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The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America.

During the almost half-century that the La Follettes held high political office in Wisconsin, friends and enemies alike tended to overestimate the power and influence that they wielded; historians have been tempted to do the same. To suggest that "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his two sons - one named during the 1950s as one of the five greatest United States senators of all time (Robert M. La Follette, Sr.), another Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal choice to succeed himself in the White House and selected by the Washington press corps as the "best Senator in Washington" (Robert, Jr.), and the last rising to the governorship in his early thirties and seriously entertaining a White House bid before the age of forty (second son, Philip) - have been given more credit than they deserve may seem wrongheaded. Nonetheless, unless we step back and place leaders like them in their proper historical context, we are likely to misjudge their innovativeness, independence, power, and importance, for politics is a group endeavor.

More than most politicians, it must be admitted, the La Follettes managed to transcend familiar limits and to shape events in accordance with their own wiwhes. "Old Bob," in implementing his Wisconsin Plan as governor from 1901 to 1905, helped transform Wisconsin into a "laboratory of reform" and a model of political progressivism that other states could emulate. In the United States Senate, until his death in 1925, he remained a prominent voice for an independent-minded, constructive approach to solving the social and economic problems unleashed by modern industrial society. "Young Bob," who replaced him in the Senate and remained there until losing to Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1946 Republican primary, emerged as a leading spokesman in his own right for the interests of farmers, laborers, and the economically disadvantaged during the early Depression years. "Phil," during his three terms as governor in the thirties, pushed through the legislature the nation's first and only unemployment compensation law before the enactment of the federal Social Security Act, figured prominently in 1934 in the formation of the immediately victorious Wisconsin Progressive party, put into operation Wisconsin's "Little New Deal," and failed in 1938 in a futile bid for national influence with his ill-timed National Progressives of America. His political career was over by the time he was forty-one.

It is a bit surprising that no one came along before Bernard Weisberger to do a La Follette family biography, but perhaps the La Follettes did not seem exciting or "sexy" enough subjects, in comparison to, say, the Kennedys or the Roosevelts. Although sexy may not be the correct adjective for them, there was love aplenty in the family, a point that Weisberger is correct to emphasize. Subtitling his study "Love and Politics in Progressive America," he alternates his attention between the political arena and the homefront, showing how other family members provided strong psychic support for both generations of crusading La Follette leaders. Love between husband and wife cemented the bond that sustained and cultivated the former's political sensibility and actions. The picture that is presented of Belle Case La Follette's insecurities and limitations rings truer than do some of those provided by acolytes or by onlookers who suspected that she may have been the real "power behind the throne" in the family. But the accomplishments of this first woman law school graduate of the University of Wisconsin, contributing editor to La Follette's Weekly, and general all-purpose political adviser were considerable, and her husband's greatness as a politician derived in large part from her able and steadfast support. The loving admiration of his children likewise sustained the Senator, and during the years after World War I his sons' political abilities on the platform and in strategy sessions, and, in Young Bob's case, service as personal secretary considerably assisted their father. But the more important direction of influence, of course, went the other way. Their father's deeds created an inspiring - and intimidating - example for the boys to try to imitate. The La Follette name and record were assets, to be sure; without them, the likelihood that either of the boys - Robert especially - would have made the mark that they did on politics would have been slim. But they also constituted a burden, for they were almost impossible to live up to, and Phil especially seems to have been haunted by the suspicion - both in his own mind and in that of others - that he never would be able to fulfill his father's expectations.

The book's title might lead readers to expect a full-fledged treatment of both generations of the family. (There was a third generation, too. Young Bob's son Bronson served twice as state attorney general and obtained the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1968.) But the sons' political careers are not dealt with until the eighth and final chapter. Chapter 1, on "Belle and Bob," carries the study to 1905, describing the family backgrounds, educations, and early married lives of the couple up through La Follette's years as governor in Madison. That leaves the middle six chapters to cover the two decades from 1905 to 1925, which means that the book concentrates primarily upon Old Bob's senatorial career and the activities of the rest of the family during that period of time. Belle, Young Bob, and Phil are not the only ones to get treated. The eldest child, Fola (born a year after her parents' marriage, in 1882), receives a whole chapter on her rather disappointing career as a stage actress and her marriage to playwright George Middleton. Mary (born in 1899), who seems to have felt outmatched by her older siblings, compiling a mediocre educational record and an unsatisfactory marriage, is discussed in several chapters.

The book's primary contribution lies in its detailed characterizations of the personal and emotional lives of each family member. Weisberger is at his best in discussing their feelings, hopes, ambitions, joys, and disappointments as they themselves described them in personal letters to each other. He has a knack both for paraphrase and quotation, and this inside look at the emotional lives of two generations of La Follettes will be welcome to historians both of politics and of the family. There is more to learn here about love than about politics; the book's primary virtue also constitutes its severest limitation. By focusing upon interrelationships within the family and relying primarily upon what family members themselves told each other on the written page, the author has, per force, made it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether their view of things in fact adequately describes what was really happening on the political scene. To have attempted to accomplish both tasks would have required a much longer book than this one already is and would have necessitated a whole different approach. This is merely to say that those who have been waiting for the definitive political biography of the La Follettes will have to wait a while longer. This book provides us with the family's perspective served up in sprightly and readable fashion. To get the entire story we would need to obtain more of an outsider perspective.

If the book were to be retitled, it might well be called The La Follette Family Papers. The footnotes rely heavily upon letters in the La Follette Family Papers at the Library of Congress, along with La Follette's Autobiography (written as a campaign document for the 1912 election) and the biography of him started by Belle and completed by Fola after her mother's death. Their long and useful - but admittedly biased - account of the Senator's career also depended heavily upon the family letters. Beyond that, Weisberger cites other primary and secondary works in places, but only infrequently, and their absence at points of controversy is especially surprising. More than once the author makes explicit his reliance on the La Follettes' own perceptions and recollections for his narrative line, and in the bibliography he explains and justifies his approach: "The reader will note that the book is primarily a record of the world as seen through La Follette eyes. I make no bones about that; it was precisely what I wanted to convey, but I hope it is clear in the text that I am aware of the boundaries of that conscious approach and most decidedly hope that I have not had the last word" (p. 344). Weisberger weaves a fascinating and highly readable narrative from these materials.

Yet, the approach is more conducive to biography than to history. Any attempt to fully explain the origins and impact of progressivism in Wisconsin would have to place the family's activities into a broader historical context. Weisberger realizes this and is unwilling to retreat from the field altogether. In a long footnote in chapter 1, he takes a swipe at several previous interpretations of the movement, accusing Robert S. Maxwell, Herbert Margulies, and David Thelen of being too harsh in assessing La Follette's motives and methods.(1) He associates them with students of national progressivism such as Richard Hofstader, Samuel P. Hays, Gabriel Kolko, Richard Abrams, Allen Davis, and David Chalmers, who, he contends, have attempted to "deconstruct" the Progressives' professed goals and questioned their sincerity. While these historians "were not all identical in purpose or outlook," nevertheless "the cumulative effect of their work was to paint a fairly unflattering portrait of the progressive generation" (p. 324). Their approach, Weisberger contends, demeans and dehumanizes the past, trivializes the passions and struggles of the people who fought for reform, and blinds us to the real evils that they were fighting against. The result is that "biographers working out of such a background cannot help finding La Follette a juicy target" (p. 325).

This book then becomes, in effect, a brief for the defense. It provides a picture of La Follette's aims and accomplishments as seen through his own eyes and those of his family, for the most part, with only minor attempts to obtain a broader perspective. A good example is Weisberger's treatment of the famous Plankinton House hotel episode in which La Follette alleged he had been offered a bribe by Senator Philetus Sawyer. La Follette's Autobiography described the Sawyer encounter as a converting experience which opened his eyes to the true nature of the evils of boss rule.(2) Absent any dramatic new evidence, Weisberger is forced to rely primarily on La Follette's autobiographical account and its recycling in his wife's biography, in addition to which he applies a bit of logic and throws in a quotation from a contemporary politician insinuating that Sawyer likely was acting in bad faith. He readily admits that we probably never will know what actually happened between Sawyer and La Follette that day. Yet, he follows this on the next page by criticizing historians who have questioned La Follette's sincerity and his version of events, arguing that in fact he was a sincere person, that democracy was more than a slogan for him, that there really were corrupt political alliances, and that the tenacious Progressive valiantly spent his career fighting against them. The problem with this approach is not so much that its conclusions are necessarily wrong as that they rely overmuch on La Follette's own version of what happened.

In The New Citizenship: Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900, David Thelen took less interest in what exactly transpired at the Plankinton Hotel than in establishing what role La Follette played generally in launching political progressivism in the state. The legend promoted by the family and its followers identified La Follette as the instigator of the movement, which he achieved through impassioned oratory, dynamic leadership, and advanced organizational skills. But such an interpretation inverts the order of events and distorts the significance of both La Follette and the reform movement. A wide variety of organizations and groups - social gospelers, consumer advocates, women's rights agitators, social scientists, settlement house workers, tax reformers, and others - coalesced about the time of the depression of 1893 to seek reform and pulled La Follette along with them in the process.(3) Widening the orbit of research beyond a narrow focus on the family provides a more convincing explanation of both the origins and subsequent development of the Wisconsin Progressive movement.

This becomes especially evident in the last chapter on the sons, "The Succession That Wasn't (1925-1941)." Weisberger characterizes their careers as ultimately disappointing and even tragic. Yet, if we add the twenty-one years that Young Bob operated in the Senate to Phil's six years in the governorship, they exceed the amount of time that their father spent in Madison and Washington. Certainly they never attained the level of fame that he did, but under the circumstances their achievements were substantial. As in his chapters dealing with the eider La Follette, Weisberger's account of the sons is interesting, well-written, and informative. But by maintaining his focus too exclusively on their personal ideas, beliefs, and actions, he misses much of the larger context within which they operated. While the book mentions Congressman Thomas Amlie and other radicalized Progressives who pressed for the establishment of a new party in 1934, it concentrates upon Phil and Bob, failing to take into account the complicated intersecting forces that were operating to draw the La Follettes and their fellow Progressives into a new Wisconsin Progressive party.(4) A fuller explanation of the emergence and the astounding early success of the party requires an understanding of the relationships that existed among radical farm and labor groups, Lakeshore Socialists, Republicans, conservative Democrats, Roosevelt Democrats, national third party advocates, and the La Follettes themselves.

Among the book's considerable virtues, however, are that it is highly readable, judicious in tone, aware of the La Follettes' limitations while insistent upon their manifest accomplishments, committed in its admiration of reform values and goals, and long overdue. Its attention to love and affection within the family demonstrates how important these values and relationships can be to any family, including political ones. It provides an important voice contravening some of La Follette's critics. But it also leaves open the opportunity for a political biography of the La Follettes that will put their activities within the broader context of state politics, organizational maneuvering, national events, and demographic analysis, and which will pay as much attention to the second generation as it does to the first.

1. Robert S. Maxwell, La Follette and the Rise of the Progressives in Wisconsin, 1890-1928 (1956); Herbert F. Margulies, The Decline of the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin, 1890-1920 (1968); David Thelen, The New Citizenship: Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 (1972).

2. Robert M. La Follette, Sr., La Follette's Autobiography (1960), p. 65.

3. Thelen, The New Citizenship, pp. 290-308.

4. John E. Miller, Governor Philip F. La Follette, the Wisconsin Progressives, and the New Deal (1982), pp. 39-52; Patrick J. Maney, "Young Bob" La Follette: A Biography of Robert M. La Follette, Jr., 1895-1953 (1978), pp. 133-42.

John E. Miller, Department of History, South Dakota State University, is the author of Looking for History on Highway 14 (1993) and Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town: Where History and Literature Meet (1994).
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Author:Miller, John E.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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