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Russ Feingold brazenly led the way opposing the Iraq War. But just when Americans began to agree, he dropped out of the presidential race. by Daniel Libit

On a mid-July weekend last year, Russell Dana Feingold, the twice-divorced Jewish senator and maverick icon of the Progressive movement, dutifully shifted from a blue, government-issued van to his campaign vehicle, a silver Ford Expedition rental car, and headed south to Iowa. Ever the political bomb thrower, Feingold was fastidiously careful when separating campaign and senatorial duties. By now, he had made a neurosis of side-stepping what had become a drumbeat of presidential queries and only relented to consider the question after crossing the Mississippi River and leaving behind the state he served.

Munching a snack in a convenience store – a chocolate bar that would all too soon smudge his pants, leading to some frenetic dabbing minutes before his entering the Democratic Party headquarters in Dubuque – Feingold informed the three reporters following him for the day that he could finally talk about you know what. He said this with little enthusiasm.

This absence of glee seemed odd, considering his emerging apotheosis on the Internet, with Web sites like RunRussRun.com and DraftRuss.com popping up, and with many dubbing him the next Howard Dean. His coronation as presidential can-didate had come a year before this, on the cover of The New Republic, which dubbed him “The Hillary Slayer.”

Yet a few days before the Hillary Slayer’s arrival in Iowa, the Des Moines Register had published a poll on likely candidates for the Democratic nomination, and Feingold had registered a measly 3 percent. When asked about this, he seemed remarkably unfazed. “I don’t expect to be anywhere at this point,” he said. “I’m surprised it was at 3 percent.”

That sounded like posturing; that sounded distinctly political. Too many things suggested the man was indeed fussing over polls. Feingold’s four close advisors had for months been plotting the course for his nomination. His oldest brother, David, had concluded Russ was a serious candidate, predicting it would be “quite remarkable if he decided not to run.” His sisters had long ago begun fretting about what harm might befall him.

Dena, his youngest sister, had gotten the willies from an e-mail she had received at her temple in Kenosha from a woman writing that Feingold’s support of gay rights was an embarrassment to Jews.

And Russ’ older sister, Nancy, had already begun thinking the unthinkable. She was visiting an aunt in Florida the day Feingold pro-posed to censure the president, enraging Republicans and leaving Democrats running for cover. After watching the controversy unfold on television, Nancy ran out of the house and down to the calming waves at the shore. “Aren’t you just thrilled?” her aunt asked upon catching up. “I’m thrilled, and I’m terrified,” Nancy replied. “I think he’s going to get shot.”

She said this not knowing that, months before, her brother had been on the receiving end of a death threat. Feingold wouldn’t share this with the media (but a Milwaukee Magazine writer overheard Feingold discussing it with an aide). It was another sign, if a more ominous one, of his political ascension.

Yet the senator seemed to take all this in stride, and here he was in Iowa for the second time in four months, saying all the things you say if you are going to run for president of the United States.

Leon Feingold’s great fear was coming true, despite all his admonishments. Before he died, he had implored his youngest son, the child he viewed as his most sensible, to stay far away from the perils of public office.

But no sooner had Leon died than Russ had entered politics. And now he seemed to be careering unstoppably toward the biggest of-fice of all, and devil take the consequences. Until suddenly, Russ Feingold did what his father doubtless would have advised and dropped out of the race, a withdrawal that was as surprising as his quixotic candidacy. Just what was driving the junior senator from Wisconsin anyway? How could someone so courageous suddenly seem so cautious?

Photo by Tom Bamberger.

Photo by Tom Bamberger.

 

In the law office of David Feingold hangs a framed photograph of grandfather Max Feingold in front of the business he owned in Janesville, taken around 1923. It suggests a portrait of assimilation, with Max proudly posed next to his big Chevrolet truck, built at the big GM assembly plant in Janesville, a central focus of the town. In the photo’s background is the Blackhawk Grocery store Max owned, with its big Indian-head logo.

In 1919, Max Feingold had brought his family to Janesville to be near relatives after he was expelled from the Bausch & Lomb op-tical instruments company in Rochester, N.Y. Presumably he was fired (though the family story is murky) because of his union activi-ties and possible anarchist ties. They were Jewish Russian immigrants, Max and his wife Dena, passionate intellectuals and Zionists. But now they had come to a place, in Janesville, of newly grafted Americans from Norway and Germany and Ireland, and though it was a union town, there was still an uncertainty about belonging in this Northern European-ish community, something that perhaps kept a shunned man from raising too much hell thereafter.

Max’s history may also have made the children wary of politics. Of the five kids, only Leon embraced his father’s politics, the 20th century progressivism of La Follette, with its emphasis on social justice and workers’ rights. But whereas his father had been a political idealist, a stargazer, Leon was more pragmatic, generally engaging in politics from behind the scenes.

Leon and his four siblings all attended the University of Wisconsin. Leon received a law degree from UW as well and, in 1937, opened up a legal practice in downtown Janesville, where he worked for the rest of his life. His wife, Sylvia, had also attended UW, at the urging of her brother, the eminent reform Rabbi Louis Binstock. Binstock led a congregation in New Orleans, where he was known as the Rabbi of the South. A dynamic speaker, he is the rare blood relative of Russ’ who flashed that desire to stand at a dais before men.

Sylvia was an avid reader and keen grammarian, often found in the big armchair in the corner of the living room with a glass of iced coffee and a book. Russ has often credited her with his interest in literature and the “romance” of history. Though she worked later in life, she is remembered best by her other children as a fastidious housekeeper and a devoted wife who carried the mantle of her hus-band’s fears.

“My dad would put on two white, starched shirts a day that she would iron,” Nancy recalls. “He would shave twice a day. I mean, he was so civic-oriented. He would come home for supper and would need a clean shirt and a tie. She was just devoted to him. I saw her as being too devoted to him. My dad was angry a lot. He was very tense, very frightened.”

The Nazi death camps had claimed the lives of several relatives, and though never spoken about in the house, Nancy wonders if that took some toll on her dad. Leon Feingold also loathed and feared Sen. Joe McCarthy, the rector of the Red Scare, who targeted those with views not dissimilar to Leon’s and not infrequently Jewish as well.

When Russ’ grandmother died in 1948, the year Israel declared independence, Max was still relatively young. He moved to Israel the following year along with his new wife, a Zionist from America, together joining hundreds of thousands of other Jews fleeing Europe in the wake of the Holocaust.

Leon, meanwhile, went the other way, embracing American and Janesville culture. His children were expected to espouse certain unalienable principles: to root for Democrats, Progressives and the more proletarian of the two Chicago baseball teams, the White Sox.

“They wanted us to be Midwestern, very haimish people,” Nancy says of her parents, using the Yiddish word that suggests homey and folksy. “Very, very ethical, very, very moral. Very modest. Very cultural. Well-groomed.”

Off-color humor and card playing were objectionable. Furs and pearls would not be donned. “There shouldn’t be too much fame. Or too much Jewishness,” Nancy says. The mission was to carry oneself righteously, respectably and altogether inconspicuously.

“The integrity issue, in part,” says David, “comes from the Jewish issue, this feeling that you have to be purer than Caesar’s wife. And my dad was purer than pure.”

Leon ran unsuccessfully for District Attorney and also lost a bid for the County Board. But he was ultimately more comfortable campaigning for others or pressing for judicial reform. He was a 32nd degree Mason and active in both the Rotary Club and National Bar Association. “He wasn’t going to be a risk taker,” says Nancy, “but he was extremely influential behind the scenes.”

She recalls her former husband noting the lack of joy and pride, or in Yiddish, nachas, in the Feingold family. “There was more fear than nachas about Russ’ career,” Nancy notes. “I know my mother came to become proud, but there was a lot of fear.”

Russ was born in 1953, a week after former U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., the son of “Fighting Bob” and an originator of the Wisconsin Progressive Party, shot himself dead in Washington, D.C. (Some would later surmise he had done so out of fear of being called to testify by McCarthy over allegations that his staff employed communist sympathizers.) In less than a decade, the Red Scare would recede and anti-Semitism in America would begin to decline. Leon’s law practice had found success, and he was now running an insurance title business as well. Perhaps a newfound financial security had muffled the palpitations of fear in the house; as Nancy recalls, her father had taken up a ritual of evening martinis by the time Russ was growing up. “Russ got the best of my father,” she concludes.

The family’s four children were divided into two pairs set eight years apart. Of the two older children, David became a lawyer and joined his father’s practice; Nancy became a psychotherapist. The two younger children blazed more of a trail, Russ in politics and Dena, the youngest, becoming Wisconsin’s first female rabbi.

Postwar Janesville was a classic Midwestern union town, where sons followed fathers into jobs at General Motors, which had tran-sitioned back from producing 105 mm artillery shells to once again producing Chevrolets. The Feingold children were raised to fit into their hometown yet see beyond it. The family often tripped to Chicago, attending the ballet, theater or White Sox games. They specifi-cally chose to attend synagogue in Madison, as opposed to a closer temple in Beloit, and each of the children followed in the family tradition and attended UW.

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“We had this look to the outside world that a lot of peers did not,” says Dena. “A lot of my classmates never left Janesville. They may have gone to college, but they came back. They got married a year or two out of high school. A lot went straight to GM and got jobs. It does create a barrier; you come back to your five-year reunion and don’t feel you have much in common with these people.”

There was no question Russ would return to his home state even after graduating from Harvard Law School and studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was, by this time, married to his first wife, Sue, who had dated him throughout their time at UW and had fol-lowed him to England and Boston. He was also now a father, to his first daughter, Jessica.

With political inklings in his head, he moved the family to the Madison suburb of Middleton, mindful it was then in the same congressional district as Janesville, should that ever become expedient. He accepted, for a respectable sum of $35,000, a job with Foley & Lardner, which had opened up an office in Madison a few years prior.

His father implored Russ to stick with the safety and security of the legal profession. “He said to me, ‘Look at Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Brandeis as role models rather than politicians.’ But the problem was he already taught me to worship people like Hubert Humphrey and FDR for so long that I was kind of tracked that way, and I happened to revere them a lot.”

***

It was David Feingold, a conscientious objector and demonstrator during the Vietnam War, who set an early example of outspo-kenness for his younger brother. David was an activist during the protest years at UW and, after college, formed an anti-war group.

Yet even young David, whose level of activism greatly upset his father, was affected by the family fears during his most hellbent days. “The ambivalence was often there,” he says, “wanting to be involved but not quite sure how far to go … just a general anxiety that the more you go out there the more you may be punished in your life.”

Still, his pluckiness made an impact on Russ, who would later in life seem content “putting himself at the edge all the time,” as David marvels. “I might put myself on the edge every third time,” he says. “But not every time.”

The University of Wisconsin’s impact on Feingold extended beyond the student protests his older brother relayed to him. It was in Madison where he learned to worship academia and developed his political philosophy.

“[He] got the notion of the Wisconsin idea that the university and the state are more than geographically contiguous, that they feed and inform each other,” says Joe Davis, an old friend. “That the university professor is not just supposed to teach class, that there is a role to play.”

The first time he ever heard Feingold discuss a U.S. Senate bid, Davis notes, was during a dinner in 1986 attended by Stanley Kutler, the well-regarded UW history of law professor, famous for filing suit to expedite the release of the Nixon tapes. Feingold had taken a class of Kutler’s as an undergraduate, and he was a mentor of sorts to the future senator.

At Foley & Lardner, Feingold had been able to take on some atypical cases, including that of a prisoner at Waupun who was chal-lenging the conditions of confinement. Though his bosses in Milwaukee preferred he spend his billable hours on more lucrative ac-counts for Wisconsin Gas or MasterCard, he remained a firm favorite, a wunderkind known as the “kid with the golden résumé.” Still, Feingold had begun to chafe at the bureaucracy of a big, corporate law firm and the many lonesome weekends drafting briefs.

“I wanted my most energetic years to be doing something I would enjoy,” he says. “I remember mowing my lawn in my first home in Middleton, thinking, ‘So should I teach law? Should I move to Janesville and run for a judgeship?’ I reached the point where I thought, ‘It’s time to make a move.’ ”

Leon Feingold would never see his son take that step. He died in December 1980, despondent over the recent electoral loss of the stalwart progressive, Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson. It was “like a final blow” for her dad, Nancy recalls.

It was no coincidence, David says, that Russ would run for public office the very next election. He wonders whether his younger brother would have ever entered politics had their father been alive. Nancy, however, believes Russ had found enough distance from the family.

“I think Russ established autonomy for himself,” she says, “emotional autonomy. He wasn’t emotionally dependent on anybody in the family. I don’t think he gets as emotionally dependent as some other people do.”

Not long after Leon’s passing, a friend approached Russ Feingold about helping former state Sen. Tom Harnish fight a recall effort. During the campaign, Feingold met several people who would become instrumental in his nascent political career, in-cluding his future policy director, Sumner Slichter. Slichter and others soon approached Feingold about running for office.

The result was the dramatic start of Feingold’s political career: his coming out of nowhere to win the Democratic primary for the state Senate’s 27th District and his remarkable upset of Cy Bidwell, the well-entrenched Republican, in the 1982 election. “I won by 31 votes out of 47,000 after knocking on 15,000 doors,” Feingold recalls.

Feingold did well in the Dane County portion of the district but won because he cut into Bidwell’s base in conservative Columbia County. “He’s not one to give up,” says John Sylvester, a Feingold friend and Madison radio personality, “even when there are long odds. I see a lot of people in politics [who] wait for the right moment and don’t want to take a risk.”

Taught by his father to fit into the hometown yet see beyond it, state Sen. Russ Feingold balanced UW-styled intellectualism with a common touch. His fixation on seemingly arcane issues like bovine growth hormone (a big issue for dairy farmers), interstate banking laws and Alzheimer’s disease actually sprang from his constituents’ concerns.

“Nobody was doing Alzheimer’s in the ’80s,” says Sylvester. “Here’s a guy who went to Oxford and Harvard, but that Janesville experience taught him how to talk to regular people. He didn’t know much about agriculture, but he learned it. And a lot of those farming families were devastated by Alzheimer’s.”

Feingold had first considered running for a U.S. Senate seat in 1988, the year Democrat William Proxmire retired. Instead, he targeted Republican Sen. Bob Kasten’s bid for a third term in 1992. It was Kasten who had defeated Russ’ father’s favorite, Gaylord Nelson, adding heartbreak to Leon’s last days. Sylvester remembers Feingold pointing to the television as Kasten made his victory speech in 1986 and saying: “I am going to run against him. That’s Gaylord Nelson’s seat, and I’m running against him.”

At the time, Feingold had two kids and wife to support, no savings and a middling legislative salary. His campaign assets seemed meager at best. But he had attracted a following from the time he worked at Foley, a group of political loyalists on which he came to rely.

“I think he places a very high value on friendship from people who seek nothing other than friendship,” says Marv Freedman, a longtime friend. “When you’re a U.S. senator or state senator, that’s not an easy commodity to come by.”

In preparation for his U.S. Senate run, Feingold also summoned local experts, predominantly UW professors, to brief him on the issues of the day. Rural sociology professors discussed farming. A Ph.D. economist from Robert W. Baird came to talk about the markets. Gary Sandefur, now a UW dean, gave a presentation on Native Americans. Over a course of three years, around 30 policy sessions were held on everything from foreign relations to welfare reform.

The process was all very Socratic, with lengthy debates and discussions in the living rooms of supporters’ homes, the sifting and winnowing of detailed policy options and the production of position papers on every conceivable issue.

The allegory of Feingold’s 1992 U.S. Senate victory is largely told in terms of his good luck: Feingold was the congenial alterna-tive to front-running Democrats Jim Moody and Joe Checota, who destroyed each other with negative campaign ads, and the mo-mentum from that political upset helped Feingold overcome Kasten, never a strong campaigner, in the general election.

The other part of the legend notes the lightheartedness of his campaign but misses its deeper significance. It was so unbuttoned, so undaunted, so conspicuously full of the nachas wanting in his father’s home. Its charming TV ads where Feingold pointed to the back of his hand as if it were a map of Wisconsin and posted a contract to voters on his garage door had a unique appeal to the common man. He was an underdog from a long line of American underdogs, but he had found a level of comfort in that role, indeed a love for that role, that evaded his father and grandfather. It was political gold.

Even so, that might not have been enough to win the election.

“The reason Russ was such a credible candidate in 1992 is we had a position paper on everything,” says Mike Wittenwyler, an at-torney for Godfrey & Kahn who served as Feingold’s campaign manager and spokesperson. “How he ran that campaign is how every challenger should run one. He made himself credible by being knowledgeable and having positions on every different issue.”

Despite the occasional humor of his campaigning style, as senator (and before that, as state senator), Feingold seemed to live up to his father’s command to be purer than pure. With his opposition to pay raises for senators, his championing of campaign finance re-form and his habit of tooting his horn as the “poorest man in the Senate,” he was seen as a grandstander by some colleagues.

“He has a set of principles to live by,” says his longtime friend Niel Moser. “Those principles he won’t break no matter what, and that’s what makes him driven.”

***

In March 2005, Sylvia Feingold died, and her children had to decide what to do with the family home, built during the Depression. Leon had helped his father Max build the home, for which they bartered groceries for labor and supplies, and Leon later purchased it from his parents.

The home was sold to an evangelical minister. A crucifix now hangs in its foyer. The four siblings divvied up the household items, and Russ took the papers, many documenting his father’s political interests. His mother, Feingold notes, was always less excited about politics. He recalls when he was a teenager and they were watching the evening news together, his mother said, “That’s what you ought to do. You ought to be one of those guys, not run for office.”

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At one point during his first U.S. Senate campaign, he phoned her on a rainy day to vent about his travails. “When are you going to stop chasing moonbeams?” he remembers her asking. “And here I was,” Feingold says, “a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law School [graduate], presumably knowing what I’m doing.”

Still, she was a proud mother. One of the few personal effects Russ kept after cleaning out his parents’ house was his mother’s jew-elry box. In it, he discovered her handwritten notes for the introduction she delivered on the eve of his first Senate victory 12 years before. “I was stunned,” he says. He felt at once a connection to his mother and also to the keen political interests of his father. “It was an incredible thing.”

Two weeks after Sylvia’s death, Feingold traveled to Alabama to hold his first listening session outside of Wisconsin. The trip was highly symbolic: a blue-state Democrat courting the kind of red-state conservatives who were critical to Republican victories in 2004.

For some time, he had staved off the presidential tittle-tattle from friends or the media. In 2001, he flatly told the National Journal that he was “extremely unlikely to ever want to run for president.” But after the 2004 election, as the Democrats struggled for a posi-tion to stake out, Feingold emerged as a paragon of liberal clarity. The only senator to vote against the Patriot Act (which he criticized as an unconstitutional intrusion upon civil liberties) and one of the Iraq War’s most outspoken critics, Feingold had become the darling of his party’s left wing.

The New Republic had proclaimed Feingold “an ulcer-maker for the current presumed Democratic front-runner.” A February 2006 Vogue article lauded the senator as “natty and trim… with vulpine good looks.” A gradual rise in Internet support and donations sug-gested he might achieve a Howard Dean-like surge in popularity.

Once again, Feingold sought an intellectual framework for his campaign. Over the years, he had shaped this intellectual strategizing into a deliberative complement to his famous listening sessions. Not long after the 2004 presidential election, he met with a dozen or so confidants, along with some of his senior staff, for the first serious discussion of a Feingold presidential candidacy.

The emotionally autonomous man has never relied on one particular advisor. “He doesn’t have a personal friend that he probably tells all his secrets to,” says Moser.

But over the years Feingold has depended on a kind of “kitchen cabinet” of friends. The group includes Moser, a Democratic activist who owns a mortgage finance company; Joe Davis, a New Yorker with a UW doctoral degree who has worked in various state govern-ment positions, on welfare reform and with the Educational Approval Board; Marv Freedman, a UW Law School grad who served in the Vietnam War, worked as an investigator with the state Department of Justice and is active on veterans issues; and Ashok Bhargava, an immigrant from India and retired UW-Whitewater economics professor.

His confidants were reminiscent of Leon Feingold: progressive realpolitikers content to do their work behind the scenes. They wryly dubbed themselves the Gang of Four (though Feingold, ever mindful about tone, preferred the “Fab Four” to avoid Maoist inferences). They began holding regular meetings to lay the foundation for his presidential run, ultimately drafting a memo, “Securing the New American Dream,” in February 2006. Feingold then met with them and remained noncommittal, saying only, “Why don’t you keep doing what you’re doing.”

The “elitism” that Democrats were said to suffer from could not be seen as Feingold sought the views of Alabama residents or as he was beamed, via satellite, from Milwaukee onto Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in the wake of his censure resolution. Sharing a split screen with host Jon Stewart, the roundly anointed earl of snark, Feingold steered clear of the show’s sarcastic bait. Instead, as liberal blogger Jane Hamsher would write, he was “funny without being glib and he came across as self-effacing, principled and just awkward enough with the format to be thoroughly charming.”

It was perhaps that Janesville upbringing coming through: Don’t get too above the average folks in town or the nation. That up-bringing, theorizes Davis, “made him a lot less concerned with intellectual game playing. That’s the flip side of [his] New York intel-lectual [side]. That little stream that may go through his brain is balanced by a down-to-earth, substantial upbringing.”

But the common-man touch was soon complicated by Feingold’s marital woes. Unlike his first wife, Sue, who worked as a teacher for the visually impaired, his second wife, Mary, seemed groomed for the role of political spouse. The sister of state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, she was from a political family and had been married to Russ since 1991, a year before his election to the U.S. Senate. But two weeks after the Feingolds traveled to Alabama, they filed for divorce. That effectively killed the senator’s presi-dential hopes, declared Larry Sabato, the oft-quoted University of Virginia political professor and a Feingold friend since their days together at Oxford.

Yet the support for Feingold did not seem to slow after the divorce, leading some to believe the issue might not be a hurdle to the White House. Feingold, for his part, would finesse the matter, gently joking about the predicament of a “twice-divorced Jew from Janesville,” not precisely a ticket to the heart of red-state America.

In private, however, Nancy said her brother expressed relief along with sadness. “You have to understand,” she says, “he had a great love, and it wasn’t another woman. I mean, he wanted this so much, to have the life he has now. I wouldn’t say he was depressed.”

Now Feingold could focus his concentration on politics. “I think right now, he is at his game,” says Wittenwyler. “His kids are out of the house, so he doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s got seniority. He’s got money in the bank. He’s got name recognition. He has the ability to get things done. And he has a bully pulpit.”

But would the pulpit be presidential? “What else is there for him to do?” David Feingold asked last fall. “He’s a three-term senator. He’s only 53 years old. It would be quite remarkable if he decided not to run.”

The Gang of Four considered the best way to convince Feingold to make an official announcement. “All of us use our aces very sparingly,” Davis noted in early November, “but I wouldn’t mind using it and saying, ‘Russ, you need to run.’ ”

Feingold, meanwhile, remained positively placid when talking about the presidency. “I’m very good at compartmentalizing,” he said, explaining that all of his concentration was on “what we’re doing between now and November.” After the midterm election is over, he added, “I will call up people [any Democratic losers] and give them condolence calls, then I will start gradually thinking about what’s the right thing to do. I’m going to sit in my backyard with a glass of wine or a beer and a cigar and maybe make a fire, and I’m going to think and talk to my friends and the people I’ve known over the years.”

It was a short conversation, apparently. On Nov. 12, a mere 96 hours after the election, Feingold announced he would not seek the Democratic nomination in 2008. In his statement, he wryly noted that “I often felt that if a piece of Wisconsin Swiss cheese had taken the same positions I’ve taken, it would have elicited the same standing ovations.”

The Democratic upsets in November had assured that others would now be taking such stands. The spotlight had already shifted to a new progressive and Hillary Slayer, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who was now flirting with entering the race. Davis wondered how much of an impact Obama had on Feingold’s decision, but it seemed minimal in the end.

“Everything worked out just the way I wanted,” Feingold would bubble during a hasty telephone conversation between listening sessions. Though he called his party’s takeover of the Senate the “icing on the cake,” it may have been decisive for Feingold. It meant he would get better committee assignments and would be able to accomplish more.

“I began to think practically if some of the things I wanted to do in the Congress would actually happen. It excited me and con-firmed my belief to make strides in the Senate at this point.”

Davis says the Gang of Four all agreed Feingold makes a better fit for senator than president. “I think his comfort level includes being in a deliberative body,” Davis notes. “I think it goes along with his style.”

Still, the consensus of those who know him best is that Russ Feingold as Senate lifer, as a septuagenarian, white-maned lion, is an unlikely proposition. Nor does anybody see him in a position of rainmaker at a university or large law firm, where he could instantly go from poor man in the Senate to millionaire. Nancy sees her brother becoming a scholar one day, perhaps pursuing his love of Af-rica.

Indeed, just a few weeks after announcing his noncandidacy, Feingold traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya in anticipation of chairing the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His stance against the Iraq War, he says, was arrived at after studying Muslim populations for ten years.

“The one thing I had to adjust to from law practice and academics,” he says, “was the way in which I enjoy getting really deeply into something and knowing everything about it. I had to wean myself, in order to be an effective legislator. But I really enjoy the moments when I can become deeply involved in something. I think it took me six years before I knew enough about Africa to make an intelligent statement about it.”

Yet the self-professed scholar still seems unable to resist the lure of celebrity, of becoming more famous than his parents would have ever recommended. Considering the Democratic field, Feingold says he sees Obama as a candidate he could throw his support behind. So would he consider joining an ’08 ticket as a running mate? Well, yes. “I don’t think it will ever happen,” he cautions, “but if somebody said ‘I need you,’ I would.”

And that would have no doubt made his father very proud. Yes, very proud and scared as hell.

Daniel Libit is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

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