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‘Feingold’: A Warm Look at a Political Maverick

When Sen. Russ Feingold introduced a resolution in March 2006 to censure President Bush for his warrantless wiretapping program, he was greeted mostly with silence or evasions from Democratic colleagues in the Senate.

But after the Wisconsin Democrat announced Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he will again try to censure the president — this time for Bush’s management of the Iraq War and other counterterrorism initiatives — Sanford Horwitt expects the effort will be received more warmly.

Horwitt is the author of “Feingold: A New Democratic Party,” which hits bookstores today.

The 2006 censure proposal, Horwitt said in an interview, is one example of what Feingold’s friends say is the Senator’s “ability to look around corners and see how things are going to play out.”

Now, with Bush’s approval ratings tanking, the censure motion may have the backing of the American people, Horwitt said. And this isn’t the first example of Feingold being ahead of the curve, according to the author.

“The Democratic Party and the country would really be a lot better off if the party had embraced much of what Feingold’s progressive politics have been over the last decade. He is so unlike the conventional wisdom in Washington,” Horwitt said. “Look at the [USA] PATRIOT Act vote, the Iraq War vote,” both of which Feingold voted against. “Only 21 Democratic Senators voted against the war, and none of them were the presidential wannabes.

“Feingold has, on the big issues, turned conventional wisdom on its head.”

Horwitt’s book is a mostly glowing portrait of the Senator, who has been a lone ranger on a number of issues, including:

• the PATRIOT Act (sole dissenter in a 98-1 vote);

• John Ashcroft’s nomination to be attorney general (only Democrat to approve it in a Judiciary Committee vote);

• impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton (only Democrat to vote against dismissing the proceedings in 1999).

But Feingold, 54, is probably best known for the campaign finance reform bill he co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that was finally made law in 2002 after years of debate.

Considerable space in the book is devoted to Feingold’s 1998 re-election campaign, in which he demonstrated his commitment to reform by limiting his expenditures to $3.8 million ($1 per Wisconsin resident) and directing his party to not run any party- sponsored or soft-money-financed ads. That was to comply with the McCain-Feingold bill, which placed limits on previously unrestricted types of campaign donations.

But in ’98, McCain-Feingold was not yet law and Feingold was sacrificing a lot of money — and the advantage of starting out ahead in American politics’ “rigged poker game,” Horwitt writes in the book, where “the incumbent gets two aces before anybody else gets a card.”

“I literally decided that I did not want to be a U.S. senator anymore if it required me to be involved in the process of asking, or benefiting from, what I considered to be corruptly large contributions,” Feingold says in the book. “This is really how I felt.”

Democrats in Washington understandably objected to one of their most vulnerable incumbents refusing help (Clinton told Wisconsin’s other Senator, Democrat Herb Kohl, that they needed to “save Feingold from himself,” according to the book), and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee finally went against Feingold’s wishes in mid-October and started running ads attacking Feingold’s opponent as polls showed the race tightening. But Feingold convinced then-DSCC Chairman Bob Kerrey (Neb.) that the ads would actually hurt him by making him appear hypocritical, and Kerrey pulled them after a few days.

Feingold eked out a 3-point victory in November.

The book covers Feingold’s roots dating to his grandfather’s immigration to the U.S. from Minsk in 1906. The Feingolds eventually settled in Janesville, Wis.

Discussion of Feingold’s education in politics will bring tears to the eyes of any political junkie.

His dad “talked about politics incessantly,” Feingold says. “I knew who the state senator was and the state representative. My dad was nuts about politics, whether it was a [local] judicial election or for president. He’d sit there at dinner, talking about Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Gaylord Nelson, the city councilman down the street … It was like all you could eat. And I just sat there and listened to it all and remembered it all.”

Feingold went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison and double-majored in history and political science. He earned straight As except for in a constitutional law class where he got an A-minus/B-plus — a grade for which he apologized, according to the book, telling the professor: “That’s not me. I don’t know what happened, but it will not happen again.”

He was a Rhodes scholar and graduated from Harvard Law School before returning to Wisconsin to practice law and begin his political career.

Feingold briefly flirted with a 2008 presidential run, and Horwitt said in the interview he was “disappointed as a citizen” by Feingold’s decision not to run because “he would have offered a lot to the debate.”

So though Feingold isn’t introducing himself to the whole country quite yet, Horwitt’s book should expand his profile.

“All along I thought this was a really good story that deserved a wider audience than just the people in Wisconsin,” Horwitt said.