Russ Feingold At Rest

by Seth Colter Walls

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.