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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Capitol Eye remembers Lee Sherman Dreyfus
He was a breath of fresh air for Wisconsin politics
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Lee Sherman Dreyfus has been hailed since his passing as a great communicator, as a common man who led an uncommon life, as a maverick who appeared briefly on the political scene but who could not lay a solid claim to the label "politician."

He did have a slap-dash style as Wisconsin's chief executive. He was fond of saying that the Legislature proposes and the governor disposes, which was not nearly the Machiavellian attitude of the governors who followed.

Maybe it was Dreyfus' experience as a university chancellor that led him to approach his job as that of a ship's captain, not as its helmsman with his hand on the rudder. He didn't want to micromanage state government, even when more politically ambitious types would have leaped at the chance.

Dreyfus never had the social-political agenda of his Democratic predecessors, Pat Lucey and Martin Schreiber, but he signed into law a landmark bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual preference. It was the only time Eye can recall during his four years as governor that he put his thoughts into a written statement.

Except for that single departure, it was "shoot from the lip," which gave people a pretty good feeling of where Dreyfus was coming from, but seldom a good sense of where he was headed and how he might get there.

If you encountered reporters trudging up the stairs in the Capitol from a Dreyfus press conference, more often than not, they were asking one another, "What did he say?" In due course, all the reporters bought tape recorders, so they could play back Dreyfus' comments -- and repeat their question.

By design, the hallmark of his administration was its openness. He was famous for his "Bull Pen," which relegated top staff to the open area of the governor's quarters in the Capitol, a space that before and since was reserved for the secretaries and office assistants.

What a breath of fresh air it would be today if an heir to his open political style -- or nonpolitical style -- appeared on the scene today.

Imagine an office holder who trusted his or her political guts rather than the results of the latest poll or focus group. Imagine an office holder who based his or her decisions on a sense of what is right rather than what is expedient.

Imagine an office holder who is keen on political symbolism and not afraid to show his or her colors, but not for the purposes of turning people against one another.

So many politicians today will be diminished when examined through the lens of history, as though viewed through the wrong end of the telescope. Through no act of self-aggrandizement of his own, Lee Sherman Dreyfus will be magnified.

Editor's note: Capitol Eye, Isthmus' anonymous observer of political intrigue, wrote the Capitol-based column from 1979 to 1996. We asked Eye to reflect on Lee Dreyfus' term as governor from 1979 to 1983.

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