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Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer.

Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer by Nancy C. Unger University of North Carolina. 393 pages. $39.95.

It is said that biographers come either to love or hate their subjects, and I'm afraid that Nancy C. Unger became contemptuous of old Fighting Bob, the Wisconsin Senator and governor, who ran for President in 1924 and just happened to be the founder of this magazine.

Unger depicts La Follette as egomaniacal and hypochondriacal, an exaggerator who was stubborn, self-destructive, and often counterproductive politically. On the personal side, she shows him as weakly dependent on his wife, Belle Case La Follette, and as overbearing toward his children. She even implicates him in the suicide of his son, Bob Jr., who succeeded his dad as a U.S. Senator after Fighting Bob died, and who did himself in three decades later.

I rise to defend La Follette not to engage in an act of necrophilia nor to stake out some proprietary interest in his good name. I'm prepared to accept that La Follette had his fair share of foibles and fragilities, and there's no need to hide them. But Unger reminds me of the H.L. Mencken character in Inherit the Wind who was making fun of the William Jennings Bryan guy (played by Kirk Douglas). Finally, the Clarence Darrow character (Spencer Tracy) has had enough and says of Bryan: "There was greatness in that man."

Most troubling, Unger seems to appreciate neither the value of La Follette's stick-your-neck-out approach nor the radical politics that necessitated it. Only in the epilogue does she bring in the trumpets.

She spends a lot of time simplistically psychoanalyzing La Follette. His dad, an abolitionist and the town clerk of Primrose, Wisconsin, died when Bob was only eight months old. "His mother," writes Unger, "insisted that Bob worship his father's memory and emulate his life as much as possible. Above all, she stressed her late husband's integrity, his devotion to doing `right.' At a very early age, Bob was saddled with a great and unending responsibility: He must never do anything to dishonor his father's name." The impact of this commandment "cannot be overestimated," Unger writes. "Bob spent his lifetime seeking the approval and acceptance of his phantom father.... La Follette's image of his father as a totally righteous man was never tarnished by the words or actions of the real man, human and, therefore, flawed. Righteous perfection is a mighty daunting aspiration, no matter how urgently one is entreated to achieve it, but Robert La Follette would come to take up this challenge with a vengeance."

She follows him through his student years at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he distinguished himself as a competitive speaker. His speech on Othello's Iago won him the prize "as the best orator of the 10,000 students of the six Midwestern states," she writes It brought "the adulation of others and the much-desired approval of his mother," she says

Shortly after graduating from law school, La Follette successfully ran for district attorney. Then, in 1885, he won his race for Congress. It was during this campaign, however, that La Follette first came down with a mental illness that recurred throughout his career, and one that Unger treats unsympathetically. This condition, which may have been manic depression, seems like a crutch to her.

"La Follette's illnesses resulted in a number of gains," she writes. "The pattern of working until totally exhausted, all reserves spent and natural immunities weakened by factors including a poorly balanced diet, allowed La Follette the `right' to enjoy some guiltless rest once the inevitable illness struck.... La Follette's illnesses also provided a handy rationalization in the event that he lost an election."

Unger displays little understanding of, or compassion for, people who suffer from bouts of depression It takes enormous energy for people who are blue just to get out of bed in the morning. That La Follette was able to do so much in his life, despite this handicap, may be more of a reason to praise him than to fault him.

But her sneering extends beyond the illness. Twice within thirteen pages, she pokes at La Follette for thinking that "he alone," unlike any other politician, could discern right from wrong or represent the best interests of the citizenry.

She does portray the development of La Follette's views in an interesting manner, however. She notes the influences upon him, records a decisive turn against corporate power when a lumber baron tried to bribe him in 1891, shows his evolving views on US. intervention abroad (La Follette supported the U.S. war against the Philippines in 1898), and goes on to give La Follette his due for helping bring about the direct election of officials, the abolition of child labor, the eight-hour day, progressive income and estate taxes, women's suffrage, and conservation measures. And she shows him courageously supporting the rights of black Americans and defending free speech.

But in his most radical phase, from 1907-1924, La Follette eludes her. For instance, Unger consistently takes the side of Teddy Roosevelt in the longstanding dispute La Follette had with him. The breach began in 1907 when La Follette introduced a bill to secure the coal lands of the government and Native American tribes from the predations of the mining companies. Roosevelt wanted a compromise that would allow leasing to the companies. La Follette wouldn't back down, and he sent what Unger termed a "condescending, self-righteous" letter to Roosevelt. "The interests of the public," wrote La Follette, "will be better served by temporary defeat of an effective measure dealing with this subject than by compromising on a bill which sounds well in the title but is weak or silent on vital points"

She then quotes, disapprovingly, La Follette's adage that "half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf."

But she doesn't clinch the case for compromise, since the coal and oil companies have consistently cheated the government and the tribes of their royalties for the past ninety years. And she herself points out that many of the bills La Follette championed eventually did become law. People got to eat the full loaf, after all.

A more telling example concerns La Follette's finest hour: his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. La Follette was one of six Senators to vote against the declaration of war, and he continued to voice his disapproval afterward. On September 20, 1917, he gave a speech to the Nonpartisan League's convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, for which he was vilified. Unger provides an excerpt:

"For my own part, I was not in favor of beginning the war," La Follette said. "I don't mean to say that we hadn't suffered grievances. We had--at the hands of Germany--serious grievances! We had cause for complaint. They had interfered with the right of American citizens to travel upon the high seas--on ships loaded with munitions for Great Britain. ... We had a right, a technical right to ship the munitions. And the American citizens have a technical right to ride on those vessels.... I say ... that the comparatively small privilege of the right of an American citizen to ride on a munitions-loaded ship flying a foreign flag is too small to involve this government in the loss of millions and millions of lives!"

Not a bad riff, I would say. But here's Unger's take: "In a time of war, however valid, the speech seemed particularly ill-advised, but certainly not uncharacteristic," she writes, adding that it was part of his "need to demonstrate his righteousness."

Two weeks later, on October 6, La Follette took to the Senate floor to defend himself against charges that he should be expelled from office. Belle Case La Follette said it was his finest speech, but Unger quotes only one sentence of it, and she can't resist adding a remark from Alice Brandeis, wife of the Supreme Court Justice, that the speech was too long.

Let the man speak:

"... The mandate seems to have gone forth to the sovereign people of this country that they must be silent while those things are being done by their government which most vitally concern their well-being, their happiness, and their lives. Today, and for weeks past, honest and law-abiding citizens of this country are being terrorized and outraged in their rights by those sworn to uphold the laws and protect the rights of the people.

"I have in my possession numerous affidavits establishing the fact that people are being unlawfully arrested, thrown into jail, held incommunicado for days, only to be eventually discharged without ever having been taken into court because they have committed no crime. Private residences are being invaded, loyal citizens of undoubted integrity and probity arrested, cross-examined, and the most sacred constitutional rights guaranteed to every American citizen are being violated.

"It appears to be the purpose of those conducting this campaign to throw the country into a state of terror, to coerce public opinion, to stifle criticism and suppress discussion of the great issues involved in this war...."

While recognizing that La Follette won vindication for his views on the war, Unger does not look kindly on his subsequent foreign policy ideas. "In increasingly strident tones, La Follette denounced economic and political imperialism," she writes.

Unger acknowledges the pivotal part that La Follette played in exposing the Teapot Dome scandal, and she wraps up the biography with a look at La Follette's failed Presidential effort in 1924.

The best part of the book is the chapter on Belle Case La Follette, who was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School. An advocate of disarmament, a fighter against racism, and a leading suffragist, she wins Unger's admiration and full sympathy.

But as to Fighting Bob, Unger is not so generous.

"La Follette is tragic because he is no longer recalled as a constructive statesman who strove for a more democratic social order but `merely' as a figure of undaunted courage, unlimited perseverance, and enormous dedication," she writes.

But what does it mean to be a constructive statesman"? It's an open question whether La Follette would have achieved more by being a compromiser, by softening his attacks on corporate power, or by muffling his voice during World War I. His legislative achievements rank him among the most successful Senators ever to serve. And his clarion calls for restraining corporate power, for expanding democracy, for defending civil rights and civil liberties, and for opposing militarism still ring true today.

There are plenty of politicians who go along to get along. There are precious few who stand up and risk all.

In today's Senate, what we need is not more constructive statesmen but more Robert La Follettes.

I yearned for a single Senator to put his or her name to the formal complaint filed by the Congressional Black Caucus to dispute Florida's electoral votes.

I yearned for a single Senator to filibuster U.S. military aid to Colombia, or U.S. sanctions on Iraq, or the passage of "welfare reform," or the Telecommunications Act of 1996, or the insidious crime bill the same year.

Robert La Follette would not have shied away from such a role.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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