November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
The La Follette children grew up in the painful brilliance shed by an illustrious father
“ 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.”
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.”
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.”