La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled

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To begin with, he was an exceptionally fine public speaker. While only a small child he was in demand at picnics and other rural social gatherings where formal recitations were in order; at college he won an interstate oratorical contest. As a political speaker, his only fault was longwindedness: he could go on for hours at a stretch, and usually did. His performances, often staged beneath a blazing summer sun, drew heavily on his stamina; he reported upon occasion becoming so giddy from the heal that he almost lost the thread of his argument, and he suffered so from blistered feet that he finally bought himself some cool white canvas shoes. His wife, worried by the strain of such ordeals, gave him an alarm watch and made him promise to set it for two hours after he began speaking. Yet he seldom allowed the tinkling alarm to stop him. “I talked too long & beg your forgiveness,” he wrote her after a speech in San Francisco. “My audience held on till 12 o’clock and would not let me stop!” He might talk endlessly, but always to a purpose; his speeches were solid with statistics, concrete illustrations, vivid arguments. A famous photograph (top, page 77) catches his spirit. “Fighting Bob” stands ramrod straight upon a simple farm wagon, a fistful of papers in one hand, the other extended toward the open sky in a defiant gesture. He is militant, determined, a crusader, a doughty champion, a tribune, a standard bearer.

And if he spoke too long, his audiences were seldom bored. “After Bob began,” his wife once wrote, “it seemed to me no one moved until he had finished.” And an observer who heard him at the 1897 Winnebago County Fair said: “The speech made a profound and lasting impression on me. … I was a Democrat and always before that lime I had gone away from a Republican meeting more a Democrat than ever. But here was a man who spoke to me as a citizen, not as a partisan.”

Another important La Follette asset was his superb political skill. While in the House of Representatives he had had a form printed with blank spaces for recording the names of “active Republicans” and “fairminded Democrats.” These he sent to key supporters all over Wisconsin, and thus built up a large mailing list of influential voters whom he kept supplied with copies of his speeches and other political matter. And no congressman was more assiduous in attending to the needs of his constituents or in squiring visitors around Washington.

La Follette had in fact developed a mastery of every technique for influencing public opinion. In each campaign he conceniraied on no more than one or two issues, hammering at them relentlessly, riveting the attention of the voters upon them. He could take advantage of defeat, occasionally even deliberately cultivating it in order to develop a campaign issue. As governor, in 1903 he had pushed a bill establishing a powerful commission to regulate Wisconsin’s railroads. When, as he had expected, the legislature rejected this bill, he look the question to the people in lhe 1904 campaign.

And he was capable of dramatizing a controversial question. In 1898 he had caused a furor by announcing that a railroad had allowed Governor Edward Schofield to ship a cow halfway across the state without cost. It was a trivial mailer, and Schofield’s action was perfectly legal, but it pointed up La Follette’s crusade against special favors to public officials. “Schofield’s cow became famous,” La Follette recalled in his Autobiography , “her picture appeared in the newspapers, and she came to be known in every home in the state.” The next year a law outlawing such favors was passed.

But the greatest source of the new senator’s strength lay in his intimate understanding of the desires, needs, and prejudices of the Wisconsin farmers. Like Bryan, he was a product of the agricultural unrest that had engulfed the Middle West after the Civil War. He was convinced that “big business” was an evil force in society, exploiting the farmer at every turn. At eighteen he had been profoundly impressed by a local orator who denounced “vast corporate combinations” and “the accumulation of individual wealth … greater than it ever has been since the downfall of the Roman Empire.” He took up this cry himself, and half a century later he was still tilting at big corporations like U.S. Steel and “wealth [that] will not and cannot be made to bear its full share of taxation.” Throughout his political life he would assail Wall Street, lobbyists, and the other standard spectres that haunted the rural imagination. Late in his Senate career he would denounce the Four-Power Pact of the Washington Arms Conference as a conspiracy of international bankers bent on protecting their investments. One may smile at his obvious prejudice, but his pronouncements were taken as gospel by many in Wisconsin and throughout the Middle West.

This rapport with the ordinary citizens of his region developed in La Follette an abiding faith in democracy, a belief that the average man could judge rightly on public issues. Of course this faith was characteristic of nearly all Progressives—men as dissimilar as Bryan, Wilson, and George Perkins shared it—but La Follette possessed it completely and acted upon it consistently. “Bob was always conscious of this native power of the plain people to grasp thought,” his wife has recorded. “It never occurred to him to speak ‘down’ to his audiences or to consider any theme beyond their reach.” Or, one might add, to wonder whether popular majorities could not be wrong, whether in installing prohibition or electing a Huey Long.