Russ Feingold: Obama 'Never a Left-Wing Progressive'

As an author, Russ Feingold dispenses constructive criticism for all parts of the flabby body politic.

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Russ Feingold brought his new book and refreshing Wisconsinite ways to the Washington book store Politics and Prose the other night. The buoyant scene felt straight out of Madison, the capital city where the Progressive Party was born. The former Democratic senator, who served 18 years and lost his re-election race in 2010, was treated as if he were, well, a Jewish Jimmy Stewart. Getting fired by angry voters in the Tea Party election of 2010 seemed a badge of honor in this throng.

Feingold,  flanked by family members including a baby grandson nicknamed Izzy, tackled the main points of While America Sleeps. Here are a few. As president, George W. Bush  "directly assaulted" the Constitution, he said, and took the nation into a tragic war of choice by invading Iraq. Secondly, we the American people are in a slumber of sorts and haven't made "the turn" since a fateful September morning clouded a blue sky. Responding to a question, he gave the skinny on his friend, President Barack Obama: "He was never a left-wing progressive."

Feingold said from Obama's first days in the Senate, he was carefully managed as a presidential contender and was thus slow to support Feingold's (losing) amendment for an exit plan for the Iraq War. In May 2007, Feingold said, Obama surprised him by voting "Aye," quietly, while Sen. Hillary Clinton watched closely. Feingold jokingly said, "Finally." Obama turned around and, smiling, said, "Russ, I'm always with you--just six months later."

[See political cartoons about President Obama.]

Never did the speaker raise his voice. And yes, he declared, he'll be a player in the 2012 political arena, taking a prominent role in Obama's re-election campaign. 

As an author, Feingold dispenses constructive criticism for all parts of the flabby body politic. We're all in this together, his meta-message whispers, and do we really want to be a nation of scaredy-cats that fails to engage with the rest of the world? The title, of course, evokes John F. Kennedy's book, Why England Slept. The young Kennedy wrote democracy in England and America was "asleep at the switch" in the period leading up to World War II. 

So we are again asleep in stressed times, Feingold states, offering "patriotic service" abroad as one remedy to make up for a foreign policy that bordered on "absurd" from 2001 to early 2009.  A dairy farmer near Green Bay who travels yearly to a Russian republic to show how to keep bacteria in milk down to safe levels is offered as an example. In his view,  much of our national security depends on more international study and good-will outreach. 

Of  Feingold, it may be safely said: he was one man in a 100. This is not just because he volunteers for lighthouse-keeper duty on one page and on another skips to seeing an ancient synagogue on a Tunisian island. In his state's maverick progressive tradition, he cast the only Senate vote against the PATRIOT Act, hastily drawn up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This stand has held up well over time. This book shall do the same, as veritable night vision goggles into the dark Bush era. Let's face it, the 21st century has been a flop; if it had been a Broadway show, it would have closed. 

[See photos of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.]

Part wake-up call, part memoir, and part call to arms, Feingold opens up a breathtaking view of the backstory of American government in the best and worst of times. As a public servant who never lost with his inner Bob Dylan, the book blends a dual insider/outside perspective. 

Feingold's crisp candor calls up the colorful diaries of Englishman Samuel Pepys, a high Navy official in the 17th century reign of King Charles II. For example, as a senator whose staff was affected by the unrelated anthrax attacks (by mail) in the aftermath of the terrorist  attacks, Feingold observed the machinery and mood of legislative government on Capitol Hill was undermined further by nerves, fears, and crowded emergency quarters just when the country needed resolve. This useful insight is a new one.

When I was a rookie reporter for The Hill ages ago, Feingold stood out for me in the august body as a democratic lawmaker—small d, in that he treated everybody pretty much the same—with a midwestern egalitarianism which was a breath of fresh air in that chamber. Back in the 1990s, his Democratic colleagues told me they considered him an up-and-coming talent, a prediction that held water as he teamed with Sen. John McCain to pass campaign finance reform. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

This turned into an abiding friendship. Later, during the Bush presidency, Feingold was often on his own in contentious debates on civil liberties, government surveillance, waterboarding, and treatment of suspected terrorist detainees. Yet one day on a foreign trip,  McCain turned to him on a plane ride and said: torture doesn't work. "He knew," Feingold added, noting McCain's years as a prisoner of war in the so-called Hanoi Hilton. 

Such sharp vignettes make this testament sparkle. Feingold gives deft sketches of  Washington denizens. Pundit George Will is portrayed with a frozen face, greeting him as "the devil itself."  Feingold narrates travel in Africa with the "brilliant" late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and tells of an open clash with former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on the floor. He takes to task Leon Panetta, secretary of defense, for linking the Iraq War and the September 11 attacks during a talk to soldiers at Camp Victory in Baghdad. That old storyline must be refuted, he writes, in the absence of even one WMD found in Iraq. 

On the other hand, the Wisconsinite goes out of his way to say a good word about Richard Nixon (whom he campaigned against when he was 7 years old) and humanizes John Ashcroft, Bush's attorney general, as a man who while on a hospital bed, refused to cross a line on civil liberties. 

The hostile climate toward Democratic incumbents in 2010, Feingold said, showed up shortly after Obama took office. "We started receiving tea bags at our offices in Wisconsin—and most of us were big coffee drinkers," he wrote. Similarly,  after a hearty talk of war with France, Pepys penned this line on Sept. 25, 1660:  "And afterwards did send for a cupp of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank  before." Tea was neither man's cup of tea.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • See pictures of soldiers returning home from Iraq.
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