Russ Feingold is a former United States Senator for the state of Wisconsin. He was born and raised in Janesville, Wisconsin along with three siblings. His father was a lawyer and his mother was an abstractor at the title company which Leon Feingold owned. In his teens, his heroes were John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he heard speak in Chicago in 1966. In high school, he was on the championship-winning debate team. Although he was not the top student in school, he was still a very good student, whom others have described as being well-organized and disciplined. After attending Harvard Law School, he returned to Wisconsin where he worked as an attorney in two private law firms in Madison until 1985. His political career began when he became a Wisconsin state senator in 1982. He was re-elected twice. Then in 1992, he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, winning 53 to 47 percent against the incumbent Republican Bob Kasten. Feingold is probably best known for co-sponsoring the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. He also stands out as the only Senator to oppose the USA Patriot Act in 2001. He makes his home in Middleton, Wisconsin.
As a teenager, what made you excel instead of just trying to get by?
I enjoyed everything. I enjoyed friends. I enjoyed going to basketball games. I enjoyed studying. I enjoyed just having fun. I just had a tendency to like those things and I wanted to do well. I wanted to go to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wanted to go to law school. Basically, I enjoyed learning, so I found the classes in high school interesting as a general rule, which is not something everybody feels.
Let’s talk about how you handled failure as a teenager versus how you handle it now?
I never liked to lose, but I had a good dose of it when I tried to run for student council president in eighth grade. I came in last out of five people. I lost for vice-president. I lost for secretary, and then I lost for treasurer.
In the same grade?
Yes. They put me in charge of the school store as a consolation prize, but because I was selling all the folders and supplies, I met everybody. The next year, I became class president. I was fifteen. I haven’t lost an election since.
Losing was a good experience for me. I didn’t enjoy it. I thought it was a pretty good sign that I was not electable. The vice-principal came over to me and basically had to say to me, “Hey, just because this happened doesn’t mean you can never do anything in politics.”
Even back in eighth grade?
Yes, I was not optimistic after losing. I didn’t feel greatly loved at the moment.
From reading about you, it seemed you had a pretty idyllic childhood. But what was the most challenging aspect of your childhood?
I tell you I just had a great time. It was safe. Teachers were supportive. My family was supportive. I just don’t remember it being anything other than a really supportive environment. I’m ridiculously lucky that way.
[Feingold’s brother, Dave, who was eight year older, was a tremendous influence on him in his formative years.] Let’s talk about your brother’s influence. How was your brother’s influence different from your father’s influence?
My dad was a very strong, traditional Democrat who also had a strong hand in the business community in Wisconsin. My brother was a very activist student at the University of Wisconsin. He was one of the originators of the anti-Vietnam War groups there. And so, they didn’t always agree. Even though they obviously got a long-in fact, they practiced law together for many years-it really gave me two very interesting, different perspectives. Sometimes, it got a little heated, which I also found interesting. Not in a terrible way. But it was lively I tell you. When my brother was protesting the Vietnam War and my dad was supporting Lyndon Johnson, it was not the calmest time.
[Feingold’s his father had a strong interest and involvement in politics. While growing up, politics was a common topic at the dinner table.] How did your father make politics interesting? As a little kid you could have been thinking, “Oh my gosh, my dad is just talking and talking.” Instead, it seemed like you were really engaged.
He made it very interesting, because he would personalize it. We would go to the county fair and he’d say, “See that guy over there? He’s a Republican state senator.” And he’d tell me all about him, something funny maybe. So when I saw people on the national level, he was also very excited talking about Franklin Roosevelt and all that. He would make it personal, too.
Not only did we go to the Democrat tent at the county fair, he’d take us into the Republican tent. And he’d kid around with people in there. I got the sense, okay, this is kind of fun. They were teasing him and he was teasing back. There was sort of a competitive aspect to it, but there was also a friendly aspect. So, not only did he teach me an interest in politics, but he also taught me the importance of getting along with people in the other party.
What was the most important thing your brother taught you?
He taught me the need to take a difficult stand when you really believe it. He was really taking some heat for the kind of stance he took. The notion of a principled stand against the heat is something I learned in part from him.
And did you learn anything from your two sisters?
My sister, Nancy, was an absolutely wonderful role model. She was the first to go to the high school and college. She is a person who really taught me a love for a lot of different things including arts and music and some of those elements of life and the importance of personal relationships. My sister, Dena, was my buddy growing up. She was my little sister. She became the first woman rabbi in the history of the state of Wisconsin. She was a very serious scholar herself. Also, she and I were both in a Jewish youth organization together, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. We got very involved in Jewish issues and it led to her becoming a rabbi.
You didn’t travel much abroad while growing up, but did your family take a lot of road trips?
We would travel some around Wisconsin, but not a lot of trips around the country. We would go to Illinois a lot. Chicago. Milwaukee.
So how did your travels during your time at Oxford change your viewpoint or philosophy in any way?
It was just absolutely thrilling to be able to go where I wanted in the United Kingdom, or on the Continent. The thing that I noticed was the way in which news about the rest of the world was covered in England as opposed to the United States. I particularly remember the news about the attempt to overthrow the racist regime in Rhodesia. I remember thinking how much more immediate and seriously that was taken than it was by the American media. It gave me a really better perspective on international events that has proven very valuable especially now.
When you first went to Oxford, how much of a shock was it since you’d only been abroad once before on a family trip to Israel?
It wasn’t so much a shock as just a tremendous thrill. We got off the Queen Elizabeth II and I saw the houses looked different, the grass looked a bit different. I was in heaven. I loved being in another country, visiting other countries. I couldn’t believe I was there. And that feeling never really left me the whole two years. I just enjoyed it a great deal.
What have you taken away from being a Rhodes Scholar into your present day life?
I already had a strong perspective on Wisconsin and the United States. It really gave me a better perspective on the world, which is a thing that my generation didn’t do enough of. We were brought up to believe that the rest of the world was there, but other than the Soviet Union, it wasn’t that big of a deal. That was a big mistake. We didn’t learn languages and I really didn’t do that. That was a mistake. Overall, it gave me a perspective that has proven very valuable, now that the world seems to have become very different for Americans after 9/11. And I owe a lot of that to the experience as a Rhodes Scholar.
A lot of young people today and even their parents associate resume padding with excellence as a response to the pressure to succeed. Clearly, by the time you had even won the Rhodes Scholarship, you had accomplished more than the average person, so what would you say to anyone young or old about leading a useful, meaningful life, not just a self-satisfied one?
People should realize no matter how well they do in school, whatever credentials they get in school, it really only opens the door for employment opportunities. Once you get in the door, it doesn’t matter what you did in school at all. That’s gone. If you can’t do the job, they don’t care where you went to school, or what you did in school. So, it’s a door opener, but it doesn’t really replace learning how to do things. The people who have succeeded in my organization come from every kind of school, every part of the state. And it has no relationship to whether or not they went to fancy schools or non-fancy schools. It has to do with what they are able to do, how they are able to get along with other people. I enormously value the education I got at the schools I went to, but just going to a school and putting that label on your name does not do the job.
Can you speak more about what you think it means to live a life worth living versus a mediocre one?
There’s a great joy and pleasure in feeling that your life is being led in a way that you believe you want it to. I feel like I’ve had that opportunity, so I’m a pretty happy guy. I don’t feel regret. Obviously, there are things I’ve done that I could have done better, should have done differently. But I feel like I’ve lived the life I’ve wanted to. That means I’ve given up a lot of money, economic well-being, but I don’t think I’ve missed any meals and I feel like I have what I need. I still need to do more, but I feel very satisfied with the kind of life I’ve chosen. That’s a very good feeling.
Is it true that you knew since second grade that you would pursue politics?
Actually, a little earlier. I was five. People still make fun of me for that.
Why at the age of five?
My dad just kept talking about it, so when I was five, I announced I would become the first Jewish president. People still torment me with that. I stopped wanting to be president by the time I was about 22. And yet, this will be hung around my neck for the rest of my life.
Are you still one of the Senate’s poorest members?
“Least wealthy,” we like to say. Yes. Joe Biden and I have argued about this for years, but it looks like Biden might have a lower net worth than I do.
Yes, according to figures on TV. Mine is not impressive, but definitely one of the least wealthy. Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, a couple of others, and I always argue about it. I’m definitely one of the five least wealthy.
Do you still drive your 1998 Buick?
No, I have a more recent used car. Still a Buick, 2001.
What do you think has been the best day of your life so far?
It would either be when my two daughters got bar mitzvahed, or when my daughter got married. It always has to do with kids. Believe me.
Let’s go back to failure. What’s perspective on it in relation to success?
It is painful, but if you take the long view. In fact, I’m constantly losing legislative battles, but I always feel I’m winning if I make the case and the people start saying, “You know I think you might have been right about that.” Then, over time you’re able to use the failures in ways to succeed, but at times it’s hard in the very moment. But over time you see the value of it if you feel like you’ve done the right thing and if you’re willing to stick to it. Campaign finance reform is a great example. John McCain and I failed as they said for seven years in a row. They made fun of us sometimes, but when we won, it was even sweeter, because we had used that to our advantage.
[In his second grade class, he was the only one who voted for JFK. Even though he lived in Wisconsin, he rooted for the Chicago White Sox. And being Jewish placed him in the minority in his hometown.] You’ve been touted as a “renegade” even when you were a child. What do you think gave you that confidence?
What I like to say is my dad-but it’s a myth-held me up when I was a baby and said, “Alright you’re a Jew, a Democrat, and a White Sox fan.” All of which were the very tiny minority and I got a kick out of that. Maybe I liked the attention, but I enjoyed the role. It made me stand out a little bit. Kids were kind of intrigued by it. A couple of times I got shoved around a little bit. I remember one thing: I was really glad the quarterback, who was the best athlete in school, was also a fan of some Chicago teams, so that gave me a little protection.
Can you tell me something that I can’t read on the web or in a book about you?
All the different kinds of music I like. I love music. I like Bob Dylan. I love African music. I like classical music. I enjoy folk music. Johnny Cash. You name it. There is just a huge range of music that gives me a lot of pleasure.
Horwitt, Sanford D. 2007. Feingold: a new Democratic Party. New York: Simon & Schuster.