Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Russ Feingold At Rest

There will be plenty of political eulogies forthcoming on behalf of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Anyone Who Cared About the Influence of Money in Politics and Oh Sure, Civil Liberties, Too). This won't be one, precisely—or at least not a eulogy on behalf of his politics. If you were forced to adopt the standard pose of a central-casting "secular progressive," sure, you'd admit Feingold's defeat hurts more than most of the others dealt out last night by the hydra-headed beast that was Congressional Bloodbath XXVII: The Inchoate Reckoning. (Republicans won the anti-banker vote? [Whistles, moves on.])

But let's think about Feingold for a moment, instead of ourselves.

Forget all the things he stood for–those lonely votes against the Iraq War resolution and the Patriot Act (yes, even TARP, from the left). The other thing to remember here is that, really and truly, this guy did not dig Washington. If there's a silver lining for those who care about the man, it's that now he gets to go home for a while, to a state he genuinely loves, as he figures out what to do next.

He'll regret being absent from the next Pakistan briefing in the Senate's select Committee on Intelligence, though it's next to impossible to think of him missing the other status "perks" that reduce other Senators to the grinning little boys they (mostly) are. (I once saw Ted Stevens presenting an overall mien strikingly similar to that of a delighted toddler, while he rode the rinky-dink rail line underneath the Capitol building. He had recently been indicted on seven felony counts by a federal grand jury.)

Feingold had this long-running line with political reporters, about his wife calling him "Mr. Excitement" because of "all the naps it takes to keep this thing going." I first read it in the Progressive magazine back in 2002, and so I recognized it when he also used it on me–minus the wife part–in 2008, after his second marriage had busted up. Point is, the guy was in Washington to actually do the work. Did you ever see Feingold beaming with unearned pride as one of the three presidents he served alongside was handing out those stale candies of recognition–"Hey, so you're also here tonight! Suck on this!"–at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner? No, you did not. According to Sanford Horwitt's biography of Feingold, the Senator also forbade his staff from even accepting free tickets to the charity dinner–from journalists, even! Here's another good anecdote from Horwitt's book, in which a staffer recalls one late night on the Hill.

I remember going late at night to some committee meeting–we were cleaning up a bill. I walked in, and they had Chinese food. They asked if I wanted some. I said, "Did you buy this? I'm not allowed to accept something except if it's from another staff person." The laughed and said, "Don't worry; we ordered it. You [Feingold] guys are such pains in the butt." So I took an egg roll. And after I ate it, they started laughing. It was actually sent by some restaurant association or some lobbying group. They were just cracking up. "You're contaminated," they said. "Taking food from lobbyists." So I took a dollar out and laid it on the table. "Here's my dollar for my egg roll," I said. It was an interesting illustration… of how it was a threat to their culture.

For all the anti-DC talk you hear from politicos, most of them can't get enough of the place. The diagonally slicing arterial avenues are just larded with dudes in khaki pants and gold-buttoned blue blazers who, pre-Pelosi ethics rules, couldn't cram down enough lobbyist-purchased steaks at the charmlessly wood-panelled wine n' dine joints for which the district is so famous. You know how, yesterday, Politico's honchos bemoaned the state of distraction-driven political culture? Yeah, it's like that with politicians who campaign against Washington. Most of these people are having fun there.

At any rate, I have no idea what Sen. Feingold was like with members of Wisconsin's press. Based on the fact that all of the state's major papers–liberal and conservative alike–endorsed him this time around, my guess is he could turn on the charm when he wanted. But Feingold treated talking to national political reporters–or, er, at least me–like it was total drudge work. It was pretty funny. You'd ask him a set-up question about his pet issue, just an opening for him to tee off on (and also so you could introduce all the arcane acronyms, like FISA and PAA, to your readers at once). And then you could just hear it in his voice. The, "oh God, this is pretty elementary" or "I hope this doesn't get dumbed down super hard."

He also rarely lingered after the few think tank talks he was invited to give. Though, as a reporter, you could sometimes meet really interesting people in his audiences. (Including, one time, an ex-CIA op from the Tenet era who had come because, like, Feingold actually knew things.) I never took Feingold's sort of chilly shoulder personally. But I could also see how such a firm no-bullshit attitude at all times would make life hard in DC.

Another attribute that came through really clearly, whenever you asked him about the near-term political implications of something, was how the Senator was playing a different game from everyone else. Aside from times when simple obstructionism is the strategy, most legislators will drop a fight once it's clear a loss is inevitable. I asked Feingold, on one occasion, why he was even bothering to offer amendments on a bill when he knew the only reason his amendments had been allowed to the floor was that they were sure to fail.

"We're trying to make a record here, and to show who voted for what," he said. "My prediction is this thing will go through; it will be challenged and go through the courts. And eventually a Supreme Court with something like seven Republican-appointed judges will strike down the worst parts of it. This is a long-term battle to protect the rights of the American people."

So: a guy like that served 18 years in the United States Senate. There's not really much else to say about the fact that he couldn't secure a fourth term, other than to post this video from one of the colleagues he'll leave behind on that body's committee on all things judicial in nature.

Seth Colter Walls is The Awl's chief correspondent for the difficult arts. He used to write about politics all the damn time.

25 Comments / Post A Comment

petejayhawk (#1,249)

This is the one race that is just killing me. Russ Feingold, in addition to his more prominent national positions, was also very in touch with issues that actually affected Wisconsin. My boss used to meet with him semi-regularly to discuss issues related to assisted living…not the most glamorous topic, but Feingold always was incredibly well-briefed on the topic and never failed to remember the smallest details – not just about assisted living, but about my boss (who was also my father) during their meetings too.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Indeed. This makes me glad, in a perverse way, that I live in a state where it's inevitable that one Republican ideologue would easily replace another- so you never really worry about it much in the first place.

caw_caw (#5,641)

This one killed me too. Ugh. What a loss for America. Unbelievable.

hockeymom (#143)

Plus, he's kind of sexy in that smart, do-gooder way.

Moff (#28)

The mood in our house in Madison, at least, is just grim. Even the cat had a bad night. That Feingold was beaten so soundly by a guy who by all accounts couldn't articulate a single specific policy goal — even all one of the local Limbaugh wannabes could only say vaguely of Ron Johnson that he had a "very sophisticated worldview" (although of course he was simultaneously the salt of the earth) — just makes me want to throw up. Prefarably on somebody.

Moff (#28)

Fix that "preferably" typo? Or let it go and avoid all the ugly slash marks? Let it go, let it go…

With regard to even the cat having a bad night – Though I don't live in Wisconsin, my very well-trained dog starting crying just before 2am, and when I went to see what the problem was, she proceeded to take a gigantic piss all over the floor (which she has never ever ever done). I took it as a sign.

Moff (#28)

Yeah, the cat has been deeply well behaved for weeks now, and then last night she reverted to waking us up at 4 a.m. Of course, the Puffersons of Madison have always been a very forward-thinking clan.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

Depressing (but this was a pleasure to read).

Dave Bry (#422)

Yes. Sad but really, really good.

We didn't deserve him. Our penance will be newly elected Senator Derp Durr demonstrating daily why we're called flyover country.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Johnson was such a fuckup that Feingold even got endorsed by the Green Bay Gazette, the first time EVER that newspaper sided with him. That says something. Johnson did not get a single WI newspaper endorsement. But honestly, this could turn out really well for WI if he takes it easy for 4 years and then runs for governor after Scott Walker completely gets nothing done and everyone's pissed because all services have been cut. Indeed, Feingold would probably make a more effective governor than a senator. Of course, party-line dems should be scared shitless about an unemployed Feingold looking to make an example out of them during a doomed, but principled, 2012 run.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

Hope So.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Loved reading this. Also I have faith our best Senator will be back.

In spite of the grim message, this was a positively delightful read.

Nkempf (#8,385)

If only people KNEW who they actually voted for in Ron Johnson. He FAILED to get his MBA in U-Minn, and dropped out, the company he "founded", was founded in 1977 in Wisconsin, even though he didn't live in Wisconsin until 1979. His company employs nearly 50% of their workers from the local prison, and only has to pay them minimum wage, and offer no insurance, because the state picks that up, AND his company also deals solely with Bemis (another local company), which his BROTHER-IN-LAW is an executive for. AND Mr Johnson also said to a local newspaper that current Senator Herb Kohl did NOT have the business experience he had. Herb Kohl, as in the former President of the KOHLS corporation, and owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Oh what a winner we've chose…

"As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and
more closely, the inner soul of the people."

[Wolf-whistles, moves on.]

uws_annajane (#6,186)

I would SO trade in Harry Reid for Russ Feingold about now, even though it would mean having Angle in the Senate.


Craig Gibeaut (#8,396)

Just to make a correction, The Janesville Gazette, where Feingold was born, endorsed Johnson. Of course, the Gazette is owned by conservatives, and have the last word on endorsements.

Yes, but: the JG has a smaller circulation than all the papers mentioned in the link. Quite a bit smaller, in most cases, though the JG comes close to the smallest "major" paper mentioned there (that being the Wausau Daily Herald).

And it's *just* bigger than the Oshkosh Northwestern–though the campaign only included that title in its survey of "major" endorsements because it's Johnson's hometown paper.

KarenUhOh (#19)

How rich, that the Janesville paper endorsed Johnson. That town, that whole area, has taken such a monstrous hit in the past few years economically–it was a big labor town–but, like the entirety of Scared White America, the JG's editorial board believes sucking the teats of the wealthy will make them gush gold.

I'll add that South Central Wisconsin is an ag-subsidized paradise.

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