From the May, 2003 issue of The Valley Scene

An Open Letter to Senator Russ Feingold

Dear Senator Feingold,

On April 17, 2003 I attended your listening session at UW Oshkosh. You took offense to my remarks challenging you to speak out against the Iraq war on the floor of the US Senate while the war is in progress. As you know, Senator Bob LaFollette spoke out against World War I as the war raged. Since you and your supporters habitually link your conduct to LaFollette, I expected you to demand publicly that the Senate debate the merits of the war even as the bullets fly. Instead, you've charted a politically safe course as evidenced by this statement released to the press:

"American troops have been called to action in Iraq - I am confident in their abilities, and I hope for a swift victory and for their safe and quick return. In recent months the country has rightly debated the wisdom of our policy in Iraq. But the commencement of military operations unites us as we focus on our ongoing support for our troops. More then ever, my thoughts are with our servicemen and women, and with their families."

Quite a departure from LaFollette on the floor of the Senate at the height of World War I:

"More than all, the citizen and his representative in Congress in time of war must maintain his right of free speech. More than in times of peace it is necessary that the channels for free public discussion of governmental policies shall be open and unclogged. I believe . . . that is the right of the citizens of this country and their representatives in Congress to discuss in an orderly way, frankly and publicly and without fear, from the platform and through the press, every important phase of this war; its causes, and manner in which it should be conducted, and the terms upon which peace should be made . . ."

At the listening session you claimed that to speak out against Operation Iraqi Freedom on the Senate floor while the war is in progress would undercut our troops. When LaFollette spoke out against World War I did he undercut our troops? Wasn't it President Wilson who undercut the troops by sending them to fight in an unjust war? Did Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich undercut our troops when he stood recently on the floor of the House of Representatives and called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq? Wouldn't you agree that it is President Bush and his Congressional enablers who are undercutting our troops today?


Shocked and awed by your listening session stance, I said that in the future you should no longer link yourself to LaFollette. Link yourself instead to Bill Proxmire: a good man, a thoughtful maverick, but no Bob LaFollette.

You claimed at the listening session that you have never attempted to link yourself to LaFollette. Senator, you know as well as I that progressives across Wisconsin see you as heir to the LaFollette legacy and that you have often made the connection to Fightin' Bob in your own writings and speeches. Writing for Madison's Progressive Magazine, John Nichols said that, "In the Upper Midwest, La Follette's legacy lives on . . . Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold made that legacy a centerpiece of his reelection campaign against a significantly better-financed Republican challenger."

Fightin' Bob LaFollette Russ Feingold Bill Proxmire

In 1996, you wrote in the Progressive Populist, "Of course, Senator Robert M. LaFollette Sr. of Wisconsin was a leading figure among progressives, and I am part of his progressive legacy." In 2000 you invoked the spirit of LaFollette splendidly when you began "calling the bankroll" on the floor of the Senate.

I realize that being linked to LaFollette does not obligate you to mimic his positions on every issue. On the other hand, the true test of a Wisconsin progressive is not his or her stand on campaign finance reform, balanced budgets, or the bovine growth hormone. Your stands on these and other issues are commendable and much appreciated by millions. But the true test of a Wisconsin progressive is his or her willingness to continue to ask tough questions and participate in democratic debate even during times of great national unrest and even when harsh political consequences might result from doing so. By sympathizing with the Senate leadership's decision to silence debate on Operation Iraqi Freedom, you have failed the Wisconsin progressive test.

I urge you to follow the lead of your colleagues Senator Byrd and Representative Kucinich. As American troops were called into combat, Byrd stood up and said, "A pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of thousands of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq."

Representative Kucinich took to the House floor to say, "Stop this war now. It is wrong. It is illegal. It is unjust and it will come to no good for this country."

History will show that Byrd and Kucinich today, like LaFollette in 1917, tried to rescue America's democratic institutions from the deadening grip of political opportunism and expediency. Who could have ever imagined that Russ Feingold, the courageous lone Senate vote against the USA PATRIOT ACT, would respond to the contemporary Congressional anti-war LaFollettes with Senate floor silence?


Tony Palmeri
UW Oshkosh Associate Professor of Communication

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