Sanford Horwitt’s new biography of one our political heroes opens with quite a scene:
“Hillary Clinton was livid. Her face turned red and her angry words were aimed directly at Russ Feingold, the junior senator from Wisconsin. You are not living in the real world,’ she told him in front of about 20 of their Democratic Senate colleagues at a closed-door strategy meeting in the Senate’s elegantly appointed LBJ Room highlighted by 19th-century frescoes.”
“The real world” Senator Clinton was espousing was the one where Senators look for loopholes to emasculate the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform.
That “real world” where DLC and Blue Dog Democrats have chosen to live is not a comfortable home for a progressive populist like Russ Feingold – and his electoral success in a primarily rural Midwestern state suggests it’s not the real world that most Americans want either.
Horwitt, who has previously written a stunning biography of Saul Alinsky, is the ideal author to bring us the Feingold story and message. A Wisconsin native himself and a former congressional speechwriter, Horwitt knows the geography of Feingold’s upbringing and career and he share that understanding with us. This is an enjoyable book, full of tales and vignettes that capture the feel of our recent political past in very human terms.
While Feingold’s politics don’t need an introduction here at Firedoglake, I’m probably not the only reader who knew little of his upbringing and early career. This book makes it very clear that Feingold is the organic heir to the energetic progressive politics of Fighting Bob La Follette. Feingold’s childhood in small town Wisconsin – a town where his family was both unusual as one of the few Jewish families – and at home as rooted and respected members of that same community – formed him in ways more significant than his Rhodes Scholarship and Harvard Law degree. Feingold is not a detached intellectual progressive, he is instead a feisty advocate of the little guy and hometown neighborly values, values of integrity, handshake deals and the small town civics that we have lost in our over-lobbied and over-polled politics of today.
While so many politicians rely on focus groups and consultants to shape their votes, Feingold instead keeps a pledge, made in his first run for the Senate, to visit each of the 72 counties in his state each year – and listen. And Horwitt makes it clear that Feingold’s votes even on such hot issues as the Patriot Act and the Iraq War are responsive to the constituents he visits and represents so ably. His landslide victory in 2004 demonstrates that this listening, populist and principled politics resonates on Main Street (much to the surprise of the DC pundits.)
Along with the hardworking, studious and focused Senator, Horwitt also introduces us to the baseball loving, golf playing Russ who comes up with creative grassroots campaign tactics and doesn’t take himself so seriously. In one interview, Horwitt mentioned that Feingold does a great George Bush impersonation (now that’s something we’d love to see on YouTube!) and another recent article recounted this classic Feingold tale from their book party:
After playing a round of golf one weekend last month, he was pulling his flag down when the driver of a passing car put his hand out the window. “I thought he was waving at me, his senator,” says Feingold, until the driver “slowly lifted his middle finger.” Call the cops? Nah.
“I thought, ‘This is America!’” says Feingold. “To do that in front of the house of a U.S. senator . . . this is America.”
In an interview with Lisa Kaiser of Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express, Horwitt summed it up best:
I hope the book will show that it’s not only about the war. It’s about a number of other issues on which Feingold has been politically ahead of where so many in the party have been, and he’s been proven to be right on the substance of those issues and politically. This book is definitely a story about how someone like Russ Feingold gets to be a senator, but it’s also an argument that the Democratic Party would be in much better shape politically—and, by implication, the country as well—if it had really practiced more of the kind of politics that Feingold has practiced, especially over the past 10 years.
Feingold: A New Democratic Party certainly lives up to that hope – and has lessons of value for all of us who hope to change American politics in the next 10 years.