Thursday, January 3, 2008

Lee Sherman Dreyfus: My how we need you now

The death of one of my friends and mentors -- former Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus -- isn't just a personal blow or the loss of another member of The Greatest Generation but rather a sad event for all of Wisconsin.

Pretty heady words -- but true.

I first met Lee as a reporter when the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point chancellor had the audacity to buck the establishment and challenge Bob Kasten, the anointed regular party candidate, for the Republican nomination for governor.

With little money and perhaps even less name recognition, Dreyfus did the unthinkable by taking his "Let The People Decide" campaign directly to the voters. It worked both in the primary where Kasten was blitzed and again in November 1978 when he knocked out Acting Governor Martin Schreiber (a Dreyfus friend outside the political arena).

I'll never forget that night at the Stevens Point Holiday Inn when, after getting Marty's concession call, a young Madison reporter in the Dreyfus hotel suite asked him how Schreiber was feeling.

"How the Hell do you think he feels," the usually glib Dreyfus bellowed.

"He just lost the election. Winning isn't everything but losing is nothing."

The euphoria that night was such that when Drefyus addressed his supporters they never noticed a major slip of the tongue when he told them that when the people are given the freedom to decide that "they make the wrong choices."

The crowd wildly cheered Dreyfus but Lee had an "Oops!" look on his face a few days later when I played that portion of the tape back for him.

Smart. Intelligent. Quick-witted. A jokester. All of those descriptions fit Lee.

I once quipped that Lee was the only guy who could get shot and convince you that you were bleeding.

In many ways, Lee was a political genius. He bypassed establishment politics to take his cause directly to the people. More important, he opened the doors of the stodgy Wisconsin Republican Party to everyone, including moderates and liberals who launched the New Republican Conference.

I was one of them and for a brief shining moment there was a Camelot of openness and fresh air in Wisconsin government.

Instead of smoke-filled rooms and back-door deals, Lee's top staff worked in an open "bull pen" at the State Capitol where reporters pretty much could walk in unannounced.

Occasionally Lee -- who truly enjoyed thinking outside the box -- would float a "trial balloon" which he didn't discuss in advance with right hand man Bill Kraus (much to Bill's chagrin when caught off-guard). If people didn't like it, that was cool. The Dreyfus motto, after all, was "Let The People Decide."

His major campaign issue was that the state's $1 billion budget surplus should be returned to taxpayers.

Marty said it should be saved for a rainy day but voters took to Lee's arguments like flies to watermelon on a hot summer day.

Legislative Democrats -- stunned by Dreyfus' ability to court and seize external power -- tried to outdo Lee by arguing that he wasn't going to give back enough of the surplus and the proposed distribution wasn't fair.

Fine, Lee said. Come up with a better plan.

The Democrats, not to be outdone, voted to give back more money. Ironically, when the economy soured and a budget deficit was looming, they were effectively foreclosed from blaming him as they were in on the deal.

The red-vested governor was at his best when dealing with his constituents. Nobody was unimportant in Lee's eyes.

Truly a regular guy, I once spent time with him on Christmas Eve shopping for last-minute presents.

Another time he got a weird call on his Wisconsin Public Radio call-in show in which the caller suggested that the state could save money by letting some lesser-traveled roads go to seed.

Lee told the caller that he should take that idea to the people who live on those roads "and then call me to let me know what hospital you're in so that I can come visit you."

Lee had a bad habit of answering questions by repeating the question and then tagging his answer on at the end.

At a news conference in his office we tricked him by asking how often he beat his wife. Lee began his response with, "I beat my wife" and then, realizing what he just said, bellowed "Never!"

Lee's wife, Joyce, was the love of his life and their closeness was never to be underestimated.

Joyce also had a habit of doing her own thing -- like the time she upset the state's honey producers by calling the product "bee poop" prompting "I eat bee poop" bumper stickers to pop up around Madison.

And then there was the time that some groupies supporting a Charles Manson-type wannabe showed up to picket at the governor's mansion at a time when Joyce felt a strong need to water the lawn. The rest was history.

It was Lee's loyalty to Joyce, who grew increasingly weary of the limelight, that prompted his stunning announcement in 1982 that he would not seek another term when he could easily have been reelected.

It was also in 1982 that this young lawyer got a call from Lee.

"This is your friendly neighborhood Governor calling," he began.

"I have some good news and some bad news," he continued.

"The good news is I'm appointing you district attorney. The bad news is that you're going to Ladysmith."

"Where the Hell is that?," I joked.

"You'd better find out," he replied.

"Think of it like being the only American Motors dealer in Tokyo."

Then he concluded, "I want you to go up there, do your best to be fair and even-handed to people and that's all you owe me."

I must say that I felt a bit let down, though, when my mentor and friend didn't run for a second term.

For one thing, the inroads we made into opening up the Wisconsin Republican Party to embrace progressive thinking people were quickly lost.

And then there was the increasing politicization of the governor's office and even day-to-day state government operations, something that was pretty much a "hands off" thing during and prior to the Dreyfus administration.

These changes also bothered Lee but he was too classy to broadcast them.

Oh how the voters of this state would (and should) clamor for such openness and honesty now.

I would not be where I am today had it not been for Lee whom I will truly miss.


Peter said...

Unfortunately we are stuck with Don Doyleone.

Anonymous said...

I agree--those who tell the truth and have a sense of humor are truly GONE!