Praise for "Fighting Son"
Jim Hightower, best-selling author, nationally syndicated columnist, and radio commentator
"La Follette is not merely a piece of Wisconsin history — he's a model of what's needed in American politics today. He didn't glibly love his country, he fought to implement the values of our country, to bring the great egalitarian idea of America into being in the life of each person. This was his progressive mission, and it must be ours today."
The Honorable Lee Sherman Dreyfus, former Wisconsin governor
" ... breathes flesh and blood in the life and times of our state's 27th and 29th governor. ... Anyone interested in the La Follette-Progressive movement in Wisconsin's history must read this book."
the Honorable Patrick J. Lucey, former Wisconsin governor
"[R]eaders who are serious students of the conditions, issues, and political relationships among Wisconsin's movers and shakers during the 1930s should consider this book a must."
Nancy Unger, author of "Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer"
"[T]his lively and nuanced political biography ... will attract attention far beyond Wisconsin as it explores the strengths and limits of the progressive tradition and the value of innovative leadership. The questions it raises about the most effective ways to combat economic and social injustice offer valuable insight into our own time as well as the past."
Dave Zweifel, editor, "The Capital Times"
This book feature by Dennis Shook appeared on OnMilwaukee.com on October 30, 2006
"'Fighting Son' ... will rank with the most important of books on Wisconsin political history."
Fighting Son deserves a fighting chance
Phil La Follete was one of the state's most prominent politicians and even a national figure, yet few people remember him today outside of Wisconsin.
And there aren't all that many who conjure up the name of Phil when they consider the La Follete legacy.
In his book, "Fighting Son," Jonathan Kasparek recounts and analyzes the times and challenges of all of the La Folletes, but focuses his research on Phil, the son of "Fighting Bob" and brother of Robert M. La Follete, Jr., even if the latter inherited more his father's legacy as he took his place as a U.S. Senator.
Phil La Follette was used to living in the shadows of other men, not just only his father and brother, but Franklin D. Roosevelt as well.
Phil La Follette's efforts to bring what was then known more distinctly as a "progressive" view point onto the national stage were dwarfed by FDR's own New Deal initiatives. And following Fighting Bob's World War I anti-war example, Phil staked out the anti-war ground during WWII, opening himself up for considerable criticism.
In a recent interview, Kasparek, an historian who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, said he wanted to more deeply explore Phil La Follette's life than had been done in other books.
He certainly accomplishes that. Initially written as a doctoral dissertation and later expanded and honed, the book deeply details the young La Follette's life from cradle to political gave.
Such treatment is both a benefit and a curse. While it is written in order to be used as a source and guide for historians and could be a supplementary text in a college history course, it may be too rich in detail for most readers seeking a more casual and airy read.
There is the usual employment of letters between family members that are primary sources for the work, along with newspaper and magazine accounts. These are the methods that many highly-read historians often use to try to flesh out characters from history and give them a voice. David McCullough uses it well and Nancy Unger, in her recent book on the older La Follete, also employs that technique successfully.
But in fairness to Kasparek, it is not an easy task to make readers believe they can still hear voices in the present tense that have been silent for many decade. Kasparek explained he wanted to explore Phil La Follette's distinguished career as a district attorney and governor.
"I was really interested in getting a more complete picture of his life," Kasparek said of Phil La Follette. "I found out that his childhood was the key to understanding him, growing up where politics was what they did ... a nine to five job their entire life."
La Follette served as governor of the state from 1931 to 1933 and 1935 to 1939, elected from the Progressive Party of Wisconsin founded by his father.
He lost in an unprecedented bid for a third term in 1938 but then tried to extend his party across the country, as the National Progressive Party of America, believing that FDR would not seek a third four-year term as president.
But Roosevelt successfully sought reelection and essentially trumped La Follette's plans. Meanwhile, the anti-war La Follette nevertheless joined the U.S. Army, serving on the staff of another man with Wisconsin ties, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
When the fighting stopped for Phil, he returned to Wisconsin but eschewed politics for business.
Kasparek was also fascinated by the young La Follette's dedication to the Progressive ideals of his father and willingness to try to adopt "those ideas of the 1890s and make them fit into the Great depression of the 1930s, with a very different set of circumstances."
The author said he was struck by how patriotic people were in those days yet how that patriotism not only tolerated dissent from government philosophies and programs, but even encouraged and embraced diverse opinions.
"Phil La Follette said you can be both patriotic and be critical," said Kasparek. "But since the 1950s, criticism of government has come to be perceived as unpatriotic. Liberals today have to come to grips with that. That is really what Phil wanted to impress on people. He wanted to encourage young people to get into public life with that spirit."
Kasparek also sees another lesson for young politicians and government leaders that surfaces in his book.
"Phil La Follette said Progressives are people who adopted a certain approach," he said. "They would identify a problem, do thorough research, and then figure out how to address that in a democratic fashion."
They did not shoot from the hip as so many politicians from both sides of the spectrum do today.
Kasparek acknowledges his book requires the focus of the reader to get through its 261 pages. And the inevitable problem with any such effort must be its inability to take us back to the sights and sounds of those days, when the La Follettes traveled the country speaking to large gatherings of people who had no TV, and often no motion pictures or even radio.
Their oratory and righteous fury could pack a chautauqua-style tent event to capacity for many hours.
While it might be hard to believe that could happen in the 21st century, the book makes for an interesting trip to the times when Wisconsin was the crucible for new political thought and optimistic that its leaders could transform those concepts into a national program.
This book feature by William R. Wineke appeared in the "Wisconsin State Journal" on November 2, 2006
Philip LaFollette, 'Fighting Son'
The LaFollette name is, of course, legendary in Wisconsin. But being the son of "Fighting Bob" was a mixed blessing for Philip LaFollette, who, like his father, served as the state's governor and was active in trying to restore the Progressive Party.
But, as Jonathan Kasparek notes in "Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. LaFollette" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press: $22.95), it was his brother, Robert, who Fighting Bob felt should be the family politician.
When the elder LaFollette died, Kasparek says, it might have seemed logical that Philip, his father's agent, would take up the role.
"But his continual role as Wisconsin agent for the LaFollettes after Old Bob's death didn't mean Phil would inherit his father's mantle. Taking up after his father meant going against the elder LaFollette's deepest wishes. LaFollette had long en visioned a political career for his oldest son, expecting Robert to run for governor in his own lifetime and increasingly delegating to him important tasks such as managing his re-election campaign in 1922 and shepherding a tax bill through the state legislature."
And, as it turned out, the younger Robert did take his father's place in the Senate - but Philip went on to win three terms as Wisconsin's governor and, much to the dismay of the Roosevelt administration, went on to try to build the Progressive Party as a major third party force, an action which pretty much destroyed his political career.
Nevertheless, Philip LaFollette remains one of the great driving forces of Wisconsin politics and Kasparek's biography will be essential reading for anyone interested in how this state became the national leader it promised to be for most of the 20th century.
The following book review by John J. Schulze Jr. appeared in the May 2007 issue of "Wisconsin Lawyer" magazine.
First, a note of explanation: I mean no disrespect when in this review I refer to this book's subjects by their first names, as it is the most expedient way to differentiate one La Follette from another.
"Fighting Son: A Biography of Philip F. La Follette" is well worth the read for three reasons. First, the book provides an excellent insight into the political environment of early 20th century Wisconsin centered on its most influential player - Philip F. La Follette. Second, it describes the competition among urban socialists, progressive Republicans, and the farm-labor coalition to serve as the preeminent organized liberal party, and how the then-insignificant Democratic Party rose to prominence and took the mantel behind the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Third, it reaffirmed my impression that the book's literal father figure - "Fighting Bob" La Follette - was the insufferable windbag I always supposed him to be.
Author Jonathan Kasparek does not waste time or words in accomplishing what every good history author should do - integrate several fascinating stories into one congruent tale about the life and times of the subject, here Philip La Follette. Kasparek details Fighting Bob's youngest son's political journey, from Phil's term as Dane County District Attorney cracking down on organized crime in the Greenbush area of Madison, to his three terms as Wisconsin governor and father of the national Progressive Party, and finally his later years as a supporter of General Douglas MacArthur's presidential bid. Phil's rise and fall took place in the forefront of the political battles of the day: the battle between wet and dry politicians; rural progressives' bias against the property tax versus urban legislators' opposition to the income tax; the evils of chain banks; and oleomargarine bans. All this, against the national backdrop of two world wars and the great depression.
Throughout his political career, Phil's two fundamental beliefs always were present. First, government can "do good," and second, any problem can be solved with the right kind of government intervention. While better minds than mine can debate whether good government is an oxymoron, Kasparek consistently shows that Phil's decision making was driven by idealism, not by a desire to consolidate power or reward campaign contributors.
The book is painstakingly researched and referenced, the author having obviously spent much time at the Wisconsin Historical Society mining speeches and letters, and conducting interviews.
Potential readers should be warned - this is not a tawdry behind-the-curtains' peek at the "real" La Follettes. Yes, the book describes the strained relationships between Phil and his father and between Phil and his brother Robert La Follette Jr. However, Kasparek's intent is not to expose, but rather to chronicle the life and times of Wisconsin's first family of politics, with the emphasis on Phil.
In doing so, Kasparek proves the old saw that history repeats itself. Phil's attempt to form a national Progressive Party that was not a cult of personality mirrored the fate suffered by Ross Perot's Reform Party. While Phil was unsuccessful in his attempt to get federal waivers so he could combat the great depression with a system based on work rather than government handouts, more than 50 years later Gov. Tommy Thompson's attempt was successful and resulted in his welfare reform initiative. Ironically, both Phil and Tommy's proposals were called "Wisconsin Works."
This feature by Dave Zweifel appeared in "The Capital Times" on September 22, 2006
'Fighting Son' a must-read on state's political history
Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette and his oldest son, "Young Bob," typically get the credit for Wisconsin's proud Progressive political tradition.
Between them, after all, they represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for more than 40 years and played pivotal roles during some of the nation's most contentious and trying times.
Getting short shrift in many of the histories written about the famed Wisconsin political family is Fighting Bob and Belle La Follette's younger son, Phil. But, as UW-Waukesha historian Jonathan Kasparek tells us in his new book, "Fighting Son," Phil La Follette may have actually played as big a part in nurturing the Progressive movement and shaping the state's politics as his famous father and was certainly as big, if not bigger, a player as his older brother.
Phil La Follette never went to Washington, but he did serve as Wisconsin's governor, first, like his dad, as a member of the progressive wing of the Republican Party from 1931 to 1933. He served a second term from 1935 to 1939, this time as a member of the newly formed Progressive Party. Indeed, it was Phil's tireless work for his father in the 1920s that spread the state's progressive message far beyond its borders and for a while propelled the Progressives into one of the most successful third parties in U.S. history.
But, there were numerous ups and downs in Phil La Follette's political career and Kasparek does an excellent job of putting them into perspective in this 260-page book. He has done his research carefully and the result is a highly readable history that covers new ground and adds to the understanding of this complicated, but spirited time in Wisconsin's colorful history.
He documents the influence that the harsh criticism and censure of his father during Fighting Bob's lonely fight against America's joining World War I had on his life. Despite being burned in effigy on the UW campus and being unceremoniously expelled from places like the Madison Club, the senior La Follette didn't back down and proclaimed before sometimes hostile audiences that he would do it all over again if it came to that. Phil La Follette was struck by the old man's guts and, according to Kasparek, that led to Phil's own strong principled politics throughout his career.
Kasparek's text is replete with quotes and references from The Capital Times and its fiery founder, William T. Evjue, who was a longtime La Follette confidante and major force on the state political scene.
Madison readers will be particularly entertained by a chapter in the book that details Phil La Follette's first elected job as district attorney of Dane County (a job he won in 1924 at the age of 27 - the same year that his father lost his third-party bid to be president of the United States). It was during Phil's tenure as D.A. that the now famed Madison "Greenbush" became infamous. Bootlegging was rampant, murders were routine and the citizenry was in an uproar that law enforcement needed to crack down.
Kasparek describes how La Follette actually applied progressive principles to the operation of his office and succeeded in bringing the crime-ridden neighborhood under control.
There are instances where students of the La Follette era might disagree with Kasparek's conclusions, but this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who wants to understand why Wisconsin's politics and its government were unique during the first half of the 20th century.
It will also cause readers to wonder what happened in the years since.