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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
The boy never finished college but went to work instead in his father’s Senate office.
La Follette’s finest moment may have come on the evening of April 2, 1917, when he stood alone, arms defiantly folded, jaws furiously working at a stick of gum, as the rest of the Senate and the House cheered Woodrow Wilson’s call for a declaration of war. His opposition to the war nearly destroyed his career: Fellow senators denounced him as a traitor; strangers taunted his children. He never backed down, and, after characteristically declaring, “I would not change my record on the war for that of any man living or dead,” won re-election by the widest margin of his career.
But the progressive era had come to an end. In 1924 he ran for President on the Progressive ticket and carried only his home state. “Don’t blame the folks,” La Follette told his sons after his defeat. “They just got scared.”
One year later he was dead, and Robert Jr. succeeded to his Senate seat. “Whenever death strikes our family,” his younger brother, Philip, had written, “it is going to be bitterly sad.”
Fola had been embittered by her father’s defeat. “The American people,” she wrote, “would rather identify themselves with a winning candidate than . . . with someone who was making a long fight for them.” She lost interest in politics, but her father’s memory still consumed her. After Belle died in 1931, Fola took over the biography of him on which she had been working, and after that was published in 1953, she turned her attention to organizing her father’s massive papers, until her own death, eighteen years later. “As if from beyond the grave,” Weisberger writes, “Old Bob was still dictating the terms of her existence.”
When their mother set out to make the whole country “ideal,” the young La Follettes had two public paragons to venerate.
Like his older brother, Philip La Follette came to accept what he once told his father was “the honor and responsibility of trying to live up to the greatest name in our history.” He inherited both his father’s national ambitions and his oratorical skills; when his father first heard him in full cry, he had held his face between his palms and sobbed, “You are my boy.” He served three terms as governor of Wisconsin during the 1930s, grew impatient with his older brother’s willingness to cooperate with the New Deal, and began to dream of challenging FDR for the Presidency, just as his father had once challenged Theodore Roosevelt. In 1938 he set out to build a new, nationwide party, the National Progressives of America, adopted as its symbol a blue X circled in red —critics said it looked like a circumcised swastika—and held a mass rally in Madison. The people of Wisconsin thought it all smacked of fascism and voted him out of office in 1938. His own brother asked him to stay away from his future rallies, and he abandoned politics at forty-one, unwilling to risk further humiliation.
Only Mary, the youngest of the La Follette children, seemed determined to escape the spotlight. Quiet, anxious, subject to bouts of depression, and convinced she could never match the achievements of her siblings or her parents, she married a lawyer and bore him two children. Then, without warning, he abandoned and divorced her in order to marry his lover—who had once been her father’s secretary.
Young Bob soldiered on in the Senate. He liked life there but disliked campaigning and rarely bothered to visit the voters back home on the apparent assumption that his great name alone would be enough to re-elect him. But in 1946 his father’s old Progressive party finally voted to return to the Republican fold, and in the GOP primary that fall he was defeated by a little-known county judge named Joseph R. McCarthy. Disconsolate, disbelieving, he became a Washington lobbyist, representing among other clients the United Fruit Company, whose exploitation of cheap labor in the Caribbean would surely have appalled his father. On February 24, 1953, he left the office early, went home, locked himself in the bathroom, and shot himself through the roof of the mouth. “You have cut such a figure,” he had once written his father, “that I sometimes think you have blazed too straight and steep a trail for one as unfit as I to follow.”