• Marc Johnson

August in Wisconsin


Random notes from the north of Wisconsin.

The signs of the dog days of summer are everywhere you look in Wisconsin right now.

The Wisconsin State Fair – one of the big ones in the Midwest – is going on this week in Milwaukee. Chocolate covered bacon is the new food sensation this year. More on that later. The lovely, sweet cherries are just about perfect in Door County in the north of the state hard by Lake Michigan.

And, of course, the Packer training camp is up and running. (I buried the lead, based upon what really dominates the news here.) The general manager of the storied Green Bay franchise caused a bit of a stir among the green and gold faithful by suggesting that the dog fighter Michael Vick might, just might, be a suitable heir to Brett Farve or Bart Starr.

A Rich Political History Wisconsin politics, like its food and football, have never been dull and are frequently fascinating. The state’s colorful political history boasts many characters. Going way back, the State Fair proudly notes that a prospective candidate for president visited in 1859. Abraham Lincoln knew a battle ground state when he saw one.

More recently, the Congressman representing northern Wisconsin, Rep. Steve Kagen a Democrat from Appleton, had two of his town hall meetings on health care reform disrupted this week by very noisy protesters. Apparently this type of engagement is now standard, part of a national effort to make life miserable for members of Congress on August recess.

Kagen seemed to handle the hubbub pretty well. At least he used the right analogy in talking to the press. “There was a significant amount of anger there,” he told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “as if the referee made the wrong call in a Packer game.”

This alleged “battle ground state” – maybe in name only – hasn’t gone for a Republican since Ronald Reagan’s second term. Barack Obama rolled up 56% of the vote in Wisconsin in 2008, exactly the margin for that other untested Illinois politician in 1860.

Arguably the greatest political figure Wisconsin has produced – and one the most independent -was Fighting Bob La Follette, a early progressive of the western type, who served as governor and then as one of the most influential United States Senators. La Follette was once hung in effigy for opposing U.S. involvement in World War I, but still managed to spawn a Midwestern political dynasty.

La Follette, a nominal Republican, bolted his party in 1924 – he wasn’t a Coolidge fan – and gathered in more than 16% of the popular vote running as an independent presidential candidate. His running mate on the Progressive Party ticket was another “radical” and a nominal Democrat from Butte, Montana – Senator Burton K. Wheeler. The La Follette-Wheeler ticket carried only Wisconsin in 1924, but the Progressives – anti-monopoly, anti-interventionist in foreign affairs and anti-Ku Klux Klan – ran far ahead of the Democratic ticket most everywhere in the Northwest, including Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Over many years, Wisconsin’s has had its share of “radicals” of both the left and the right. Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day and made common cause over his Senate career with Frank Church of Idaho on many environmental issues, including the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act. Both Nelson and Church lost re-election in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

One other Northwest-Wisconsin connection of particular note was the close friendship between Senator Herman Welker, a one-term Payette, Idaho Republican, and Joe McCarthy, a favorite son of Appleton, Wisconsin. Often described as McCarthy’s “best friend in the Senate” or “little Joe from Idaho,” Welker never abandoned his Wisconsin Republican colleague even when being McCarthy’s friend became a liability. Welker served as McCarthy’s chief defender when the Wisconsin senator was censured in 1954 for his increasingly reckless behavior in attacking those he suspected of Communist sympathies.

Cheese and brats…a growing issue Wisconsinites, by all appearances, are not making the mistake of spending too many lovely August days worrying about health care reform or cash for clunkers. These are days for cheese, beer, brats and cream puffs, after all, the four main food groups. As a result the expanding Wisconsin waste line seems to be – sorry – a growing issue.

A columnist in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel set aside the usual polite Midwestern reserve this week to challenge fellow cheeseheads to admit the obvious: “Half of us are fat; a quarter, really fat. If bands don’t play ‘Too Fat Polka’ at weddings around the state anymore, they should. Make it our song until we can tie shoes without gasping for air between the left and the right.”

To sum this up: one more political connection.

Another of Wisconsin’s true political radicals was Senator William Proxmire, a gadfly, skinflint and physical fitness nut who served 32 years in the U.S. Senate. Proxmie replaced McCarthy in the Senate and never spent more than a few hundred buck on a re-election. He also created the Golden Fleece Award to spotlight wasteful government spending and was known to run to work in the Senate – ten miles a day.

As the New York Times noted after his death in 2005, “Tall, thin and bald as a young man, Mr. Proxmire was unusually vain about his looks. He had a series of hair transplants and a face lift, and in 1973, he published a book about staying in shape: ‘You Can Do It: Senator Proxmire’s Exercise, Diet and Relaxation Plan.'”

I’m betting the State Fair’s new chocolate covered bacon would never have caught on with ol’ Bill Proxmire.

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©2021 by Marc C Johnson