Dreyfus watches election returns on the TV in his hotel room in 1978.
Editor's note: The death of former Gov. Lee Dreyfus has prompted a rush of reminiscences about his long shot 1978 gubernatorial insurgency. The UW-Stevens Point chancellor, after losing the GOP endorsement in the party convention in June, went on to upset the party's endorsed candidate, U.S. Rep. Robert Kasten, in the GOP primary in September. Then, in November, he dealt the Wisconsin political establishment another blow when he ousted Acting Gov. Martin Schreiber from office.
This Isthmus cover story from April 14, 1978, was one of the first journalistic reports on the budding Dreyfus insurgency and why it could succeed. For a gallery of Dreyfus photos shot by longtime Isthmus contributor Brent Nicastro, click the "Gallery" tab at right.
Consider Lee Dreyfus, Republican candidate for governor.
For almost 11 years, he's been the high profile chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He's guided the school through a period of substantial growth and has seen it recognized as the place students go if they have a special interest in communications or natural resources. He's established overseas branches of the school in such exotic locales as Madrid, Krakow, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei, all on the premise that exposure to foreign cultures is a necessary part of education.
Never one to shun a fight, he's had his share of controversy. The chancellor was a staunch defender of the ROTC program on campus during the height of the Viet Nam War (and, in fact, worked in Viet Nam as an educational consultant for the army). His refusal to approve 24-hour visitation rights for dormitory residents has put him at odds with some student leaders.
Yet, through the thick and thin of a decade as a "school builder" in central Wisconsin, Dreyfus has apparently avoided the autocratic trappings that often accrue to men in his position. He has, instead, acquired a reputation for respecting the prerogatives of his students and faculty. He believes very strongly in the Western tradition that "truth comes from clash; honest people disagreeing." It is the cornerstone of his philosophy, both intellectually and politically.
Even people who have questioned his policies find it difficult to say anything bad about Dreyfus as a man. At his worst moments, the communications authority might be a bit of a ham with a tendency towards glibness. By most accounts, he's simply an unusually gifted individual an intellectual with a common touch, a teacher, a brilliant speaker, a man who inspires.
"He has great personal integrity. It shines through whatever he does," says one of his legislative admirers, State Rep. Sheehan Donoghue (R-Merrill), "He has a great ability to compromise and be pragmatic about various problems he's very innovative. He creates new solutions to old problems. . .His vitality is so great that he fires people up so if he can't solve a problem they probably will."
Her colleague, State Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Osseo), agrees. "There's a unique charisma to the man that attracts people regardless of their politics young people, educators, farmers . . .He doesn't deal only with problems that have to be solved in the next month. He's looking at the next generation and the problems they'll face."
He is, Donoghue said, "a strong, fresh breeze blowing into the Republican Party."
Dreyfus is, in addition, emerging as the wild card in Wisconsin politics in 1978. Odd as it may sound, a stockily built academician in an ever-present red vest (he has 17 or 18 of them), a self-proclaimed "Republocrat" until December, is threatening to toss the Republican and Democrat political power brokers right on their ears.
Dreyfus is betting he can pull together a coalition of out-state Republicans, political independents and nominal Democrats on the strength of his considerable reputation and the unusual blend of LaFollette progressivism and conservative values he professes.
Heady talk, for sure, but it may not be so wild a dream. After interviewing Dreyfus and his supporters in Madison and Stevens Point, there seems to be more meat to his scenario than a lot of people suspect.
The question is whether he can mobilize sufficient resources to make it play.
Dreyfus, after receiving a five-month leave of absence from the Board of Regents, formally enters the GOP race on Friday, April 14, ending almost a year of pre-campaign soundings. He finds himself confronting the formidable presence of 9th District Congressman Robert W. Kasten Jr., a two-term incumbent from the Milwaukee suburb of Theinsville. As Dreyfus supporters like to point out, Kasten's district covers the exclusive North Shore suburbs, the fast-growing counties that girdle Milwaukee and a few rural counties to boot. It is, in other words, classic Republican turf, a party stronghold with its upwardly mobile suburbanites, prosperous farmers and small-town businessmen.
Kasten, who comes from a prominent banking and manufacturing family himself, has diligently tended to his constituency. He's balanced a highly conservative voting record with an energetic, reform-minded reputation with the voters. He's proved to be as astute a grassroots organizer as any lift-wing activist. He can tap the big-money Republican financiers as if he had a key to the bank. And in 1976, when Jimmy Carter and the Democrats were stringing up Republican candidates from lampposts, Kasten was winning re-election by a tow-to-one margin.
He is so the conventional wisdom says the favorite. Some of Kasten's more enthusiastic supporters go as far as to suggest republicans should feel fortunate that Kasten is sacrificing a sure seat in the House for an outside chance of breaking the Democratic hegemony in Madison.
Lee Dreyfus and his people aren't so sure. With considerable persuasion, they argue that Kasten's conservative voting record and close ties to the Milwaukee business community and the GOP hierarchy form exactly the wrong sort of image the party needs to attract the pivotal independent vote.
After all, they argue, in terms of the Democratic cast of Wisconsin politics, the 9th District is an oddity, a throwback to the distant days when the Republicans dominated the state from the courthouses on up to the executive mansion.
"Wisconsin at this point is really a Democratic state," says Pam Anderson, a "Reagan" Republican and Dreyfus' delegate coordinator. "Bob Kasten can win a Republican district, yes but a 9th District candidate cannot win Wisconsin."
"I think it's almost immaterial what Republicans think," another supporter, Bob Williams, says bluntly. "Come November they're going to vote Republican, whoever the candidate is."
The political reality, he points out, is that, depending on the poll, only 18 to 22 per cent of Wisconsin's voters identify themselves as Republicans, while 50 per cent call themselves independents people who "vote the candidate."
"Who can get the 62 per cent of the independents that we need to win? I think Lee Dreyfus can," Williams says.
The thinking is that Dreyfus is precisely strongest where Kasten is weakest in the central and northwestern parts of the state. Dreyfus is a well-known figure there, thanks to his chancellorship and the vigorous speaking schedule he maintains (an estimated 800 speeches in 10 years) at high schoo0ls, service clubs, business groups and the like.
And Kasten's problems go deeper yet, the Dreyfus camp adds. His politics are not only out of step with Main Street, Wisconsin but he's actively disliked in some quarters.
"I'm running into it, I'm running into it a lot," Dreyfus said at an interview at his home. The feeling is that Kasten's candidacy is being fostered by "a small elite group financially based in Milwaukee," who are more concerned about preserving the GOP nomination for their candidate than winning the election, Dreyfus said.
"They're talking about a handful of people who decide who is going to be the candidate and where the money will go and have decided in the past when the candidate is not going to get the dollars."
"The thing is, you get a candidate to reach the people then you put the party, organization and money behind him," Dreyfus said. "What's happened is a reversal whoever got the organization and money, gets the nomination."
Dreyfus said the trend is for voters to identify with neither of the two major parties. "Clearly they're becoming candidate-oriented," he said. "I was one of them. I really worked hard at political neutrality."
Dreyfus' conversion to Republicanism began in 1976 on the road to Peking with a group of American educators touring China.
"I couldn't believe what I saw in mainland China," he said. "I've said for years when I give out a diploma: Half of what those students learn is garbage I agree. But I don't know which half!
"In a sense, that philosophy comes from Milton's Areopagitica. It's the most important document he ever wrote and certainly one of the most important documents of the 17th century," he explained: We really believe truth comes from two people clashing with their ideas.
"You get into a society that doesn't believe that . . . You're a journalist, how would you have answered the communist cadre leader who asked me in Shanghai: 'Does the capitalist press lie and distort the truth?' What would you say? Would you defend it and say they absolutely print the truth? I know better!
"The cadre leader said, 'Then you admit there are lies and distortions in the capitalist press?' The next question was why do we permit it. That's when I knew I was in a cultural interface that was not about to mesh.
"I was trying to tell him the reader ought to make that decision . . . He didn't understand why we had three television networks. 'Why do you need more than one if one will tell you the truth?' That's a whole mental set. We believe the truth comes from clash, honest people disagreeing."
"That's what the two-party system is about," Dreyfus said.
"Do I think the Democratic Party is not serving the state well? Absolutely yes! Why? Because there isn't a strong enough Republican party to test it!" he insisted.
Seeing how disastrous the one-party system was in the rest of the world, Dreyfus said, he returned from Peking convinced he no longer has the luxury of political neutrality.
* * *
Dreyfus has spent his adult life in academia. Born in Milwaukee, he was raised in what he describes as a typically stern Germanic neighborhood, some nine houses away from his future wife, Joyce. While still a teenager in World War II, he joined the Navy and saw combat in the Pacific theater.
"After getting out I had trouble collating who gets to live, who gets to die," he recalled. "It didn't jell for me. Was it good guys and bad guys? It wasn't at all. It created a great wrench in my life. I finally accepted that, for whatever reason, it didn't happen to me. So the next issue is what am I going to be doing?"
It was college. Under the GI Bill, Dreyfus attended the University of Wisconsin and earned his bachelor's degree in two years, four months straight A's except for two 2-credit B's. He went on to pick up a master's degree and doctorate in speech from the UW.
In 1952, Dreyfus began a ten-year association with Wayne State University in Detroit. He also met and became lifelong friends with another communications specialist, Marshall McLuhan. At Wayne, Dreyfus started as a classroom instructor and general manager of the campus TV station and ended as an associate professor and the associate director of the division of Mass Communications.
In 1962, he returned to his alma mater, where he was named general manager of WHA-TV and a professor of Speech and Radio-TV Education. Three years later he became chairman of the division. Then, in 1967, the regents appointed him president of the infant University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus.
It was during the Dow demonstrations in Madison, incidentally, that Dreyfus took to wearing a red vest so his students could easily point him out during the protests. Dreyfus is an advocate of strong national defense and served as chairman of the National Advisory Panel on Army ROTC affairs. He is, not surprisingly, close friends with the Marshfield military axis of Mel Laird and Robert Froehlke, respectively, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army under President Nixon.
Laird, in fact, has been rumored to have urged Dreyfus to run for governor, while Froehlke, the former president of Stevens Point-based Sentry Insurance, has contributed money to his campaign.
Dreyfus' conservatism on military matters is matched by his conservative views on the family and personal life. He's the kind of guy who pays cash when he buys a new car, one advisor said. The attitude this reflects is credited as one of the reasons Dreyfus has such a good rapport with out-state residents, who may vote Democratic on election day yet are solidly conservative on social matters.
But Dreyfus isn't a mossback. He's a vocal defender of free speech and academic freedom ("Liberty for a teacher is not having to lie," he declares), and he voices concern over what he sees as the growing pressures, both international and domestic, to restrict free inquiry.
Politically, Dreyfus described himself as a "Republocrat" for years until he joined the Republican Party in December 1977 in anticipation of his gubernatorial bid. In 1965, he supported William Dyke for mayor of Madison; in 1966 he backed Patrick Lucey for governor. Dreyfus' personal hero is "Fightin' Bob" LaFollette, who founded the fabled Progressive Party following a rancorous split with the Republican stalwarts.
This is a pivotal moment in Wisconsin politics, Dreyfus said, because the Republicans turned their backs on a great heritage ideas like unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, and the shorter work week. "Where did that tradition go? Right down the pipe!" he said.
"LaFollette argued with those people until as late as 1925 and they simply never paid any attention to him. Had he been listened to, the Republican Party wouldn't have a problem right now. He was an incredibleman, an incredible visionary!" Dreyfus enthused.
So what are his chances?
Not bad, actually. Dreyfus rates better than a long shot for at least two reasons. The one-time Republocrat is drawing support from all sides of the GOP fence from hardcore Reagan conservatives to New Republican Conference moderates, which is as strange a coalition as you can imagine in the usually cannibalistic world of Republican politics. For whatever the reason (and there are several conflicting theories offered), Dre4yfus has gone a long way in proving his politics are attractive to a diverse audience.
Secondly, Dreyfus' game plan of pursuing the GOP endorsement at the June convention is apparently only facing half-hearted resistance by the Kasten campaign, which is more interested in working on something that will pay off on election day a state wide grassroots organization that can turn out the vote. This strategy is Dreyfus' daylight.
The convention is all-important to him. He needs a win or a close finish to maintain his viability when the campaign shifts into high gear and Kasten's financial and organizational strengths come into play. (Both men, incidentally, say they'll be on the September primary ballot regardless of who wins the endorsement.) A Dreyfus triumph at the convention, furthermore, would seemingly open the party's coffers to him. That's vital.
Staffed by volunteers and working on a modest $30,000 pre-convention budget, the Dreyfus campaign badly needs the party money to run a statewide race that could cost as much as $750,000. The Kasten campaign, which has already raised a reported $200,000, argues that financing Dreyfus would be downright foolish, because he would only use the GOP money to run against Kasten in the GOP primary.
This is dynamite.
If Dreyfus does capture the nomination and the money is denied him, the backlash could literally tear the party apart.
As for delegate support, both sides agree Dreyfus is doing well. Always an effective speaker, the man from Point has been concentrating on addressing county caucuses and Lincoln Day dinners in an effort to court delegates. By April, he had visited 38 caucuses and 13 fund-raising dinners. Both he and Anderson, his delegate coordinator, say they're encouraged by the response.
So is Steve Gunderson, who declared, "The whole endorsement thing is a wide-open ball game. The people are undecided. We look at this as in our favor, because for the past four years Kasten has been regarded as the next gubernatorial candidate. Now Lee Dreyfus is charging up the hill." Kasten's credibility is destroyed if he can't win the endorsement, Gunderson said. How can he carry the state, if his own party rejects him, he asked.
Dreyfus' conservative strength is the oddest development of the race. It broadens his credibility and it puts some of the best Republican workers in his camp. Yet it may cause problems with his moderates. Two conflicting theories are offered why many of the "Ronald Reagan activists have pitched in with Lee Dreyfus.
Several Kasten supporters contend it grows out of an angry confrontation last spring between Kasten and Joni Jackson of Madison, a prominent Reagan supporter in the '76 campaign. The run-in came at the annual convention of the Republican Women's Federation and allegedly involved Jackson "double-crossing" Republican leaders by running for federation president, and winning, after earlier agreeing Ruth McKay should run unopposed.
"A lot of people felt betrayed." According to one Dane County Republican. "A lot of people came out of there feeling they couldn't trust Joni Jackson."
The result supposedly was that Jackson went over to the Dreyfus camp, taking the Reaganites with her, because she knew Kasten would never listen to her if he were elected governor. At least, that's the view from the Kasten tent. Jackson herself says she's remaining scrupulously neutral because of her position with the federation. Her husband Lowell, however, is supporting Dreyfus. He called the Kasten camp interpretation "spiteful," and said it was presumptuous to believe his wife had so much influence over other conservatives.
Dreyfus' explanation of the conservative support is the raison d'etre of his campaign: "The key issue with the Reaganites and the conservatives is that they want to win," he explained. "Some of them have told me quite bluntly, in terms of Mr. Kasten's voting record, if they felt he could win, they'd support him. But they look at what it takes to win an election in Wisconsin and they come to the conclusion that I can win, whereas Bob can't…They say the first thing is to win-at least then we get heard."
Dreyfus saw no special problem in balancing Ronald Reagan conservatives with "Fightin' Bob" LaFollette Progressives. He would make no promises to any of his supporters, outside of "I will, in fact, listen."
"What we're offering the Republican Party," declared Dreyfus, "is freshness and no political ties or debts. That's the value of bringing in a political virgin."