Over the course of the very long year of 2001, I wrote a great deal about a great many politicians. The year began with a summons to the office of outgoing Gov. Tommy Thompson. He wanted "to talk" about his 14-year tenure in the position he would soon depart for what would turn out to be an unenviable stint as George W. Bush's secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
It was a great interview, highlighted by Tommy's wink-of-the-eye suggestion that he might return for another term as governor. When I asked if he was talking about 2006, he shot back, "What's wrong with 2002?"
Thompson's departure from the Wisconsin political scene robbed the state of one of its two most intriguing political figures. But the other remained on the scene, and it was in writing about him that I spilled the most ink in 2001.
I refer, of course, to Russ Feingold. Writing about the Democratic senator from Middleton during 2001 was no easy task. The senator started the year off on the wrong foot: casting the only Democratic vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee for the lamentable John Ashcroft to serve as the nation's attorney general.
Presidents, Feingold said, ought to be allowed to choose their Cabinets. Rejecting nominees on ideological grounds, he argued, would hamstring the ability of a new administration to implement the agenda on which it was elected.
Reasonable Americans might quibble with the suggestion that Bush was actually elected - for my part, I wrote a book this year to make the case that political chicanery, not votes, but the Texan in the Oval Office. But Feingold made a good point when he argued that denying Bush his pick might lead to the denial of a future Democratic president's progressive nominee for attorney general.
Feingold never quite understood that those of us who objected to the Ashcroft nomination were less concerned about the man's ideology - objectionable as it may be - than about his penchant for praising the Confederate cause. We also worried about how wide his eyes seemed to grow when he spoke of limiting constitutional protections.
Ashcroft become attorney general - with the help of Feingold's vote, though not, as some have suggested, solely because of the Wisconsinite's support. And over the months that followed, particularly since Sept. 11, we saw those Ashcroft eyes widen frequently, as he battered the Constitution.
Of course, it has been Russ Feingold who has led the fight against Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties. Indeed, Wisconsin's junior senator has battled the attorney general with such passion that one might be inclined to believe he aided Ashcroft's nomination in order to have a better target.
That was never the case, however. Both in wrongheaded support for Ashcroft and in his rightheaded opposition to Ashcroft, Feingold has remained consistent in his willingness to apply his principles to his politics - no matter what the cost. Last year, the cost was high. He alienated former allies, he was forced to battle his own party's Senate leadership during the debate over Ashcroft's anti-terrorism bill, and he faced charges that he was naive or, worse yet, un-American because he dared break the bipartisan consensus in favor of gutting the Constitution.
Yet, as the year ended, Feingold seemed as chipper and determined as ever. Across the country, college students who cheered his addresses on campuses after Sept. 11 were talking him up as a prospective presidential candidate. Those students see something a lot of Feingold's critics missed during 2001: He is exactly what Americans claim to want in a politician - his own man.
At a time when few pols can claim to own their souls, Feingold's "own-man" status made him the most fascinating, and necessary, politician of 2001.
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times