David Obey's memoir, Raising Hell for Justice, is one of the most important but overlooked political books of 2007.
A no-nonsense Democrat from Wausau, Obey is the rare officeholder whose political acumen is matched by his superb understanding of policymaking. With nearly 40 years in Congress, Obey is at the zenith of his power today as the chair of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
His autobiography provides a detailed insider's look at Congress' role in forging historical shifts in domestic and foreign policy. But perhaps the most memorable episode happens back home in Wausau in 1979. Readers learn that the burgeoning backlash against the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which will be 35 years old on Jan. 22, took a terrible personal toll on the Obey family.
The episode, reprinted here, is one of several clashes with the Catholic hierarchy that Obey details in his memoir. More recently, in 2003, the bishop of the La Crosse Diocese threatened to withhold the sacrament of communion from Obey because of his "gravely deficient views" on abortion.
"It is not I who dictate to you, but the Magisterial teachings of the Church," the bishop told him.
Obey was unrepentant. The church ordering him to vote one way or another, he writes, "crosses the line into unacceptable territory. The U.S. Constitution, which I have taken a sacred oath to defend, is designed to protect American citizens from just such demands."
- Marc Eisen
An excerpt from Raising Hell for Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive
A few weeks after the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt in 1979, President Jimmy Carter came to Wausau to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of my election to Congress.
In 1969, Hubert Humphrey had spoken to 1,200 people at a dinner at Newman High School. For sentimental reasons we wanted to celebrate our anniversary at the same place. The celebration at Newman was terrific. The crowd was huge. Carter gave a fine speech, but the aftermath was bitter.
Abortion had become a nasty, divisive issue, after the Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that a woman's right to have an abortion was, within certain limitations, constitutionally protected.
For me, the issue had been more difficult than almost any other. I detested the very idea of abortion and was offended by pro-choice enthusiasts who demanded agreement, not just about the constitutional right to have an abortion but the desirability of having one.
As a Catholic, I agreed with the Church that abortion was basically wrong, but the issue was not simple for me, for two reasons.
First, I believed that in circumstances such as rape, incest or serious threat to the health of the mother, reasonable people could reach different conclusions about actions that the state could impose.
Second, my deep suspicion of government power told me that granting government the authority to make that decision could be dangerous because a government that could today forbid abortion could tomorrow require one.
Over the years, the policy of the Chinese communist government to require abortions after the first child was to me ample proof of the validity of that fear.
In governing any society, public officials must make distinctions between what they desire and what they will attempt, through force of law, to require of others. But that argument is subtle.
It requires, in Eric Sevareid's words, a "willingness to maintain the courage of one's doubts in an age of dangerous certainties." And on some issues like abortion, the emotions surrounding the issue lead many decent people to be so angered by the subject that they do not want to look for common ground.
Under those circumstances, when everybody is in a "send" mode, nobody hears what anyone else is saying, and discussions are pointless. Jimmy Carter's visit to Wausau demonstrated how mean the issue could be, and how good people could get caught in the inevitable crossfire.
When we rented Newman High School auditorium, I never dreamed that Carter's visit would be turned into a debate on abortion. Newman was one of the few Catholic high schools in my district. My sister, Diane, had graduated from Newman, and I had spoken to classes there on numerous occasions.
Carter had come to talk about the Middle East, human rights and economic policy. But it was turned into a confrontation about abortion by a group of my political enemies, and two innocent people got hurt. The first victim was Father Thomas Langer, the Newman principal. The second was my grandfather.
When they heard that Father Langer had rented Newman hall to us, a group of local Republican Party activists -some of whom were Catholic - contacted Bishop Frederick Freking and demanded Langer's head.
The bishop obliged, and Father Langer was fired. My grandfather Chuck was a devout Catholic. One afternoon, shortly after Carter's visit, he was sitting on the front lawn of his home in the town of Weston when the paperboy delivered the daily edition of the Wausau Record Herald.
He opened the paper, read that Langer had been fired as principal because he had rented the hall to me, had a heart attack on the spot, and died. The stress of seeing a controversy between me and the Church to which he was devoted was too much for him.
The bishop, Father Langer and my grandfather had all been caught in a squeeze because a small band of my political opponents created a controversy where there should have been none. They chose to turn Carter's visit into a debate on abortion, when neither Carter nor I had brought the issue up.
Some of those involved were genuinely concerned about abortion, but for many it was simply an opportunity to get at Dave Obey and a president they despised.
No other issue has pained me more deeply because of the many conflicting and deeply held values surrounding it, and never did the issue pain me as much as the day the rancor surrounding that issue literally drove my grandfather to his death.
From Raising Hell For Justice: The Washington Battles of a Heartland Progressive, University of Wisconsin Press. Copyright 2007, the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, excerpted by permission.