La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled

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He was an energetic campaigner. To take only one example: in the 1900 gubernatorial contest he covered 6,433 rniles in three weeks, making 61 speeches to a total of some 200,000 people. He believed that if he could reach the voters they would see that he was right and sweep him to victory. His espousal of the direct primary reflected his wish to take nominations out of the hands of the politicians and give them to the people.

Genuine though it was, La Toilette’s faith in the intelligence and good sense of farmers was neither mystical nor unrealistic. He knew that government was a complicated science and a delicate art; its effective administration called for special skills and technical knowledge that the average man did not possess. The easy Jacksonian confidence that any ordinary citizen could handle most government positions—the belief that led Bryan to pack the State Department with “deserving Democrats”—did not enchant “Fighting Bob.” Instead he employed many experts, drawing especially upon the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, where, after 1903, his classmate Charles R. Van Hise was president. “The University exists for the state,” La Follette said. Soon he was drafting economists and political scientists as advisers and civil servants.

This reliance on experts and intellectuals marked La Follette as something more than a rural spellbinder. So did his emphasis on regulatory commissions to control railroads, other public utilities, and insurance companies. Here again, his faith in the people was tempered with realism: the personnel of such commissions were to be appointed rather than elected, for the best railroad commissioner, La Follette knew, might not be a good campaigner.

All these qualities had helped La Follette rise to power in Wisconsin, and his success in his home state not only took him to the Senate chamber, but made him the idol of early twentieth-century reformers. Still, success tended to obscure certain rather unfortunate aspects of his personality, certain disturbing elements in his thinking. He spoke frequently (and he was sincere enough) about his principles, but in the last analysis he cared more for ends than for means. He was too much the zealot, considering himself an infallible judge of right and wrong. This conviction served him effectively in battle, but in the long run it led many people to mistrust his judgment and resent his power.

As governor, for example, he made effective—even ruthless—use of patronage. He demanded absolute obedience from his henchmen, and rewarded their faithfulness with appointments to public office. The Wisconsin game wardens became notorious for their political activities. Instead of tracking down poachers, one editor complained, they devoted their energies to “strolling around … hunting for men who will vote for La Follette.” Furthermore, if his speeches were effective and filled with facts, they were also often oversimplified and sometimes distorted the information he was presenting to the electorate. In his powerful attacks on the “interests,” he never tried to understand the motives, methods, or accomplishments of the “villains” he assaulted. His was the hard-handed farmer’s unreasoning suspicion of men who won wealth by manipulating symbols.

When La Follette talked of trusting “the people,” he had, as we have seen, important if unspoken reservations. His dislike of the big cities with their teeming millions scarcely differed from that of his rural constituents. In this and other ways, without realizing what he was doing, he sometimes undermined the very precepts of democracy he was sworn to defend. He could even, upon occasion, be as much the representative of a special-interest group as any other politician. As a congressman, for example, he had assailed the meat packers as one of the evil interests; but he argued for a federal tax on oleomargarine that benefited only the dairy interests so powerful in Wisconsin.

Like many crusaders, La Follette tended to discount the possibility that others could disagree with him and still be sincere. He was wont to override even friendly critics; like Woodrow Wilson (whom he resembled in many ways) he left a trail of shattered friendships wherever he went. “I can no more compromise … than I could by wishing it add twenty years to my life,” he once said. He took everything too seriously; he was too intent and too intense.

It is very revealing that he was prone to imagine all sorts of plots and conspiracies against him. In the governor’s mansion in Wisconsin he often claimed to hear mysterious knocks on the door, and the doorbell sometimes rang in an inexplicable manner. Although a careful watch was kept, no one was ever caught thus harassing him. In later life he actually claimed that someone had tried to kill him by poisoning a glass of milk he was drinking while filibustering in Congress against a banking bill. “Bob ran constant risk of violence,” his adoring wife firmly believed. But no actual attack was ever made on him. Considering his reputation for integrity and courage, it is remarkable how many people supposedly tried to bribe or threaten him. Could his enemies really have been so foolish? In his controversy with Philetus Sawyer, for example, Sawyer hotly denied that he had tried to buy La Follette’s support by offering him a retainer. Probably La Follette’s ingrained suspicions sometimes made him interpret in the worst possible light the efforts of practical politicians to reach agreement.