Feingold biography just skims the surface

Times Staff Writer

FOR people on the political left, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has emerged over the last five years as something of a maverick hero. He was one of only 23 senators to vote against giving President Bush authority to invade Iraq and has been unrelentingly nettlesome on the issue ever since.

He also has been sharply critical of the USA Patriot Act, a lengthy and complicated thinning of civil liberties rushed into being amid the emotions following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

That last issue, of course, is not something of concern only to the left. Libertarians and small-government conservatives are also uneasy with the Patriot Act. And Feingold entered into another cross-aisle alliance when he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) teamed up on the campaign finance reform act that bears their names, though that star dimmed as connivers found ways around it and conservatives condemned the measure as limiting free speech.

In other words, Feingold is a complicated political figure, a pro-gun-rights progressive who risked losing his Senate seat during the 2004 election cycle rather than let the national Democratic Party use “soft” campaign contributions to counter Republican attack ads against his campaign.


Clearly ambitious -- he flirted briefly with a 2008 presidential bid -- and buoyed by the politician’s sometimes unfathomable self-assurance, Feingold is one of the more intriguing figures on the American political landscape.

Yet hailing from small-market Wisconsin, he remains unknown to most Americans. Unfortunately, Sanford D. Horwitt’s new biography, “Feingold,” doesn’t get us much closer to understanding him.

Horwitt notes that although he worked with Feingold’s cooperation, the book is not an “authorized biography” in which the subject was allowed to approve the final manuscript. Feingold didn’t need to.

Clearly, Horwitt is on his side, and despite pretensions, this is little more than a candidate’s campaign bio.


In his introduction, Horwitt describes Feingold as “important because he represents the kind of courageous leadership that is so urgently needed in these troubling times.” Horwitt’s stated ambition: To use the story of Feingold’s life “to encourage others -- public officials and ordinary citizens alike -- to act on their idealism and take risks to transform the ‘real world’ into the kind of world that we would like it to be.”

Not the kind of approach apt to result in an engaging and informative biography.

Horwitt writes that he spent five years interviewing Feingold, his family and friends. He also read a lot of local and national newspapers, judging by the footnotes.

But he drew on few other sources, and the result is something of a hybrid -- part oral biography and part “clip job,” as it’s known in journalism -- a new story based primarily on old clippings.


Ultimately, Horwitt’s look at Feingold is from the outside, as others see him. And the view is always favorable. Horwitt revealingly refers to the young Feingold as “Rusty” and, as an adult, often as “Russ,” forgoing the standard biographer’s detachment of using last names. That, and Horwitt’s unabashed admiration for Feingold, infuses the book with an air of puffery.

Little insight is offered into how Feingold’s political persona came into being. We read about the influence of his father, a political junkie; his older brother David, a Vietnam War conscientious objector; family friends; the civil rights era; the Kennedys, and the legacy of fellow Wisconsin politician Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr.

But we never get below the surface to find out where Feingold’s motivations roost. Horwitt traces Feingold’s love for politics to a childhood encounter with a local senator after which he decided he wanted to be one when he grew up. Lots of young boys -- and girls -- have lots of dreams based on passing experiences, but few are nurtured into being. How did Feingold nurture his?

Many elements of Feingold’s life are overlooked, or skirted -- sometimes maddeningly so. Feingold grew up in small-town Wisconsin, a liberal Jew amid a culture of conservatism and Christianity. Horwitt relates only one anecdote in which Feingold’s Jewishness stands out: when he can’t have a play date at the home of Catholic friends.


Yet we also read that Feingold’s businessman father achieved some level of acceptance in a town where the local country club still banned Jews, implying a tension that could have been instrumental in Feingold’s evolution as an independent actor, one inured to the emotional pressures of being an outsider. But Horwitt leaves that alone.

Horwitt writes that Feingold’s family was not religiously observant but later refers to the senator’s rabbi, suggesting that Feingold has some formal connection with faith -- but that also remains unexplored. And while studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, Feingold traveled across Europe, including Russia, and to the Mideast, which Horwitt dispatches by describing as a “broadening experience.” How? What did the small-town boy learn, and how did it affect his political evolution?

In another vein, Feingold has been divorced twice. Both dissolutions are mentioned in single paragraphs with no elaboration. Those omissions stand out against the overall presentation of Feingold as political wunderkind, the best-and-brightest that whomever Horwitt is interviewing has ever seen, a man who routinely snaps victory from the jaws of defeat. Yet these two personal crises are limited to oblique mentions.

There are other issues, but in the end this work stands as a valentine rather than as a detached and considered look at a life. In that regard, it is just as disappointing to the reader as one suspects Feingold’s decision not to run for president must have been for Horwitt.



Scott Martelle is the author of the forthcoming “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”