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Robert Reich: Wisconsin Before The 1994 Midterms – OpEd

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I was Imperial Marshal of the Wausau Gala 1994 Labor Day Parade. It was a bright, cool, sun-drenched day with a hint of fall in the air. 

Perched on top of the back seat of an open convertible — a bright-green 1958 Buick — I waved to the few people who sat in lawn chairs along Main Street. Behind the convertible was the Wausau High School Marching Band, and behind them the Wausau Fire Department. Then came several groups holding banners: “Local #311 SEIU” and “Proud to be from Pipefitters Local #44” and “International Union of Electrical Workers Local #353.” 

It seemed like far more people were in the parade than watching it. 

I was there because Congressman David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, asked me to be. He and his committee doled out money to the Labor Department. His wish was my command. 

Bespectacled and sharp-nosed, Obey looked like an owl perched next to me on the convertible’s back seat. He waved at anything capable of waving back. I admired him enormously. He was a progressive lawmaker in the tradition of Wisconsin’s Robert “fighting Bob” La Follette. He’d won some important battles for working people over the years. He was tough and cranky. 

“I’m worried,” he said to me out of the side of his mouth, then waved to a middle-aged woman in a lawn chair, who smiled and waved back. “How ya’ doin’ Gladys?

“That bad?” I asked. 

I’ll do okay. But — geez — we’re gonna lose a lot of good people.” Another wave. He called out, “Hi ya’ Gert!” 

“Think we could lose the House?”

“Yup.” Obey waved to a bald man holding an American flag, and yelled, “‘at-a-boy, Henry!

“What’s the problem?”

“Lot of things. NAFTA. Health care bill gone to hell. Gays in the military. Guns. Whitewater. This dame Paul Jones. Hillary. Baseball strike.”

“They’re gonna take it out on the Democrats?”

“Working folk out here don’t much like your boss,” he said quietly. He turned to wave — “Hi Frankie! Good to see ya’!” — then back. “‘Specially men. Hey Arch! How you doin’?”

“What do men have against him?”

Obey didn’t say anything for a few minutes. He continued to wave and shout to his constituents, many of them people he’d known for decades. 

Then he turned directly to me. “Factories closing. New jobs pay shit. Guys have to take women’s work in fast food, retail, hospitals, hotels. Their wives have to work harder, longer hours. These guys are angry. Humiliated. Furious. They thought Clinton would change all that, but it only got worse. NAFTA and global trade scares the hell out of them. Then he wants to take away their guns! He wants to put gays in the army! He doesn’t stand up to a bitch from Arkansas who accuses him of hanky-panky. He puts his bossy law-school graduate wife in charge of health-care reform, which crashes. Get the picture?” He turned back to the lawn chairs. “Hey, Emma!

“Not sure.”

He looked at me as if I was the dumbest kid in the class. “Emasculation! Blue-collar men already lost one testicle before Clinton. Now they’re both gone. And they blame us.” Then another wave. “Beatrice, you look beautiful!

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at robertreich.substack.com. Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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