Tommy Thompson recently stepped down as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System and I was filled with melancholy.
For young readers, or folks who have just become Wisconsin residents, Tommy (his preferred title) has the unique record of being the longest-serving governor in Wisconsin’s 174 years of statehood. He sat in the big chair from 1987 through 2001, winning a record four elections.
The reason I was saddened by Tommy’s departure was that even into his 80s he was still bringing creative energy into his latest role. In a move that made all sorts of sense, Tommy used his power as president to initiate a program of college courses for Wisconsin’s prison inmates, while admitting that he probably built too many prisons during his time as governor.
Imagine, a politician in 2022 acting with both creativity and humility.
It’s enough to make you swoon.
It’s even more amazing given that 42% of Wisconsin inmates are Black, despite Black citizens comprising only 6% of the state’s population. So here is a Republican leader trying to get more college diplomas for Black men and women in prison while radical members of his party are trying to hinder the voting freedoms of Black citizens all over the state.
But that’s Tommy.
Tommy’s energy and optimism stand in stark contrast to the politics of today. During his years as governor, he had an unbridled energy and hopefulness that transcended party lines. You got the distinct impression that although he didn’t agree with Democrats, he didn’t hate them. And I don’t recall him ever peddling unhinged conspiracy theories. Imagine that.
Proof of his centrist appeal was his support among independent and moderate Dem voters. He didn’t win four terms without them.
In pondering Tommy’s remarkable career, which included a run for president and a cabinet role during the George W. Bush presidency, you see that he wasn’t afraid to play to the middle. In fact, you got the sense that he liked it there. This stands in sorry contrast to our nation’s current political condition where it seems no one wants to cross the aisle to get anything done for anyone at any time.
I was a fly on the wall as witness to one of Tommy’s more interesting relationships: his friendship with then-Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin–Madison David Ward.
He and Ward could not have been more different. Ward was a bright, somewhat taciturn Brit bristling with smarts who made his way to UW–Madison on a Fulbright Travel Award. Tommy, on the other hand, was an everyman who hailed from Elroy, Wisconsin, which even today only has a population of about 1,400 folks.
It is common for the university to want more budget money from the Wisconsin Legislature than they are willing to give. There are state Legislators from northern Wisconsin who get reelected every term for gleefully telling their local voters that they told Madison “No!”
Despite this undercurrent, over time he and Ward were able to put together a working relationship that benefited the university, which in turn benefited the state. Later I worked on a farewell video for Ward’s retirement. In that video Tommy spoke of butting heads with Ward, but also of his deep respect for the man and how he viewed him as a friend. Tommy’s description of his relationship with Ward was moving, and I remember thinking to myself that Tommy had a lot of soul. Again, something that seems to be in rare supply in politics today.
At another time, I had traveled to Beaver Creek, Colorado, for business. I got in early and took a swim in the outdoor pool. A couple of guys discovered that I was from Madison. Upon hearing that, another fellow wandered over. It was Tommy, who was governor at the time.
Within one minute he ascertained who I was, my business, and that he knew my uncle very well and thought he was a great American. I remember thinking to myself, “This is a guy who is very tough not to like.”
And maybe that’s why Tommy’s recent announcement filled me with melancholy.
I feel that guys like Tommy, and the optimism he possesses, don’t exist in American politics anymore.
Which should be a source of melancholy for all.
John Roach, a Madison-based screenwriter and producer, writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece appears in the April issue of Madison Magazine. This opinion editorial written by John Roach does not reflect the opinions of Madison Magazine or Channel 3000.
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