularly passenger trains, whistle through. In the late 1960’s American long distance train travel was in its last gasp, but the wonderful City of Portland still ran through Rock Springs and the romantic sounding Portland Rose made the daily run from Denver to the Rose City.

Now intercity passenger trains in the United States are about as scarce as the American manufacturing sector. The once great network of trains that existed to carry the mail and people has essentially shrunk to a few routes between major cities. Amtrak limps along with regular threats to its budget and often second-class service. The rest of the world is leaving us in the dust.

Spain has now become the world’s leader in high speed rail. King Juan Carlos opened the new Madrid – Valencia line over the weekend. The 219-mile trip will take 90 minutes.

China – big surprise – is investing billions in its intercity trains and has entered into agreements with GE to manufacture equipment. The Chinese have a plan in place to link, by high speed rail, China with Laos, Thailand and Singapore. In the USA, we can merely watch as the strategic Chinese leadership comes to dominate the world market for rail equipment and then uses that dominance to economically rule all of southeast Asia, in part, thanks to a modern, high speed rail system.

The universally hated Obama stimulus package contained $8 billion for high speed rail construction, but newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio have refused the money that had been set aside for new routes in those states. Even as congressional Republicans, as well as some Democrats, are talking about reducing the commitment to rail, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has re-directed the Wisconsin and Ohio money to developing rail systems in Florida, California and a few other states. Conservative media voices are almost unanimous in opposition to this type of rail development and the safe betting is that even maintaining existing rail funding in the new Congress will set off a major fight.

The administration has sold high speed rail development a a jobs initiative than as a long-term transportation investment. And, while it is difficult to argue with the jobs that rail construction will create – Wisconsin is already facing job losses from the Spanish company that had set up shop in Milwaukee to build equipment – the real issue here is a long-term transportation strategy for the country.

Here’s a question for American policymakers: why is the rest of the world investing in this technology, even at a time of severe fiscal constraint, while we can’t arrive at any consensus about rail?

I think the answer rests in a different way of thinking in Europe and Asia about transportation. For economic and environmental reasons, countries like Spain, France, China and India are de-emphasizing the automobile and seeking other strategies. While the rest of the world is getting on with the work of finding new ways to get along entirely, or almost entirely, without a car, the U.S. can’t even come together on a strategy to streamline big city to big city transportation.

This may present a pivotal moment, ironically not unlike the moment in the 1950’s when Dwight Eisenhower committed the United States to a comprehensive interstate highway system. That decision, unfolding over years of planning and construction, transformed the country, uniting the nation with a modern surface transportation system. For good and bad – mostly good – we are living with that big highway legacy today. Secretary LaHood, a Republican and respected former Illinois Congressman, makes a compelling case that a new, national high speed rail network is this generation’s legacy transportation and infrastructure project. But, given our lack of ability to create a national vision about almost anything, can we possibly seize the moment?

Gov-elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin based some of his opposition to high speed rail on the on-going costs to the state of maintaining the system that was to connect Milwaukee with Madison and eventually Minneapolis. That is a legitimate long-term planning issue, but no different than the cost every state now incurs to maintain Ike’s interstates. The point is that 60 some years ago, the country made a strategic, long-term investment in transportation and, of course, the interstate highway system was incredibly costly. The federal share alone, not to mention on-going maintenance was close to $120 billion, but that cost pales in comparison to the jobs created, the people moved and the commerce facilitated. What will we do for transportation in 2050? China and Spain may be sending us a clue if we are smart enough to listen.

One of the great train stations in the world is the Gare de Lyon in Paris, the terminus of the French high speed trains that connect the heart of Paris with France’s second largest city, Lyon, and the great port city of Marseille. A high speed rail trip on the sleek and comfortable TGV from Lyon to Paris takes about 2 hours, intercity to intercity the 250 miles is covered in comfort and safety. Trust me, arriving at the Gare de Lyon, home to the fabulous Le Train Bleu restaurant, and grabbing a cab at the station beats the heck out of battling the crowds and traffic at Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris. When I made the trip a few years ago, the Paris bound passengers were a mixture of day trippers, business people and tourists. There were as many laptops and cell phones as backpacks and cameras. It was a first-class trip at a fraction of the time and cost to fly or drive.

I’m nostalgic about that first rail trip from Alliance, Nebraska to Omaha more than 50 years ago, but fond memories aside, I can’t escape the thought that Americans would come to value quality intercity train service if our policymakers could get their heads around the idea that we really can go back to the future.

A Verdict of History

mccarthyWisconsin’s Curious Senate History

At least three times in the last sixty-plus years Wisconsin voters have sent packing a respected national politician with a record of genuine accomplishment and replaced him with, well, to be generous, someone else.

La Follette – McCarthy

In 1946 Joe McCarthy, whose name is forever linked with a bleak period in American political history, beat Sen. Robert M. La Follette, Jr. in the Wisconsin Republican primary. Young Bob La Follette had replaced his father, Fighting Bob La Follette, in the Senate when the elder icon of the famous Wisconsin political family died in 1925. Robert La Follette, Sr. was selected in 1955 as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators.

By all accounts Young Bob was a serious, studious legislator determined to carry on his father’s progressive political legacy. La Follette was also supremely independent. He broke ranks with the old-line Republican Party in 1932 to support Franklin Roosevelt, supported much of FDR’s New Deal legislation and was a champion of civil liberties when such things were not very popular. A measure of La Follette’s respect in the Senate is contained in the intriguing fact that, although elected as a Republican, Democrats gave him the chairmanship of an important labor investigations committee in the 1930’s. He also helped pass landmark federal government reorganization legislation near the end of his Senate career.

McCarthy’s career, despite regular efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of the bully from Appleton, is well documented. He was shameless as a self promoter, trampled on the very idea of civil liberties and was ultimately censured by the Senate in 1954. His death at 49 in 1957 was directly related to his years of heavy drinking.

After service in the Truman Administration, young Bob La Follette’s life also came to a tragic end. He committed suicide in 1953.

Nelson – Kasten

In 1980, Wisconsin voters turned out another remarkable Senator, Gaylord Nelson. First elected to the Senate in 1963, Nelson, a former Wisconsin Governor, became one of the foremost champions in the Congress of conservation legislation. Nelson supported trails legislation, sponsored or co-sponsored the Wilderness Act and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. It was Gaylord Nelson’s idea to have the very first Earth Day in 1970. The event was important because, as Nelson later said, the country needed “a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

President Clinton presented Nelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995, fifteen years after his defeat by Robert Kasten in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

Kasten went on to, charitably, a less-than-distinguished two terms in the Senate. Kasten now has his own consulting business. Defeated for re-election in 1992, Kasten was a part of the Class of 1980 that included Idaho’s Steve Symms, Indiana’s Dan Quayle, New York’s Al D’Amato and South Dakota’s James Abdnor. None of whom, history would say, made much of a lasting mark in the United States Senate.

Feingold – Johnson

It remains to be seen if the most recent Senate election in Wisconsin, where Sen. Russ Feingold lost re-election, continues the McCarthy – Kasten pattern of replacing an accomplished, national figure with a senator who doesn’t quite measure up.

Feingold, say what you will about his generally liberal politics, was widely seen as a serious legislator with one of the most independent records in the Senate. Republican John McCain got downright emotional in talking about Feingold’s Senate career. “I don’t think he is replaceable,” McCain said during a floor speech.

History will judge, but Feingold’s principled opposition to the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the Iraq War, not to mention his bipartisan work with McCain on campaign finance reform, mark him as someone who made a difference during three terms in the Senate.

Sen-elect Ron Johnson – he beat Feingold by 105,000 votes in November – came out of no where to do so. Johnson is a plastic manufacturer, a favorite of the Tea Party movement and has never held public office.

It has been said that we get the government we deserve. One wonders, with the perfect hindsight of history, if the great state of Wisconsin, proud of its cheese and Packers, might not like to replay at least a couple of its 20th Century U.S. Senate elections?

The judgment passing of history can be rather harsh on whether we voters always make the best choices. Put a different way, looking back on Wisconsin’s Senate history, another term for a Bob La Follette and a Gaylord Nelson might look pretty good right now.


Ron Santo

santoA Great Cub and Good Guy

I told myself, what with the winter blahs and all, that I was done with misty eyed reminiscences about old ballplayers, at least until spring. But then Ron Santo died.

I’ve always thought of Ernie Banks as the eternal Cub and he is, but Santo – who should be in the Hall of Fame, by the way – is only a half step behind “Mr. Cub” in his lifetime of devotion to the boys on the North Side of Chicago.

In the eternal terminology of baseball, Santo was a gamer. Not elegant, not polished, just gritty and determined; a grown man loving playing a kids game and amassing fine stats over a 14-year career. A life-time .277 average, 342 home runs, numerous All Star appearances and a half dozen Gold Gloves puts Santo in rare company, indeed.

I loved the Ron Santo eulogy delivered by his long-time WGN radio broadcast partner Pat Hughes. Hughes took to calling Santo a “Cubs legend” and, as the Associated Press reported, the two broadcasters had a lot of fun together, including one hilarious moment when Santo’s hair piece caught on fire at Shea Stadium.

Hughes and Santo “were standing for the national anthem in the cramped booth when Hughes heard something ‘sizzling like bacon.’ He turned around, saw Santo’s head on fire and quickly poured a cup of water on it.

“‘He said how does it look?’ Hughes said. ‘I lied and said, ‘It doesn’t look that bad.’ It actually looked like a professional golfer had taken a pitching wedge and hit one off his head.'”

As good as he was as a ballplayer, Santo lived a long life battling diabetes. He originally didn’t tell the Cubs of his disease fearing it would prevent him playing baseball. It didn’t and considering the adversity he encountered, loosing both legs to the disease, Ron Santo turned out to be every bit as good and courageous a person as he was a ballplayer.

Everyone liked Ron Santo. Maybe that’s why he was destined to be a Chicago Cub.