La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled


One day in July, 1904, Lincoln Steffens, the great muckraking reporter of McClure’s Magazine , appeared quietly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the trail of a big story. Steffens had won a well-deserved reputation as an exposer of what he called The Shame of the Cities; now lie was studying coirupt state politics, and the Wisconsin “machine” of Governor Robert M. La Follette was next on his list. He arrived in Milwaukee convinced that despite a lot of fancy talk about “reform,” La Follette was a “demagogue … a charlatan and a crook.”

Steffens’ first informant was a prominent banker. When asked for evidence of the Governor’s corruption, the banker could not contain himself. La Follette was a “crooked hypocrite” and a “socialist-anarchist”; he was ruining Wisconsin. But the banker was too angry lo present a reasoned indictment. Next Steffens turned to a local railroad lawyer. Though this man had better control of bis temper, bis detailed analysis of La Follette was studded with words like “fanatic,” “boss,” and “actor.”

Presently, Steffens moved on to Madison to confront the Governor directly. He was met at the Capitol by a man approaching fifty, short and stocky but so brimming with vitality and enthusiasm that he appeared taller than he actually was. He had a shock of brown hair sparingly decked with gray and a (hick bull neck. His lips were sensitive, his eyes calm, his forehead noble. His strong chin and square, muscular jaw reflected a person who habitually set his teeth hard in the face of opposition. Somehow he projected an image which combined kindliness with strength, immense energy with serenity “I spirit. The Governor literally ran to greet Steffens, assuming that any reformer would come as a friend. He insisted upon bringing him home to dinner, where Mrs. La Folletle and the children offered a warm welcome, also taking it for granted that Steffens was on their side. But the journalist, still unconvinced, did not respond to these advances. Instead he arranged to interview La Follette at length about his whole career.

His faith in the people and his battle for needed reforms made “Fighting Bob” Wisconsin’s idol. But in Washington his own peculiar limitations stunted his image and cost him the Presidency

Thus it was that Lincoln Steffens learned the story of one of the most remarkable personalities of modern times, a man who, finding the state of Wisconsin a satrapy controlled by a handful of lumber barons and hack politicians, changed it into a great laboratory for democratic reform, the home of the “Wisconsin Idea.” That he would also help to wreck the whole Republican party and deliver it for a long generation into the hands of its own tight wing neither Stellens nor La Follette himself could possibly have known in 1904.

It was a fascinating tale that the Governor related to Stellens. Born in a log cabin at Primrose, Wisconsin, in 1885, he was accustomed to farm life and in later years prided himself on his ability with scythe and plow. He had also developed a wide assortment of other skills; for example, he was a first-class carpenter and an expert barber. As his wife. Belle, explained, Bob seemed to pick up special skills “without anybody’s knowing when or how.” He also had a strong intellectual bent, and had worked his way through the University of Wisconsin. As a student, he did well; also, he was so remarkably successful in campus theatricals that he seriously considered making the stage his career. But his primary ambition was to be a “statesman,” and after graduation he went on to law school and then entered politics.

From the start he was a rebel. In 1880, after being admitted to the bar, he declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for district attorney in his home county. The local party boss, Postmaster E. W. Keyes, had other plans. He took La Follette aside and in a firm but kindly way told him that another man had already been decided upon for the job. The young lawyer had neither money nor influence, but the fighter in him was instantly roused. “I intend to go on with this canvass,” he told Keyes, “and I intend to be elected district attorney. …” He intensified his campaign at once. “I traveled by day and by night,” he later recalled. “I stayed at farm-houses, I interviewed every voter in the county whom I could reach.” These tactics paid off. The boss coidd not control his own convention, and La Follette was nominated. In the election, although the angry Keyes supported a Democrat, La Follette carried the district.

This victory established the pattern of his career. Always within the framework of the Republican party (he became a warm admirer of William McKinley), he made his way independently and against the opposition of the Wisconsin Republican machine. Diligent campaigning at the grass roots and a reputation for honesty, courage, and faithful service to his constituents enabled him repeatedly to defy the local powers. He exposed the chairman of the party’s state committee, who had been robbed while dead drunk in a Madison hotel room and had later sought to hush the case up. When various politicos tried to have minor legal cases quashed for influential friends, he refused to go along. Later, when U.S. Senator Philetus Sawyer, the powerful lumber king, offered him a “retainer” in a case where Sawyer stood to lose over $150,000, La Follette indignantly announced that the Senator had tried to bribe him.