Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 1926-2008

One day when I was in high school, we MUHS students were herded into the auditorium to hear a speech by some public figure most of us had never heard of. We never, however, turned up our noses at a chance to skip homeroom, and this turned out to be an entertaining morning. The speaker was an imposing man wearing a red vest, and he turned out to be Lee Sherman Dreyfus, who a couple of years later would become governor of Wisconsin. An academic -- he was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point -- he was a compelling speaker who held the attention of some one thousand teenage boys even when there would be no test of the material he presented. He was amusing, animated, and sharp-witted.

An obituary in today's Washington Post alerted me to the news that former Wisconsin Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus passed away earlier this week, nearly 25 years after he left office, having served only one term and choosing to return to private life rather than seek his likely re-election. (He was a very popular Republican governor in a state tinted blue.)

For all the aspects of his long career in public life that it could have chosen, the Post obit honed in on one: Dreyfus was the first governor to sign a statewide gay-rights ordinance and see it implemented. He did so in 1982, saying:

"It is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party that government ought not intrude in the private lives of individuals where no state purpose is served, and there is nothing more private or intimate than who you live with and who you love."
While I disagree with the concept of anti-discrimination laws, I can't help but agree with the sentiment of Dreyfus' remarks on that occasion. He represented a Republican Party that held strong to its libertarian roots: the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, not the Republican Party of Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney (unless you mean the pre-2008 election cycle Mitt Romney). Dreyfus maintained his position about government intrusiveness through the rest of his life: He actively opposed the 2006 anti-gay-marriage amendment that was put on the ballot in Wisconsin. His side, unfortunately, did not prevail.

As you might expect, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's report on Dreyfus' death and life provides a fuller picture of the man's career. The Journal Sentinel describes his appearances on the campaign trail:
By temperament and training - Dreyfus earned his degrees in speech - he was the great communicator.

"Madison is 30 square miles surrounded by reality," Dreyfus declared during the campaign.

Although politicians and map-makers would debate the exact figure, no one seemed to argue with the premise.

"Lee Sherman Dreyfus is flamboyant, congenial and direct," read one profile in 1985. "As governor, he was like nothing the state had ever seen. He was the governor-as-after-dinner-speaker, crisscrossing the state to speak of the evils of big, out-of-touch government while leavening his message with a torrent of one-liners."

In 1978, Dreyfus defeated Democratic Acting Gov. Martin Schreiber, largely on a campaign against the state's large surplus.

"I saw that almost as an immorality," he said. "I thought it was wrong for the state to accumulate that money for programs they didn't have in place and take it from the people."
He had a gift for the bon mot. David Blaska remembers in the Isthmus, a Madison newspaper:
Students on the campus at UW-Stevens Point, he would say, would give him the victory sign -- but forget to hold up the second, index finger. Pa-dumppp!
The story goes that Dreyfus adopted his signature red vest during the student protests of the Vietnam war, so he could be recognized in the fray. That story may be apocryphal, but it is clear he wore the vest so he could be easily recognized on campus. During the war, the Journal Sentinel recalls, Dreyfus made an important point that is generally forgotten about civil-military relations:
He was not always popular with students during the Vietnam War. Many students viewed the existence of an ROTC unit on campus as an endorsement of the U.S. military action. But Dreyfus argued that ROTC should be viewed as the presence of the university in the military instead of the presence of the military in the university.
My personal favorite is this zinger about how he got involved in politics.

In 1975, Dreyfus traveled to China as a representative of American colleges and universities. It proved to be a life-changing experience.

"That trip convinced me that the one-party system, whether it's a Marxist or a capitalist system or a military system. . . is not in the best interests of the people," he said.

Back home in Wisconsin, Dreyfus didn't like what he saw.

"In '76, I was getting more concerned about the fact that we were sliding into one-party power in this state, and I saw at that point what I viewed as. . . the absolute arrogance growing in the Democratic Party and a bunker mentality growing in the shrinking Republican Party."

So Dreyfus joined the Republican Party in 1978.

"My mother always taught me it was polite to join a party before you take it over," he quipped.

(Those independents and first-time voters who have joined the Ron Paul Revolution should remember that, and sign up to join their local GOP committees as activists who are in it for the long haul.)

Wisconsin has a long tradition of colorful and inspiring politicians, from Carl Schurz to Fighting Bob LaFollette to Frank Zeidler to Ed Thompson. They were Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Libertarians, and -- believe it or not -- Socialists, but they were all effective in putting their aims into action. Lee Sherman Dreyfus belongs in their company.

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