The Gaylord Proxmire Fest

Media Rants by Tony Palmeri

From the October, 2005 edition of The Valley Scene

On September 10th I traveled with fourteen citizens to the Sauk County Fairgrounds in Baraboo to attend Ed Garvey’s fourth annual “Fighting Bob Fest.” Let me say first that no one in Wisconsin politics is worthy of more respect than Ed Garvey. During Tommy Thompson’s fourteen years of prison building, road construction, pay-to-play politics and structural deficits, Garvey was one of a handful of prominent Democrats to express outrage and call for a renewal of Wisconsin’s progressive spirit. Dramatically outspent by Thompson and with only lukewarm support from the Wisconsin Democratic Party establishment, Garvey in 1998 ran an inspiring, no holds barred grassroots race for governor. The establishment media literally ignored the campaign, making it doubly difficult to dethrone Tommy. Garvey’s FightingBob.Com ( has done much to provide a forum for ideas and events systematically minimized and excluded from the mainstream press.

Gaylord Nelson
Bob LaFollette
Bill Proxmire

It is because of my respect for Ed Garvey that I feel compelled to register my frustration with Bob Fest. I speak only for myself, but I know my frustrations are shared by legions of activists who seek not to undermine the festival, but to force it to live up to the ideals of its namesake, the great Fighting Bob LaFollette. As currently structured, Fighting Bob Fest marginalizes and excludes LaFollette-like insurgents just as the mainstream media does to the festival itself.

The real Bob LaFollette was a fierce anti-imperialist who placed his political career and life at risk due to his courageous stands against the use of offensive military force abroad. He used whatever parliamentary maneuvers he could find to delay Congress from authorizing entry into World War I, and never relented in his criticism of the war even after troops had been committed to battle.

At Fighting Bob Fest, Senator Russ Feingold’s tepid call for the Bush administration to endorse a “target date” of December 2006 for troop withdrawal from Iraq was treated as a LaFollette like proposal even though Feingold himself acknowledged on Meet the Press that the date was “flexible” and could be extended if circumstances within Iraq dictate. Senator Feingold should be applauded for voting against a preemptive war, but his target date plan smacks of a kind of Clintonian triangulation. Situating himself between Cindy Sheehan and the Gold Star Families for Peace seeking immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and the Hillary Clinton/John Kerry contingent calling for increased numbers of troops, Feingold’s plan reeks of a political proposal designed to sound “moderate.”

A real Fighting Bob Fest would call Feingold on the carpet for this 2008 presidential campaign posture masquerading as a serious troop withdrawal proposal and allow an equal platform for those Wisconsinites who are working to place anti-war referendum questions on next year’s April ballots. Bob LaFollette would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Cyndi Sheehan at Camp Casey and marched with her and more than one hundred thousand others at the September 24 rally against the war in Washington.

Members of Congress Tammy Baldwin, Gwen Moore, and Dave Obey spoke at Bob Fest. Each provided a stirring critique of the Bush administration’s policies on everything from agriculture to voting rights. Baldwin and Moore are two of the fifty-eight cosponsors of House Joint Resolution 55, which would require the president to develop a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq by October of 2006. Yet none of these supposed heirs to Fighting Bob joined Congressmen Kucinich, Abercrombie, and Jones at the press conference announcing the resolution. Nor have any taken a visible public stance in support of it, either on their websites or other venues.

Rae Vogeler, a Green Party candidate for the US Senate seeking to replace Democrat millionaire Herb Kohl, attended Bob Fest and excited lots of enthusiasm just walking around shaking hands. Vogeler, a veteran peace and social justice activist, has been walking the LaFollette walk for years. Why she was not given a prominent place on the stage is puzzling, especially given Garvey’s insistence that the Democrats must be held accountable. Would a real Fighting Bob Fest relegate a progressive challenger to Herb Kohl to handshakes and private conversations? Rae’s website is

Fighting Bob LaFollette fought for electoral reforms including the open primary. Given the corporate takeover of the establishment parties, common sense would dictate that progressives should fight for electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting (IRV) that allow voters to exercise their conscience without the worry of the “spoiler” label being thrown at them. The Green Party’s Matt Gonzalez spoke about IRV at Bob Fest, but reforms that would empower third parties are clearly not at the top of the issue hierarchy for Bob Fest organizers.

As I strolled the grounds at Bob Fest and interacted with the participants, it struck me that the event really should be called the Gaylord Proxmire Fest. Gaylord Nelson was a principled Democrat, father of Earth Day, and an unapologetic liberal. Senator Bill Proxmire governed with the maverick spirit once common among Wisconsin politicians and today exemplified by Feingold. Like Ed Garvey, Nelson and Proxmire could not dream of leaving the Democratic Party no matter how corrupt it became.

The LaFollette legacy is an insurgent politics not content with moving the establishment parties to the left. Gaylord Proxmire stands for good things, but he is NOT Bob LaFollette.

Tony Palmeri ( is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh