Wineke: Bob Kastenmeier was a gentleman politician

Ex-Wisconsin Rep. Kastenmeier, early Vietnam critic, dies
Robert Kastenmeier

I met Bob Kastenmeier in 1958, a year before he took office as the U.S. Congressman for the Madison area. He was an incredibly decent man.

Kastenmeier, who served in Congress from 1959 to 1991, died Friday in his Virginia home. By the time he ended his career in Congress, he was one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, a scholar of Constitutional law and a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War.

What he really knew about, though, were copyright laws. His revision of copyright legislation benefited authors and in many ways, set the stage for intellectual property rights that support much of today’s economy.

But when I first met him, he was a quiet young man seeking votes in Verona and willing to sit down with a group of high school kids too young to even vote for him.

I can’t remember exactly who was at the table. Dick Olsen, Jerry Matts, Steve Andrews, Jay Moore and I called ourselves the “Big Five” at Verona Union Free High School, where we were part of the 32-member class of 1960, and we usually did things together.

Looking back, I doubt that anyone else even wanted to be part of the Big Five. We were teenage geeks who liked to talk about politics and religion. Dick even had a girlfriend, but the rest of us, not so much.

Kastenmeier did want to talk with us. He sat at a table in an old Verona restaurant and spent at least an hour talking to us about government and political ideas.

Once again, we were four years away from being able to vote for anyone; I’m relatively sure that three of us were Republicans — though, over almost six decades, that may have changed.

What I do know is that Bob Kastenmeier treated us as if we were intelligent people, worthy of his time and his honest dialog about the nation’s future.

He never really changed, nor did the standard he set. He was defeated in the 1990 election by Republican Scott Klug, who never became the giant that Kastenmeier was, but who was — so far as I know — an honest and decent representative of the district, as were and are Klug’s successors.

It is truly difficult for me to picture Bob Kastenmeier operating in the theater of farce that constitutes today’s Congress. It’s hard to picture him carrying water for billionaires. I can’t imagine him trying to undermine the president of the United States, and he served under presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.

He was a good, decent man, one who, even when running for office and seeking any vote he could find–even stop to spend time with geeky high school kids who weren’t old enough to vote.