Elected to the Senate three times by America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold did much more than oppose the use of bovine growth hormone. As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he had a front-row seat at heated debates about America’s role abroad after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Voted out of office in 2010, Feingold wrote “While America Sleeps: A Wake-Up Call for the Post-9/11 Era” to “critique the way we have responded to many of the issues raised by the 9/11 attacks and to suggest some better approaches.” Some highlights:

On George W. Bush: Feingold voted against the war in Iraq, sparred with the Bush administration about the war on terror and advocated censuring the president in 2006, but his impressions of Dubya aren’t wholly negative. “Although I later became his leading congressional critic, the person I most credit for creating the tone and resolve that America evidenced in those first critical days after 9/11 is George W. Bush,” he writes. “. . . His performance when touring the World Trade Center with Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York heartened virtually all Americans.”

On John McCain: Feingold was often allied with Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a fellow Foreign Relations Committee member with whom he traveled the world and co-sponsored the McCain-
Feingold campaign finance law
. When McCain wrote an op-ed, “Torture Didn’t Lead Us to Osama bin Laden,” shortly after the al-Qaeda leader’s death, Feingold, a critic of harsh interrogation, was grateful. “I phoned John to thank him for publicly stating this,” he writes. “It reminded me of a quiet moment when he and I were sitting alone in the cabin of a plane on one of our foreign trips and he said, ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ ”

On Harry Reid: Though the book largely focuses on matters of greater import, its author isn’t above dropping a bit of gossip about the Senate majority leader. “One thing you get used to around Harry is that sometimes he says the first thing that pops into his head — more like a Great Nile of consciousness rather than a stream of consciousness,” Feingold writes, recounting a speech in which Reid referenced a discussion he had with another senator while standing at a urinal. “He is very funny, but it’s not always clear if he is being intentionally so.”

On D.C.’s anthrax attacks: Feingold contends that the panic that gripped Washington after the 2001 anthrax attacks — hysteria that didn’t necessarily spread beyond the Beltway — unduly shaped post-Sept. 11 policy. “For so many who had been driven from their office buildings, these five weeks were only the prelude to spending months cloistered in cramped and inadequate office space while they advised senators on some of the toughest calls they would ever have to make,” he writes. “. . . As the gap widened between perceptions of fear or danger in Washington and in much of the rest of the country, I believe it had a significant influence on why representatives reacted to terrorism concerns in a way that was fundamentally different from most of their constituents.”

On the Patriot Act: In October 2001, Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act — and he stands by his solitary “nay.” “Many members of the Senate have since admitted that they had never read or even gained a basic understanding of what was in the Patriot Act, partly because there was so little time to review it,” he writes. “. . . To pass this bill without considering even a single amendment to a document that exceeded two hundred pages of criminal, intelligence, and military-related provisions, when the bill had not been seriously reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, seemed tantamount to abandoning any semblance of a real legislative process.”

On John Ashcroft: Liberals blasted Feingold for his vote to confirm Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001. But the former senator says Ashcroft “wasn’t just a polite listener” when it came to his concerns about the Patriot Act; he also reveals that Ashcroft is a terrible driver and has a sweet tooth. “The brief ride in his car to his place on Capitol Hill . . . was hair-raising,” Feingold writes of a trip to Ashcroft’s home for dessert and a chat. Once they got there, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone consume that much ice cream in one sitting. I walked home that night wondering how someone who seemed so friendly could be such a hard-core right-winger.”

On Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Citizens United: Much to his chagrin, Feingold voted to confirm Roberts, whose court went on to undo the former senator’s signature campaign finance reform law. “I struggle constantly with that vote,” he writes. “This is primarily because of his abysmal role in 2010 when he helped engineer the lawless decision in Citizens United v. FEC. This decision, concerning campaign finance issues, essentially created out of whole cloth the notion that corporations have the same political rights as the rest of us. Yet I still hold out a tiny bit of hope that his better angels will prevail.”

On Brett Favre: On trips to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006, Feingold learned that “Wisconsinites in uniform” don’t stop caring about the NFL, even under fire. “The first question was usually ‘Is Favre coming back next season?’ ” he writes of his discussions with troops from his home state. “. . . A passion for the Green Bay Packers is common ground for any group of Wisconsinites, and that was the news from home that they really wanted to hear.”

Justin Moyer, Outlook editorial aide


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