To any left-leaning media consumer last week, Russ Feingold seemed to be everywhere -- the New York Times, National Public Radio, “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.
The former Democratic senator from Wisconsin was tirelessly extolling his new book, “While America Sleeps,” a searing critique of his U.S. Senate colleagues in both parties along with many others in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks. The book’s subtitle proclaims it “A Wakeup Call for the Post-9/11 Era.”
Feingold intends the book as a full-throated warning that America and its leaders fail to grasp the complexity and nuance of the ongoing terror threat. He closes by acknowledging his title is spun from Winston Churchill’s book, “While England Slept” about the failure to prevent the rise of Nazi Germany and a related thesis, “Why England Slept,” written by a young John F. Kennedy.
A central theme of Feingold’s book is that the U.S. pays too much attention to some areas and far too little to others. He titles one chapter in his book “A game of Risk,” referring to the classic 1950s board game he played as a child in Janesville in which the goal is to occupy one country at a time, eliminate other players and achieve world domination. Former President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 strategy resembled that game in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Feingold.
In 2004, he writes that he complained on the Senate floor about the singular focus on Iraq -- he called it “geographic stove-piping” of intelligence information -- that resulted in other dangerous al-Qaida hotbeds like Yemen receiving insufficient scrutiny.
Feingold warns that today we are now dangerously inattentive to terror threats, telling National Public Radio, for example, that many experts have become unduly cocky since U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden.
After his 2010 election defeat at the hands of Ron Johnson, a self-described tea party Republican, Feingold has taught two semesters at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, formed a political action committee to combat the outsized influence of special interest money in politics and is currently lecturing and leading discussions at Stanford University in California.
For political junkies, especially in Wisconsin, his book is a fascinating read. He repeatedly references his listening sessions across the state, quoting speakers by name, taking us from the post-9/11 period in which he was surprised at the lack of focus on national security through the ugly 2010 election cycle, when angry tea partiers packed the sessions armed with how-to guides for disrupting and unsettling incumbents.
There are scores of anecdotes, from his emotional experience on Capitol Hill on 9/11 itself, to his packing a truck and U-Haul trailer to leave Washington after his defeat.
Through 18 years in the U.S. Senate and the decade before in the state Senate, The Capital Times has editorially admired Feingold, seeing his brand of feisty and progressive independence as consistent with the spirit of our founder, William T. Evjue. My columns often joined that chorus, especially in 2010, when Feingold’s reputation as a prickly Senate outsider who eschewed pork-barrel spending and other forms of politics-as-usual seemed to be exactly what voters said they wanted, yet ended up solidly rejecting in favor of a political novice.
Plenty of book reviews and critiques will assess Feingold’s central contention around the nation’s alleged naiveté about the world and the war on terror.
I am more interested in coming at Feingold from a different direction, including through the prism of the “war” here at home.
After reading the book, one feels foolish (I certainly do) for ever thinking it possible that Feingold might return to Wisconsin and leverage his high name-recognition to rescue us from the tea party leadership of Republican Gov. Scott Walker as the Democratic candidate in a recall election.
Feingold’s single reference to Walker’s actions -- a “brutal effort to strip public employees of their long-standing collective-bargaining rights” -- appears on page 257, only pages from the end, and mostly to illustrate how the focus on Madison contributed to the inattention to dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East.
It’s clear that the international stage is what matters to Feingold -- not rescuing his home state from Walker.
His international focus isn’t new. Upon arriving in Washington in 1993, Feingold describes how he wanted to join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a freshman despite warnings that “it was in decline, wouldn’t be good for raising money, and wouldn’t do me any good at home.” He followed the advice of Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin senator and governor, to become the Senate’s expert on something, so he chose African policy and was on the Africa subcommittee for 18 years.
So Feingold has chosen his place on the foreign policy stage, which is, of course, his right.
But Wisconsin has been and is the epicenter of national political earthquakes. Huge sums of murky right-wing money are pouring in to defend Walker and that makes prospects for his much-deserved recall uncertain. This is a once-in-many-decades moment, resoundingly in the spirit of Feingold’s hero, the late governor and senator Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, one that might have warranted Feingold’s heroic return as savior.
It is clear that Feingold or fellow Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl, who is retiring from the Senate and says he has no plans to run, would have the best chance against Walker because their reputations could withstand the tsunami of slime that the billionaire Koch brothers and others have in store for any Democratic candidate.
“I am taking a break from running for office,” Feingold told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, “and I wanted to get out some other messages.”
Perhaps Feingold’s book is strategic and lays groundwork to be secretary of state or even to run for president in 2016, when, whatever happens this fall, Democrats will need a candidate.
I came away thinking that Feingold sounds intoxicated -- perhaps understandably so -- by his opportunities to bear witness to history. He writes of his family’s antipathy to Richard Nixon during Watergate, or, as he writes, Nixon was “the bête noire in our home in Janesville,” but then writes admiringly of meeting the aging former president at a U.S. Capitol visit with other senators. Nixon spoke at length without notes and made brilliant points about the importance of understanding the psychology of world leaders, Feingold writes.
From reading the book it’s clear that he takes pride in interactions with top intellects in foreign relations, such as Adm. William Fallon of the United States Pacific Command and the late Richard Holbrooke, a historical giant among U.S. diplomats. Feingold writes in detail about traveling abroad and emphasizes his close relationships with Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton at a time when both seemed likely to be the major party candidates for president in 2008.
Feingold also offers an anecdote about a 2007 interaction with Barack Obama on the floor of the Senate. Obama was standing in front of Feingold when a vote was called on Feingold’s amendment to begin an end to the Iraq War. “I was very pleased with his support,” Feingold writes, “but I couldn’t resist giving him a little dig.”
Feingold says he told the future president, “Finally,” after which Obama turned, gave an “OK, wise guy sort of smile” and put his arm over Feingold’s shoulder. “Russ, I am always with you -- just six months later,” Feingold quotes Obama as saying.
For all its insight and prescriptive value, there is a sanctimonious tone to Feingold’s book.
I wondered whether “While America Sleeps” could have been better titled “I Told You So” about recent years or, looking forward, “I Get It, But I’m the Only One.”
Feingold writes of Americans viewing Muslims as all the same, not understanding Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite split. “Even I, after a lifetime of interest in the Middle East, service on the Foreign Relations Committee, and a fascination with the range of world religions, lacked basic knowledge of some of these differences.” (“Yes, even you, senator,” I chuckled to myself as I read the passage.)
In a similar vein, Feingold often follows complimentary introductions of figures like Leon Panetta, Tom Daschle and John Kerry, Democrats all, with tales of how Feingold had done something right and these guys did not.
That touches on a disconnect I have with many progressives, perhaps including Feingold. Many seem to most revere leaders who stand resolutely on principle, even if that principle makes it less likely they could be elected and influence real-world outcomes.
Before the big splash over his new book, Feingold attacked Obama and his advisers for retreating from their previous criticism of outside spending on campaigns and instead embracing money from so-called “super PAC” political action committees in the 2012 election. Feingold told The Huffington Post that Obama’s was a “dumb approach,” claiming it gutted the Democratic election message.
Campaign finance, of course, is the domestic topic most closely identified with Feingold because of the McCain-Feingold law, which regulated election spending by organizations other than campaigns themselves. (Feingold writes that McCain joked that, in Wisconsin, people thought “McCain” was Feingold’s first name.)
“I think people will see it as phony that Democrats start playing by Republican rules,” he told the interviewer. “People will see us as weak and not being a true alternative and just being the same as the other guy. And as I have said before, to me this is dancing with the devil.”
Feingold’s sniping in the heat of a dicey presidential election year is troubling to me.
In the real world, Obama calculated that adhering to Feingold’s squeaky-clean standard of campaign purity would imperil his re-election. On that calculus, I trust the president.
If re-elected, Obama might actually be able to influence through one or more nominees the hard-right nightmare that is the current U.S. Supreme Court. And, if that happened, the court could eventually overturn Citizens United, the bizarre decision that struck down much of McCain-Feingold and opened the gates for this year’s flood of special interest election spending.
The New York Times reported last week that Feingold “pictures himself in the vein of Wisconsin figures like Robert M. La Follette and William Proxmire,” two of the most famous political figures in state history. Feingold fancies himself a maverick, an independent thinker who refuses to conform to accepted views. But the Times summed up U.S. Sen. Proxmire in his 2005 obituary as not a maverick but as a “gadfly,” a persistent and irritating critic without much impact of consequence.
Let’s hope, in the arc of his career, Feingold-as-maverick is the one that sticks.