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Wineke: Lucey, Thompson: Remember when politicians weren’t mediocre?

Published On: May 22 2014 12:59:32 PM CDT
Former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey

Former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey

One photo caught my eye this week: It was a photo of Gesu Church in Milwaukee during the funeral of former Wisconsin Gov. Patrick J. Lucey.

The church just didn’t seem to be that full.

Partially, I suspect, that’s because Lucey was 96 years old; when you get that old, you’ve outlived most of your close friends and, often, most of your immediate family. Even if you were once famous, many of those who would attend the funeral either can no longer drive or, if younger, can’t take time off from work.

Also, Pat Lucey hasn’t been a powerhouse in Wisconsin since the 1960s.

But he was a powerhouse. He and Gaylord Nelson and, to some extent, Bill Proxmire, and Bob Kastenmeier took a Democratic party which was just about as feeble then as it is today and created a great governing unit.

I was a college student when all that was taking place. I knew another young guy on campus (I didn’t really know him well) at the time, a kid from Elroy named Tommy Thompson. It took Tommy a few years, but he and some colleagues pretty much did for a moribund Republican Party what Lucey had done for the Democrats.

So it is with politics.

But here, I think, is what separates them those who followed: They had actual visions of what a good society might be. They could see outside their own fortunes and envision a better state.

When the Democrats ran Wisconsin, we became pretty much the best state in the land. We protected the environment; we supported our public schools; we built roads and dedicated beautiful parks.

One problem for all this is that the Democrats then managed to get themselves elected to national office and the second tier ran out of steam.

When Tommy Thompson, “Doctor No” from Elroy, defeated Tony Earle, who was really a pretty good governor but who was undercut by the employee unions that should have had his back, I thought the world was doing dark.

But, as it turns out, Tommy was also able to envision a better state. His ideas weren’t my ideas, but many of his ideas worked reasonably well.

Even though I often disagreed with him, I never had any trouble feeling proud of my home state and proud of him when he touted its many virtues.

Now Pat Lucey and Gaylord Nelson are dead. Tommy is still active but he’s old and the current crop of Republican mediocrities doesn’t pay any attention to him.

And what is Scott Walker’s vision of a greater Wisconsin? Gut public education and demonize public servants? What is Ron Johnson’s vision? Issue daily reports on Facebook that are fatuously factless?

The one prominent Wisconsin politician who does seem actually to have a larger vision than his nose is Congressman Paul Ryan. His vision seems to be that of an Ayn Randian dystopia in which the elderly get a dole for medicine and poor people become surfs – but that’s my perspective; I do get the impression Ryan in sincere in thinking those policies would actually lead to a better society.

So, bring it on, Paul. I do hope your ideas are soundly defeated in the court of public opinion. But they are ideas and our political debate, for the most part, seems sadly lacking in them.