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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive
By David R. Obey (University of Wisconsin Press)

How did an angry kid from an unhappy working-class home in Wausau become the longest-serving member of Congress in Wisconsin history and the powerful chair of the House Appropriations Committee?

"Life takes funny bounces," U.S. Rep. Dave Obey writes in this important and engrossing memoir, which ably blends personal revelations, insightful political analyses and a progressive call-to-arms.

A man with more passion than patience, given to the occasional fiery outburst - witness his notorious hallway encounter with an antiwar Marine mom - Obey is likely the only member of Congress to have slugged a nun. (In his defense, she hit first). That same intensity fueled his fight against the economic program of Ronald Reagan - the congressional work of which he's most proud.

Now a self-described Social Gospel Democrat, Obey grew up in a Republican family and even campaigned for Sen. Joe McCarthy. But when McCarthyites on the school board went after Obey's favorite teacher, his political metamorphosis began. In 1962, at age 24, he was elected state representative.

It was Richard Nixon who gave Obey his next break, by appointing Wausau Congressman Melvin Laird as his first secretary of Defense. Obey stared down one potential candidate, future state schools superintendent Bert Grover, easily dispatched quirky biochemist (and future Madison mayoral candidate) Will Sandstrom in the primary, and - on April Fool's Day, 1969 - eked out a stunning victory over Walter John Chilsen.

Obey came to Washington as the youngest member of the House. Now he's its third most senior. He has plenty of stories, and he tells them well.

Although his ideals are firm, Obey reveals he's changed his mind about some issues - notably, he now supports Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. That's one reason he ranks Ford first among his seven presidents. Then it's Clinton, Carter, George H.W. Bush ("decent, clueless"), Reagan ("disastrous"), Nixon ("knowledgeable, malevolent") and Bush ("the most destructive of all"). He's suitably steamed about Newt Gingrich ("a political sociopath" as venal as McCarthy), but is quite warm for Newt's almost-successor, the "decent and courageous" Rep. Robert Livingston, snared in a sex scandal as he was about to become speaker.

Obey wrote this book as a rejoinder to Tommy Thompson's preposterous notion that conservatives are the true heirs to Robert M. La Follette, and to give an account of modern government and politics that could stand alongside La Follette's autobiography.

He's met both goals.

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