'Fighting Bob' La Follette has become such an iconic figure in Wisconsin politics that the remarkable accomplishments of his two sons have been unjustly overlooked. While Dad took the gutsiest of stands as the embodiment of Progressive Era politics, Bob Jr. and Phil, as Wisconsin senator and governor, respectively, were the ones who did the painstaking work of shepherding hallmark legislation into law.
In Fighting Son, Jonathan Kasparek fleshes out second son Phil, a gregarious reformer and a better campaigner than his older brother. Young Phil proved the more natural heir to his father's fighting spirit, whether it be busting Greenbush bootleggers as Dane County district attorney or canvassing outlying counties in a successful effort to organize state progressives into a formidable third party. As three-term governor, he took the Depression head-on, even going so far as to criticize FDR as not going far enough in providing relief or public works. This led to Phil's push to establish a national Progressive Party in 1938 ' with an ill-fated kickoff rally at the UW Stock Pavilion, featuring a party flag that bore a disquieting resemblance to the Nazi swastika.
In the end, La Follette's ideals were largely co-opted by the New Deal, and state Progressives soon degenerated into squabbling factions. Yet Gov. Phil signed the nation's first unemployment compensation law, and championed other measures later adopted nationally. Kasparek does an admirable job of describing the machinations of party and policy, but one wishes he'd delved more into the mind of a man who vigorously opposed U.S. involvement in two world wars, yet volunteered for service in both of them.
Despite access to personal correspondence, the author also neglects to explore the psychodramas so common to American political families ' like Phil's children feeling distant, his brother committing suicide, and his own bout with the bottle. Nevertheless, Fighting Son fills a gaping hole in the story of how liberal ideas became longstanding American law.