The conscience of a Wisconsin progressive

When I read Rep. David Obey’s (D-Wis.) aptly titled autobiography, I was surprised to learn that this fire-breathing Democrat from the bastion of LaFollette Progressivism was born not far from the University of Oklahoma, where I am teaching this fall.

“My father was the only person in America to move to Oklahoma during the Great Depression to get a job,” he declares in the opening sentence of this fascinating and candid political memoir. “That’s why I was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on October 3, 1938.”

Obey’s father moved to Oklahoma from Wausau, Wis., to manage a JCPenney shoe department shortly before the future congressman was born, then moved back to the Badger State a few years later when a job opened at a Penney’s store in Marshfield, home of Republican Mel Laird. The younger Obey would later take Laird’s seat in a special election in 1969, when Laird was named secretary of defense.

It’s a good thing for Obey — and for Wisconsin, the Democratic Party and Congress — that his family didn’t stay in Oklahoma. If they had, he almost certainly wouldn’t be serving his 38th year as one of the most influential liberals in Congress, having climbed to the pinnacle of power as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The book is filled with tales of political intrigue and personal struggle that tell us much about the man and the times in which he has lived. Obey recounts his troubled childhood — and every other phase of his life — in exhaustive detail. In fact, this book may be one of the most detailed accounts of any public official’s life ever written, and will tell you more about Obey than most people will want to know.

For example, he exhibited his trademark combative spirit early on in Catholic grade school when he slugged a nun who had hit him, which forced his exile to public school. But he managed to get his act together and found teachers who encouraged his interest in politics.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Obey served three terms in the Wisconsin legislature before becoming the first Democrat in the 20th century elected to Congress from his central Wisconsin district. On the Hill, he found mentors — like Dick Bolling, Phil Burton and Gene McCarthy — who helped shape the New Deal-Great Society liberalism that he still champions today. Indeed, it is no accident that a portrait of Progressive icon Bob LaFollette peers over Obey’s right shoulder on the cover of his book.

Obey sums up his political and personal philosophy by challenging Ronald Reagan’s cramped view of the role of government. “In the Judeo-Christian tradition that lies at the core of American democracy and Western civilization,” he writes, “we are called on to think about the legitimate needs of others at least as often as we think about our own.”

Obey’s book is one of those rare political memoirs that tells us not only who the author is but what he passionately and unabashedly believes in. There are also wonderful insights into Congress, including the driving ambitions, conflicting ideologies and painful compromises that are the stuff of representative democracy.

It is a book by and about a consummate politician, who, when recently applauded by his caucus for helping fashion benchmarks for a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, shouted, “I don’t want your applause! I want your damned votes!”

That’s the real Dave Obey, and this is a book that anyone who wants to understand Congress and the political forces that are shaping the 21st century should read.

Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive
By David R. Obey
University of Wisconsin Press, 2007
432 pages, $35.00