Remembering Gaylord Nelson
July 14, 2005
I went to the memorial service for Gaylord Nelson, a giant of progressive politics.
The former governor of Wisconsin, who also served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, took on Joe McCarthy, championed civil rights, was an early and courageous opponent of the Vietnam War, an advocate of auto and tire safety, a fighter for Legal Services and for Head Start, and above all, an ardent environmentalist. He was the first Senator to propose a ban on DDT, and he helped shepherd through the landmark environmental laws of the 1970s.
Gaylord Nelson was the father of Earth Day. It was his idea. And when he left the Senate, he continued for the rest of his life to work on the issue of the environment at the Wilderness Society.
On Earth Day 2000, he wrote: “Forging and maintaining a sustainable society is The Challenge for this and all generations to come. At this point in history, no nation has managed to evolve into a sustainable society. We are all pursuing a self-destructive course of fueling our economies by drawing down our natural capital—that is to say, by degrading and depleting our resource base—and counting it on the income side of the ledger. . . . We have finally come to understand that the real wealth of a nation is its air, water, soil, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. Take this resource away, and all that is left is a wasteland.”
And so, on July 13, former Wisconsin governors, and Wisconsin’s two Senators, and Senator Joe Biden, and members of the Wisconsin delegation to the House, and Wisconsin state senators and state assembly members, and justices of the Wisconsin supreme court, and other pols and friends, and more than 600 appreciative citizens filled the rotunda in Madison to pay proper respect to Gaylord Nelson.
In front of a bust of Fighting Bob La Follette and a large American flag, one speaker after another saluted him.
“All of us got 89 good years out of Gaylord, and Gaylord got 89 good years out of life,” said Representative David Obey, who praised him most heartily for being one of three Senators to oppose President Johnson’s 1965 appropriation for vastly expanding the Vietnam War. “If LBJ had just listened to Gaylord, there would be one less war memorial to visit in Washington, D.C., and 50,000 Americans would not have died.”
Resisting Johnson’s legendary arm-twisting, Nelson criticized members of the Senate for “stumbling over each other to see who can say ‘yea’ the quickest and the loudest. . . . Someday, we shall all regret it.” And he told Johnson and his Democratic colleagues, “You need my vote less than I need my conscience.”
Said Obey: “Next to Bob La Follette, Gaylord Nelson was the greatest politician Wisconsin has ever produced, and he was the best and sweetest man in politics I’ve ever known.”
To lighten the mood, Obey also quoted a line from Nelson’s wife, Carrie Lee, who was once asked what the secret of her long and successful marriage was: “We were both in love with the same man.”
Former Vice President Mondale, a close personal friend of Nelson’s, also rose to the podium, calling him “the best liked member of the U.S. Senate.” Mondale praised his courage and his lack of pretension. “He had guts. He was real. He was what you saw,” Mondale said. “When you’ve been in public life as long as some of us, you get to recognize the posers, the pious, the trimmers, and the vain. So when you meet someone with courage, honesty, and decency, then you’re doubly inspired.”
Mondale promised to tell a Norwegian joke, and he made good on that, saying that Nelson had loved his wife for so long “he’d almost told her.”
And then he got serious. “Gaylord did more to protect our air, water, and earth than any other man in the country,” he said. “And so much of what he accomplished is under scandalous attack today.”
Nelson’s daughter, Tia, spoke last.
She told some funny stories about what a mediocre law student her father was, doing just enough to get by. Once, he went to the law school dean to ask to take 20 credits since he had missed out on some classes the semester before when he was out on the political trail. The dean asked, “How can you take 20 credits when you’re barely able to handle 12?” Nelson replied: “I can just as successfully not study for 20 credits as I can for 12 credits.”
One of his law professors, she said, was so exasperated with him that he told Nelson to pack up his books, go out the door, and walk over to the music department. “You might make a piccolo player, but you’ll never make a lawyer,” the professor warned him.
Nelson’s daughter recalled how she asked her father last year why he was still working at the Wilderness Society at 88.
“There’s more to do,” he said. “The job’s not done.”
(For a great new biography of Gaylord Nelson, read "The Man from Clear Lake," by Bill Christofferson.)