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The Importance Of Being Bob
The La Follette children grew up in the painful brilliance shed by an illustrious father
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
“ One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a President,” Franklin Roosevelt once said. “It’s a terrible life they lead.” Certainly the lives of FDR’s own five children—eighteen marriages; countless failed businesses and wrecked political dreams—would seem to prove him right. Bearers of an illustrious name, they were overwhelmed, each in his or her ownway, by the effort of living up to it.
Sen. Robert La Follette never became President, but on the evidence offered in The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95) by my friend and fellow columnist Bernard A. Weisberger, the impact on La Follette’s four children seems to have been just as severe as if he had. The story of the La Follettes is, as Weisberger writes, in many ways an inspiring one: “For them, family feeling grew out of a soil richer than mere shared pleasures or simple affections. It was forged in the heat of mutual dedication to something bigger than self-gratification. That is worth considering as Americans try to redefine ‘family values’ on the eve of the twenty-first century.” It is also a grim but compelling chronicle of the high price fame can exact from those who’ve grown up in its glare.
It is hard for us now to fully understand the reverence Midwestern progressives felt for Robert La Follette, Sr. Short and chesty with a shock of gray hair and a booming voice, “Fighting Bob” stormed out of his native Wisconsin, denouncing bosses and the “in-rests” and championing “the people”—farmers, small businessmen, workers. As governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906 and in the U.S. Senate from 1906 until his death nineteen years later, La Follette took great pride in his refusal to compromise. “Half a loaf . . . ,” he liked to say, “dulls the appetite and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf . . .”
Principle drove him. But so did vanity. “I can see,” he wrote home from Washington, “how the dreary grind of makeshift and sham would in time sear over and harden the average conscience,” the assumption being that his own was distinctly superior.
His wife, Belle, certainly believed it was and preached that gospel to all her offspring. She was a lawyer who had abandoned practicing in order to serve her husband’s demanding purposes. “There is nothing,” she assured him, “I would rather be than your wife and the mother of your children, and I have no ambition except to contribute to our happiness and theirs and to your success and theirs.”
It was never easy. “Mine must be a life of warfare,” La Follette warned her when he was still a country lawyer, “giving and taking blows—to deal in disputes—to sound the hollows of horrible crime, listen to the tales misery tells.” Home was to be only “a little harbor for a little rest.”
La Follette rarely anchored there for long. His fleeting presence was looked on as a favor bestowed on his children; his failure to stay home was for all of them a source of resentment never to be expressed.
Belle set the stoical tone, bearing everything without complaint: her husband’s long absences; the humiliating clamor of his creditors; the daily demands of four lively children for whose upbringing she was almost exclusively responsible. She allowed herself to be angry with him only when she felt he had failed to live up to her exalted sense of him, without which all her sacrifices would have been in vain. “I want you to be perfect in all things,” she told him once when she thought he was dosing with too many patent medicines the chronic bad digestion his drive for perfection helped exacerbate. “I want you to be a model in physical health as well as in moral character.”
“If every home is made ideal,” Belle once wrote, “the whole country will be. . . .” When she was fifty and her youngest child had reached the age of ten, she set out to make the whole country ideal, writing a column for her husband’s weekly, taking to the lecture circuit in support of causes from votes for women to world peace.
Now the young La Follettes had two public paragons to venerate. “If you two dear parents don’t stop behaving so bravely, courageously, and generally splendiferously,” Robert Jr. wrote them, “we kids will just throw up our hands and say ‘nothing doing!’”
The eldest of those kids, Fola, was already out on her own, struggling to find a separate identity. She became an actress but was never sure whether the crowds didn’t come simply to have a look at Fighting Bob’s daughter; she toured small towns in a play promoting woman suffrage and finally married a playwright resigned to being known as the husband of “Miss La Follette,” the name she refused to change.
Robert Jr. seems to have suffered most. When he did poorly at the University of Wisconsin, the pressure his parents put on him not to let the family down helped bring about a collapse from a mysterious, partly psychosomatic illness that nearly killed him and the odd symptoms of which would return during stressful periods throughout his life. His long, painful recovery was hampered by fitful nights during which he dreamed again and again of climbing a mountain whose summit he could never reach. His father insisted these dreams showed “how his resolution to fight his way up to higher, firmer ground has been a fixed habit in his waking and sleeping hours as well.” But, as Weisberger writes, “it was possible to look into the soul of a boy who had threatened to throw up his hands at the thought of equaling his splendiferous parents and reach a sadder conclusion.”