The political thugs who, with the help of the media, have recently stolen the cherished and time-honored brand of “conservative” won’t read this recent book by noted progressive Russ Feingold, except perhaps on a dare. Since most of them, it seems from their rants, must reside in a bubble universe where they refuse to converse with an actual liberal, I must resort to only imagining them reading the book, but discovering, to their surprise or chagrin, that they agree with a good deal of what this chap says. So that’s my dare: read the whole thing, listen to what he says, and tell me what you think.
Feingold’s book is an argument for a wake-up call of Americans following 9-11, echoing Churchill’s call in “While England Slept,” which analyzed the warning years from 1932 to 1938. Feingold’s consistent thesis is that “negligent and willful oversimplification of complicated new problems as well as a cynical exploitation of the fears generated by 9/11 have undermined our ability effectively to adjust to a new paradigm for America’s place in the world.”
He was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin for 18 years until 2011, with a reputation, as he says, as a “deficit hawk,” and with a record ranking sixth in the Senate for bipartisan voting. These days he’d be awarded the title of “maverick.” With the other maverick, John McCain, he sponsored the Campaign Reform Act, now sufficiently trashed by Anti-Reform Acts saluting our being governed by money. The only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, Feingold looks at and anticipates libertarian and even conservative critiques of its overreaching, as he later does in his vote to oppose the financial industry bailout. And he blames Democrats of the time for filibustering the Patriot Act-the tactic Republicans have now massively perfected— to trash it rather than, as Feingold wished, to improve it. McCain himself provides a blurb for the book, praising Feingold for his “trademark integrity and independence.” Also prophetic was his minority vote against the use of force in Iraq. No knee-jerk liberal response, he shows at length how he carefully agonized over the case mounted by the Bush Administration, ultimately finding the evidence lacking, particularly of the link between Al-Quaeda and Saddam Hussein, or that Hussein was likely to use weapons against us, even if he had them. Even today newly released Bush briefs show the linkage was ginned up as a pretext, and that the early focus on oil-rich Iraq directly led to ignoring crucial CIA warnings of a definite, imminent attack on the U.S., as happened shortly after. Feingold’s motivation to get us out of Iraq with a definite timetable arose, he writes, came from emotional meetings with the families of servicemen and women.
With his particular interest as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his warnings do not attempt to lessen the danger of terrorism. But terrorism, he argues at length, must be fought in the right, most effective way, both based on facts as well as by not generalizing or using manipulative language (such as “war on terror” or “Islamo-fascism”). We must rather understand the specificity of terror, country by country, so as not to make the same mistake again. Feingold rings bells of alarm particularly about Al-Quaeda in Algeria, which he regards as a real threat. Along with an argument for educating ourselves in languages and cultures, lamenting he didn’t follow his mother’s example of knowing five languages, he makes an eminently pragmatic suggestion that every congressperson ought to become an expert on one particular country.
Given his eventual ouster with the advent of the extreme right, Feingold’s account of the rise of the Tea Party is rather poignant, but touched with humor and a valuable local perspective: the degrading of traditional Wisconsin town meetings, as manuals for disruption were provided Tea Party types the tactics transforming the meetings into shout-downs and insult-swaps—though for historical perspective we might remember the political meetings Mark Twain reported in the nineteenth century, when drummers were hired to drown out opponents. But even delusional insanity can become amusing to report, as when one townsperson, refuting the President’s identity, claimed that Obama’s name was actually “Barry Soetoro”-as if, Feingold notes smilingly, changing it to “Barack Obama” would make a good political move.
The book is filled with two important running motifs, one of which he brings out in his continual judgment of political friends and foes using his greatest litmus test: their ability to listen. He himself listens extremely closely to John Roberts before his confirmation to the Supreme Court, and though later agonizing for voting for approval, based that vote on Roberts’ genuinely thoughtful remarks on limits of executive privilege. Perhaps second to this is the ability, which he himself demonstrates throughout, for self-critique, questioning his own positions and party lines. For his strong position on civil rights and privacy, he continually checks himself, observing that whenever issues of civil rights arise to defend, he always cautions himself by remembering a court ruling that the Constitution, while respecting rights, does not include a “suicide clause.”
For Tea Party types and shock-jock commentators to read Feingold’s book might confuse their perfectly clear notion about how “progressive” equals “anti-American Marxist-socialist Constitution-perverter.” One reads this book of a political life with some nostalgia not for an imaginary, nonpartisan golden era, but for the spirit of his human engagement with opponents he respects and listens to, considering them not enemies but fellow Americans, including Republicans he likes and Democrats he doesn’t particularly like. To those who throw around hyped pejoratives for their opponents—labels attached to moderate politicians whom no self-respecting Marxist would ever claim—we listen to Feingold with a longing for the spirit present in an anecdote he recounts, when impish John McCain introduced Feingold to visiting Kuwaiti officials as “a member of the Communist Party.”
Instead we hear today name-calling not in its spirit of jest, but in savage, bullying insults, knowing it may have an effect on some lone listener further to the fringe, who will respond by getting out his stockpile of literal ammunition against liberals, and using it.
Don Hedrick is a professor of English at Kansas State University.