Photo: Paul D'Amato
By Mark Byrne, GQ
When his normally docile listening sessions across the state turned into heated, vitriolic affairs, people calling Obama a socialist, calling him a "Washington insider," tea bags hanging from the brims of their hats, the senator from Wisconsin knew he would probably lose. And then he lost. Afterward, he smoked a cigar.
A year and change later, Russ Feingold sits against the banquette of Elsa's in Milwaukee, plucking bacon wrapped chestnuts from a platter between us, making short work of a Brandy Old Fashioned. "I was relieved that it was over," he says now, thinking back on those days immediately after the election went to the other guy. "And I was interested to see what happened next."
What happened next: Well, first, the Packers won the Super Bowl. And then Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made a power grab for the collective bargaining rights of public workers, and thousands of angry Wisconsinites stormed the steps of the Capital. Feingold got a job teaching at Marquette Law School, and wrote a book making the case for a more focused counter-terrorism effort overseas (While America Sleeps, out February 21). But the movement kept moving: Last fall, a few angry people pitched tarps in an anonymous park in downtown New York, and hundreds came to join them. Oakland, Seattle, UC Davis. And then in the op-ed pages, on the talk shows, in the president's State of the Union address, and on stage in GOP debates. A referendum on income inequality in political influence, the Feingold special.
So it should come as no surprise that here, in the restaurant, two separate people have come up to him and told him to run -- for what, it's not really important. Governor. Senator, again. Hell, President. Problem is Citizen Feingold is starting to enjoy himself. Another brandy old fashioned!
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GQ: I've never associated brandy with Wisconsin, to be perfectly honest.
Russ Feingold:When we grew up they used to tell us that Wisconsin was number one in brandy consumption per capita. I don't know if it's still true but it's not that popular to drink in other states. I mean, you go to the supper clubs all over the state and people are drinking brandy, and particularly these brandy old fashioneds. We're a brandy state, amongst other things. Beer, bratwurst, cheese...
GQ: ...football, politics. Specifically your brand of politics, Russ. You spent your entire career here waging war on income inequality and the preferential treatment of deep-pocketed corporations in American politics. And then just a year after you lose, that turns into the major, hot-button issue across America. You're kind of the patron saint of Occupy Wall Street.
Russ Feingold: Never did I think, standing in the shadows of the cathedral here that I would be called a patron saint, but I'll take it. I mean, take me out of it, but they have acknowledged the role of corporate money, of Wall Street, and of Citizens United. I endorsed that movement immediately.
GQ: It took us long enough. Three years since the subprime mortgage bubble and TARP, twelve months since the Citizens United ruling.
Russ Feingold: I voted against all that stuff. I kept thinking, how long are we going to buy the baloney of these corporate interest groups? I'm thrilled to see people standing up.
GQ: Do you think you lost specifically because of Citizens United? Your opponent, Ron Johnson, had a lot of his own money, and a lot of money behind him.
Russ Feingold: Oh, not even close. What happened was Barack Obama got elected with the economy in a horrible mess, Democrats had the governorship in Wisconsin, both Houses of the legislature in Congress, the presidency. And people basically said, "you're a good guy, but we're voting against all incumbents." It was as simple as that. We had plenty of money, I can't complain about that. People made up their minds. I knew the minute I voted for the health care bill that that was it.
GQ: Seriously? It was that bill that did you in?
Russ Feingold: I couldn't say for sure, but yeah. My sense was that if things were normal I was probably going to lose and I accepted that. I did everything I could, but when the economy is that bad, and when things are rough, it's just normal I guess. I don't consider it odd that people said, "let's just try something different."
GQ: A lot of that had to do with our country's brief flirtation with the Tea Party.
Russ Feingold: First of all, where did it come from? A week after Obama is sworn in I've got people coming to town meetings with, like, little tea bags and I'm saying, "Well, what's your complaint? That he didn't wear the right suit at the inaugural? What is the deal? He hasn't done anything." Most of my town hall meetings had always been love fests, and some of my guys used to complain: "I'd like for somebody to yell at you a bit." Sure enough, all of a sudden that's all it was. And my supporters that were in the room were becoming scared. First, they become intimidated to the point where they don't speak. Then they don't show up. So I'm possibly one of the only Americans who was in the room, maybe 150 times, with these Tea Party people, who was not a part of them. I was there. This was clearly a corporate-generated myth and these Tea Party people, many of whom were completely genuine, were taken for a ride. They were completely co-opted by the Republican party, totally bamboozled. Occupy Wall Street is a real movement. The Tea Party ended up being a shill for corporate America.
GQ: You talk about it calmly in retrospect, but surely you must have been infuriated when you realized this "shill" would cost you your job.
Russ Feingold: I hate to tell you this, but I was intrigued. Instead of being angry I was like, What is this? Why would people react this way, to this new president? Why would people choose this as a way to react to economic difficulty? I wanted to understand. So, no, I was not infuriated.
GQ: You never, like, threw a glass at a wall?
Russ Feingold: Not at all. Not once. I have a sense of the absurd. And when something is so ridiculous, I'm just like, "Oh my God." It was actually making me excited.
GQ: You were in Washington for 18 years. Congress went through several distinct shifts during that time, through Clinton and then toward the end of Bush's second term.
Russ Feingold: When I was under George Mitchell [the Democratic Senate Majority Leader from '89 - '95] and under Bob Dole, the Republican, they'd bring up bills and say, "OK, who has an amendment?" And then you do the bill, you have a debate on the amendment and you have a vote. It was a legitimate process. The majority usually won, but it was a real process. I remember going to Bob Dole, in the Republican Caucus and saying, "Hey Bob, I have two amendments," and he'd say, "No problem," and you never had to say anything more. You didn't have to write him a letter; you didn't have to confirm it. I gotta tell you, with both Democrat and Republican leaders, after that it didn't mean anything unless you had a blood oath. So this sort of integrity of process, the respect for it was destroyed.
GQ: The fact that there is even a bill called McCain-Feingold is an excellent crystallization of that period, when people reached across the aisle. Could something of that nature ever happen again? Like, Boehner-Pelosi?
Russ Feingold: I hope so. Yeah, I'm sure it will. I'm sure this will work its way out. But it's a terrible time in terms of people getting the government they deserve.
GQ: Do you still talk to McCain?
Russ Feingold: I talked to him the other day. John and I like each other. We're close. We're not like social friends, but we're still very close. When we were traveling in Iraq, we would start stumbling out of our rooms in the morning and he'd say, "march or die," "march or die," and then they'd issue us our flack jackets and our helmets and it was like being with a commandant. And I was like this soldier that wasn't in very good shape. John treated me well as a person, always.
GQ: Do you think he changed during the 2008 election?
Russ Feingold: I think his analysis would have been, "Look, if I become president, then I'm going to be able to really do things in an independent way and he saw himself as a Teddy Roosevelt, and in many ways he was, and has been, in terms of his rough-rider, Progressive Republican thing. But John made quite an effort to get the conservative vote and it caused him to get away from some of his better instincts, like his instincts on not having tax cuts to the very wealthy, and global warming. And I was sorry to see that. I believe that if he had become president he would have been a courageous president. But there were moments where I felt bad because I think his people were telling him, "Look, you gotta do this if you want to be the nominee."
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