Altar Boys


Raising Hell for Justice

The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive

David R. Obey

University of Wisconsin Press, $35, 496 pp.

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Daschle vs. Thune

Anatomy of a High-Plains Senate Race

Jon K. Lauck

University of Oklahoma Press, $24.95, 326 pp.
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In seventh grade, the year he decided to be a congressman, young David Obey punched a nun-in the jaw, no less-after she slapped him for being inattentive in class. In his autobiography, Raising Hell for Justice, longtime Congressman Obey (D-Wis.) outlines the character of a man who-his name not withstanding-has spent his life aiming righteous indignation at established authority. By contrast, the former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, another liberal Catholic Democrat, consistently promoted his respect for tradition and church leadership. In 1978, he distributed a letter from his Catholic-school nuns, vouching for his opposition to abortion; and TV ads for his 2004 reelection campaign highlighted the senator’s youthful service as an altar boy. In Daschle vs. Thune, however, Jon Lauck argues that Daschle’s behavior as Senate majority leader fostered a liberalism at variance with South Dakota’s citizens on precisely such issues as abortion.

These books tell the tale of two states with strikingly different political cultures. While South Dakota is conservative-a 2006 law was passed to ban abortion in all cases except those that risk the mother’s life-Wisconsin is best known for political extremes, represented by the progressive reformer Robert La Follette and the cold warrior Joseph R. McCarthy. Obey seems to possess affinities for both ends of the spectrum. A pugnacious independence originally led him to admire conservatives such as McCarthy and General Douglas MacArthur, but his family’s humble economic circumstances prompted him to embrace La Follette’s progressivism. As a teenager, he recalls profound embarrassment at his family’s dependence on a neighbor’s charity. This deeply felt sense of privacy and personal pride would later drive his belief in public funding of social services.

Obey has enjoyed a thirty-eight-year career as a congressman, and recently became chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Yet in many of the stories he tells in this memoir, he appears curiously passive, even powerless, swept along by the forces that have driven recent American politics. He presciently warns Jimmy Carter that Carter’s unwillingness to socialize with congressmen will undermine his support in Congress, but the president ignores this advice. He attempts-unsuccessfully-to defeat President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax-cut package, a failure he nevertheless considers his proudest moment. Later, he laments Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to protect American workers in the 1990s free-trade agreements. And his conclusion that Gerald Ford was the best president of his age prompts a rueful witticism from Ford himself (“Slim pickings, wasn’t it, Dave?”) that reflects Obey’s frequently pessimistic view of other politicians.

A pessimistic take on what politicians will do to remain in office also informs Lauck’s Daschle vs. Thune, which chronicles South Dakota’s role in the conservative political ascendancy of recent years. A former aid to current Republican Senator John Thune, who in 2004 unseated Senate Majority Leader Daschle, Lauck focuses on what he considers to be Daschle’s hypocritical political personality. Daschle, Lauck points out, campaigned in South Dakota as a former altar boy, hunter, and supporter of President George W. Bush (one Daschle ad showed them hugging). Back in Washington, however, Daschle filibustered Bush’s judicial nominations and promoted what Lauck considers a left-wing agenda, while raising more than $20 million from Hollywood, the Hamptons, and the inside-the-Beltway money machine. How did Daschle get away with this double life for so many years? According to Lauck, a long-time Daschle friend ran the state’s largest newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, and the paper never reported on these inconsistencies. The heroes of Daschle vs. Thune are not journalists, but the conservative bloggers who circumvented the mass-media filter to reveal Daschle as a liberal and expose his betrayal of prairie values.

There are obvious problems with this thesis, which Lauck in typical campaign mode repeats ad nauseam. At several points, Lauck commits the same errors for which he takes the media to task. Just as the Argus Leader failed to reveal Daschle’s supposed weaknesses, Lauck never seriously confronts questions about Thune’s candidacy. A more balanced account, for example, would have discussed the ethical implications of a lobbyist seeking work as a legislator. Thune lobbied for ethanol interests, and, according to the New York Times, also earned $220,000 in 2003 and 2004 as a lobbyist for the Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern Railroad. Yet Lauck’s only reference to lobbying is to note that Daschle could not confront Thune on the issue because his own wife, daughter, and son-in-law also lobbied in Washington. Moreover, you will find only one sentence, buried late in the book, about the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, even though it contributed substantially to Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections.

Another missed opportunity in both these books is the absence of a satisfying reflection on the dilemma facing Catholic politicians in the age of Roe v. Wade. Obey clearly nurses wounds inflicted by clashes with “the most authoritarian faction in my own church.” In the section “Abortion Kills My Grandfather,” he claims that his devoutly Catholic grandfather died of a heart attack in 1979 after reading about church condemnation of his grandson’s links to the prochoice President Jimmy Carter. Although Obey agreed to legislation that permitted federal funding of abortion only if a threat to the mother’s life existed, LaCrosse Bishop Raymond Burke (now archbishop of St. Louis) concluded that Obey’s position disqualified him from receiving the Eucharist. Despite a spirited defense, which recapitulates some of his sophisticated essay in America (“My Conscience, My Vote,” August 16, 2004, which defended his position from a specifically Catholic perspective), Obey claims to have “virtually given up” discussion of the abortion issue. It’s a resignation hard to square with the fighting spirit of Raising Hell for Justice or with its closing exhortation to today’s youth to “Crusade against indifference!”

As for Daschle vs. Thune, though Lauck highlights the Democratic senator’s abandonment of his earlier opposition to abortion, he presents an incomplete story of South Dakota’s political drama surrounding the issue. He makes no mention of the 2006 state law, passed by the legislature and signed by the governor, to ban all abortions. In November of that year, a state referendum overturned the law with 55 percent of the vote. Such a law may have earned short-term political gain for some Republicans, but the voter backlash bodes ill for long-term efforts to reduce the number of abortions nationwide.

The careers charted in these two books seem likely to remain in the news. Though Obey has served for twenty terms, his real impact on Washington may have just begun-as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Given the close margin of Thune’s victory in the South Dakota Senate race, his ability to hold onto his Senate seat is uncertain; Daschle could return in 2010 to challenge him. Beyond these topical particulars, one wonders how books such as these, driven by cynical assessments of political adversaries and allies alike, will play in a time when Americans yearn for titles such as Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope; and how Catholic politicians will respond to bishops united behind the opposition to abortion, in a country evenly and bitterly divided over it.

Published in the 2008-05-23 issue: 
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Thomas Carty teaches history at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

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