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25 years, one book: Watchdog by Bill Lueders
A look between the covers of a Madison writer's life work

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In the preface to his new book, a collection of writing from the last quarter-century, Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders grapples with the question of "Why now?"

"I don't mean to date myself," he writes. "I think I have a few years of living and writing left. But for various reasons, this feels like a good time to bring together some of the work that I've already done, in book form. I hope it finds a way into your homes and hearts."

The book is called Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Rabblerousing, and it is being published this week by Jones Books. The Madison-based press headed by Joan Strasbaugh has previously published collections by Madison columnists John Roach and Doug Moe (who wrote Watchdog's foreword).

Lueders notes that the title, Watchdog, is somewhat ironic, since the book does not include any writing from his biweekly news column of that name, or any other short-form news writing. Instead it brings together opinion columns, longer investigative stories and other, often more personal writing.

Most of the pieces were previously published in Isthmus, but the book also includes work that appeared in Milwaukee Magazine, The Progressive, The Shepherd Express, the Christian Science Monitor and Wisconsin Trails.

Here are some snippets from the collection, arranged, like the book itself, in three sections.

Part 1: In My Opinion

From 'A Time for Anger'

It seems every time I walk past the City-County Building these days, Madison's embattled affirmative action officer, Gene Parks, is on the front steps, holding a press conference. Last Wednesday I watched him calmly read his prepared statement, which got almost no coverage, then launch into an extemporaneous fit, which did.

Afterward, one spectator sized up the situation: "He's flipped his lid."

It's hard not to agree. The events leading to Parks' 30-day unpaid suspension suggested a man overcome with irrationality, heedless of inevitable consequences. He is becoming the Joe McCarthy of the Madison left ("I have here in my hand the names of 57 racists..."), and his longtime paranoia has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: Now people really are out to get him.

After years of praise for Parks' handling of the affirmative action office, suddenly the mayor has produced - at God knows how much city expense and staff time - a nine-page list of alleged incidents of misconduct, which will be the topic of a pre-disciplinary hearing on Oct. 24.

Yet no one has accused Parks of breaking any laws. What's more, most of the angry things he says are true.

City officials have engaged in fruitless trysting with wealthy developers while neglecting more worthy causes. The city's sponsorship of tax-exempt bonds that will enrich the owners of the Monona Shores Apartments, earlier implicated for housing discrimination, stinks to high heaven.

In the battle that's looming, Parks says, "I am David, and the giant is going to fall." I don't think so. Goliath is going to clobber him. Parks has broken the rules of discourse - rules that ensure nothing changes except in the tiniest increments. It is a transgression for which people in power know no forgiveness.

And yet these are times for anger. We need leaders unafraid to lose their jobs to say the things that must be said. Gene Parks' tragedy, and his redemption, may be that he loves Madison too much to shut up.

Otober 14, 1986

Postscript: Madison Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner fired Gene Parks in late October 1988. Parks sued, and his termination was eventually overturned; he wound up with a different city job and a $442,000 settlement, plus retirement benefits. Parks died on Feb. 28, 2005, at age 57.

From 'A Nation of Cowards'

Not long ago I got a call from a woman worried about her new furnace, which due to a design flaw leaked fumes into her home. The woman thought someone ought to raise a fuss about this public health hazard, but said it couldn't be her. Why not? "My son works for the state."

Can't you just hear it? "Sorry, Tom, your work here has been outstanding, but we just have to let you go now that your mother has gone public with this furnace thing...."

Then there's the guy who wanted to make an issue out of the state's ruthless exploitation of limited-term employees, but backed down so as not to risk offending his ruthless exploiters. And tenants afraid to take on landlords who rip off their security deposits. And workers who obligingly pee into bottles or otherwise let their bosses abuse them, all the while turning pale at the mention of the word "union."

We proclaim ourselves to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but in truth we have become a nation of cowards, the land of the meek and the home of the 'fraid. We pledge allegiance not to freedom but to a flag, and rush on cue to join the patriotic mobs.

Perhaps the greatest threat to our liberty comes not from a Supreme Court stacked with reactionaries but from people who have freedom, and consciences, but lack the courage to use them.

August 23, 1991

From 'Cruel Zealotry'

Whenever I try to understand the Dane County District Attorney's Office, I think of Helen Gamble. The prosecutor on the hit TV show The Practice, Gamble exercises power like an angry god hurling lightning bolts from Mount Olympus.

She orders a cop to commit perjury, tells a judge who rules against her to shove a pole up her ass, and berates a jury who reach a not-guilty verdict as "12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty." When she wants a store clerk to detain a suspect, she barks, "I don't care what your policy is - do it or I'll charge you with obstruction of justice."

On a recent episode, Gamble tricks a 15-year-old girl who stabbed herself in the abdomen as a method of late-term abortion into making incriminating statements. She assures the girl that her intention is to help, and lies about having had an abortion herself. "Trust me," she urges, only to betray the girl, without contrition.

What a monster.

I realize, of course, that The Practice is just a TV show. But, based on what I know about the legal system, the character of Helen Gamble rings true. In the show, as in real life, her cruel zealotry never brings negative consequences (except, in some cases, not getting the convictions she seeks).

The show also seems credible in that Gamble, for all her excesses, is driven by an overarching sense of responsibility and concern for the victims of crime. If she has become a monster, it is in part because society has made her one to do its dirty work.

Prosecutors have always been the justice system's most powerful and least accountable players. But in recent years their clout has grown as tough-on-crime lawmakers and hang-'em-high judges have enshrined vengeance as the justice system's main ethic. At the same time, burgeoning caseloads have reduced the level of supervision they receive.

In such an environment, it's hardly surprising - indeed, it's predictable - that some prosecutors abuse their authority.

April 14, 2000

From 'America the Beautiful. No, Really'

Let's face it: The nation we love has never been less likable.

We have an incompetent, disengaged president who lies like some people breathe, a man who has dragged the nation into an unwise and unnecessary war while exacerbating the nation's vulnerabilities to terrorism.

We have a national media that lets him get away with it, to where Jon Stewart of Comedy Central does a far better job than The New York Times of exposing the Bush administration's folly and moral corruption.

But those of us living the good life in Madison can grasp the full foulness of our nation's political leadership and yet tear up to hear Ray Charles belt out "America the Beautiful."

What we love is not our nation's politics or policies but its ideals. That all men (and women) are created equal. That we have an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That government is not to intrude on the free expression of speech, or imprison people without due process. That in response to "a long train of abuses and usurpations," it is the people's right and duty to overthrow the government. To the barricades!

This is a nation founded on revolution, in resistance to oppression, in the assertion of the rights of the individual over the power of the state. It is a nation built by people drawn here by the promise of freedom, and their descendants. There is, at the heart of the American experience, something strong and noble and worthy of admiration.

July 2, 2004

Part 2: Investigations

From 'My Free Lunch with Tommy'

Elaine Pulver is standing, as I am, outside a dining room at the Concourse Hotel, waiting for Tommy Thompson. A nice, mom-like woman of perhaps 50, Pulver happened to learn that the governor is meeting his senior staff there for lunch.

She tells me she's from Elroy, Thompson's hometown, and has known him for many years. The last time they met, Pulver told Thompson of her difficulties finding a job as a high school administrator; he urged her to keep trying. Now, after four years of trying, she's landed an assistant principal job in Oconto, north of Green Bay. And so she's waiting for Tommy Thompson, to say thanks.

"I feel like a groupie," Pulver tells me, as she writes the governor a note.

The reason I'm waiting for Tommy Thompson is different. After nearly a month of trying to set up an interview, in the thick of Thompson's battle for reelection against Democratic state Sen. Chuck Chvala, the clock is running out. That morning Mark Liedl, the governor's oily campaign flack, told me Thompson wanted to do an interview - but that he, Liedl, advised against it. Why? "I don't think he's going to get a fair shake."

Apprised that access to Thompson might be based on such calculations, I've decided to signal my intention to stalk the governor, if necessary, to get my 45 minutes. Maybe even bring in Michael Moore.

John Matthews, the guv's acting chief of staff, meets me in the hall at the Concourse and straight away is on the horn. A few minutes later press secretary Kevin Keane whisks me away, as I bid adieu to Pulver, who gives me her note to give to Thompson. ("I'll get it to him if I have to mail it," I promise.) We go to Thompson's office in the Capitol and learn he's already at the Concourse. We go back to the dining room, the door opens, and I am standing before some two dozen top Thompson administration officials as Tommy Thompson shakes my hand and invites me to join him for lunch.

So I tell the story of the woman in the hall and present Thompson with her note thanking him for his encouragement. He studies the signature as I head for the buffet.

"One of my old girlfriends," he cracks, and the room explodes with laughter. "One of the few that said thanks," someone shouts out. As he eats, the governor holds court, calling on his team members to give the lowdown from their departments. All the news is good - especially the news from Carol Skornicka, secretary of the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations, that state manufacturing jobs are at their highest levels since 1979 and Madison's 2.1% unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation.

"You hear that," Thompson harangues me, good-naturedly recalling his regular trashings in Isthmus. I am reduced to citing a rare exception: Charlie Sykes' pro-Thompson analysis during the 1990 campaign. "That's why you're not letting him do it again!" jokes Thompson. Everyone laughs.

He is enjoying this.

When the luncheon ends, I am left in a daze of positive Republican energy, with Thompson and a half-dozen of his associates. This is an experience I will remember later, as I contemplate a popularity that has brought Thompson praise from George H.W. Bush, much of the national press, and rocker Ted Nugent (who calls the guv "a politician with a major set of gonads"). I will remember it as I watch Thompson issue blustery proclamations during the gubernatorial debates and jot the observation "He's a demagogue" in my notes. It is an experience his handlers would have been foolish to deprive me of - especially as the thought, unwelcome as a nightmare, insinuates itself into my brain: "I like this guy."

I trust I will snap out of it. The interview begins.

October 14, 1994

From 'Sizing Up Supermax'

Already, there is ample evidence that Wisconsin's Supermax represents the realization of its critics' worst fears.

"I worry about sending people there as punishment," says former state Department of Corrections chief Walter Dickey, now a UWMadison law professor. "I worry about sending people there who are a pain in the ass - verbally or lawsuit-wise. I worry about the mentally ill most of all."

In fact, all these things are happening. Supermax, intended for "the worst of the worst" among Wisconsin's inmates, is quickly filling up, mainly with racial minorities and inmates who are, on the evil meter, underachievers. The prison is being used as a disciplinary tool and to serve as a warning to other inmates. One in 10 inmates is mentally ill, and they are especially vulnerable to the extreme isolation that Supermax entails.

The prison's warden, Gerard Berge, dismisses suggestions that Supermax is too harsh to handle. "We have very intentionally designed this place, physically and programmatically," to counter the dangers of isolation. In particular, he claims, there is a great deal of interaction between inmates and staff.

For instance, says Berge, meal trays are dropped off and picked up three times daily, which he counts as "six interactions." And medical personnel stop by once a day. But all these contacts occur through locked doors, and staff are discouraged from having substantive conversations with inmates.

Each cell contains a concrete-slab bed on which a mattress can be placed, a combination sink/toilet/mirror, and an upright stand with a caged shower spout. The toilet flushes at regular intervals; the shower turns on for seven minutes twice a week at prearranged times. No watches or clocks are permitted.

A light remains on 24 hours a day. Supermax inmates never see the sun or sky, although some natural light filters through a horizontal strip of glazing at the top of each cell.

Inmates are confined to their cells for 24 hours a day four days a week. On the other three days, they have an opportunity for one hour and 20 minutes of out-of-cell time in which they are led, alone, to either the law library or exercise areas that are only slightly larger than their cell and contain no equipment. Many decline.

Whenever an inmate is moved within the prison, he is handcuffed and shackled and has at least a two-guard escort. Except in the rare event that an attorney arrives with papers to sign, Supermax inmates at the most restrictive levels never have face-to-face contact with each other or any outsider. All visits take place via video terminals, and all conversations are monitored by guards.

The one saving grace, from inmates' point of view, is that they can communicate with their immediate neighbors through ventilation ducts. Berge says this avenue of human contact was completely unintended. Indeed, prison engineers tried to correct this problem, without success.

As at other such prisons, there have been incidents of self-mutilation. In one case, Berge says, an inmate cut his arms "very superficially" with a pilfered razor blade. On a previous occasion, the same inmate swallowed part of a razor blade and was placed in restraints until he excreted it. Berge says this inmate "is attempting to manipulate his way out of here, and this is the method he's attempting to use."

Berge takes a similar hard line regarding complaints about inmates being woken up by guards every hour all night long. "We've got some inmates who try to sleep in a way other than the way they're required to sleep," he says, explaining that covering one's face with a blanket in the always-lighted cell is against the rules. "It goes with the program. If that's what you want to do, you probably won't have a peaceful night of sleep."

August 18, 2000, Milwaukee Magazine

Part 3: Getting Personal

From 'Farewell to Dear Old Dad'

I was at the hospital the night my dad died. He barely knew I was there. The last thing I remember him saying was "I'm going to sleep now." The last thing I told him was "Goodbye." It was typical of the conversations we had.

My dad and I got along, but there was always something awkward between us, some sense that we were just too different, too much in our own dissimilar worlds. The truth, I think, is that we were too much alike.

We had almost nothing in common. He was into cars and I was into books. He could fix almost anything and I was a mechanical nincompoop. He was the blue-collared Everyman and I was the college-educated radical. Yet he taught me everything that made me who I am. He was my mentor, though I never told him so.

My dad, like me, was stubborn and short-tempered. But he was a good man. He never hit me or tried to prescribe my destiny. He taught by example and by example alone. I'm only now realizing how much I learned.

December 1985, The Crazy Shepard

From 'Letter to a New Arrival'

When you were born, Jesse, I held your mother and cried. I recognized you the moment your head popped out: Even before the rest of you appeared, I knew you were a boy. I loved you immediately - not just as a cute little baby but as a human being, my son.

We named you Jesse, Hebrew for "gift of God," because it sounded gentle and strong. Your middle name, Lorenz, German for Lawrence, was my dad's first name.

The day he died he asked me once again about what your mom and I had told him. It was hard for him to talk then, his lungs were so far gone, but he cradled his arms as if he were holding a baby. "Yes," I reassured him, "if it's a boy, we're going to name him Jesse Lorenz." He shaped his thumb and forefinger into an "OK" sign. It was the last thing that ever made him happy.

How your grandpa would have loved you, little one! Just to have seen you, so tiny and cuddly and full of life, would have melted his heart. He would have wanted you to have the best of everything - to grow up strong and happy and healthy and proud. I want all that for you and more.

I want you to be free - freer than your mom and I - to shape your own destiny. People everywhere will try to sentence you to a future based on the limits of their imagination: Go to school, get a job, work hard, look right, fit in, move up, roll over, play dead. Tell them to go to hell!

Being at peace with the world is boring and wrong. It's better to be a rebel, a dreamer, a malcontent. Treat people with respect but never let them put you down. Sometimes the only honorable thing to do is fight: not with your fists, that's always dumb, but with all your heart.

Be a kid as long as you can. Most folks force themselves to grow up before they need to, only to find out too late what a lousy deal it is. It's better to fight it every step of the way - you'll still have to grow up but maybe it won't be as bad.

I'm getting way ahead of us, though. Right now, all you want is to be fed and to have your diapers changed. There will be plenty of time for lectures later, when you're old enough to not want to listen.

June 1986, The Progressive

From 'Skydive!'

By the time I boarded the single-engine Cessna plane, I had enough nervous energy to make cocaine obsolete. There were five of us - a pilot, three students and a jumpmaster - packed into a plane barely large enough to hold us. I was in position to jump second. The ride was bumpy, the view sickening.

"I can do this," I was saying, again and again. When the plane door opened and the first guy jumped, I began to really panic. I became suddenly convinced that my radio wasn't working properly because I couldn't hear the instructions the first guy was getting from the ground. I screamed this fear into the jumpmaster's ear. He screamed back: "It's quieter once you leave the plane."

The door swung open again. I looked down on the fields below. We were at 3,500 feet, two-thirds of a mile in the air. The jumpmaster told me to get into position. The wind was blowing furiously. It was a struggle to plant my foot on the platform. On command, I grabbed hold of the bar beneath the wing, pulled myself onto the platform, and pushed off.

There I was, hanging in a 100 mph wind from the wing of an airplane. I looked back to the jumpmaster. I was supposed to say "Check in!" I didn't say a thing. The jumpmaster yelled "Skydive!" I couldn't believe what he was telling me. "Skydive!" he yelled again.

I am convinced that moment of decision - that letting go - is a metaphor for something much larger in our lives. Oh how we hang there, holding on in fear - to relationships that don't work, jobs we hate, lifestyles that injure us. And yet all the time within us is the capacity to...well, to fly.

Or at least to fall.

Watchdog book events

Book release party: Tuesday, Sept. 21, 5:30-7:30 pm, Harmony Bar, musical guest Peter Leidy.

Reading and signings:

  • Friday, Sept. 24, 6:30 pm, Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore. Theme: Humor. Introduction by Deborah Blum.
  • Sunday, Oct. 3, noon-1:30 pm, Wisconsin Book Festival, Wisconsin Studio, Overture Center, with author Erika Jonik. Theme: History. Introduction by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz.
  • Wednesday, Oct. 13, 7 pm, Borders West. Theme: Animals. Introduction by Rick Bogle and Lynn Pauly.
  • Saturday, Oct. 23, 2 pm, Rainbow Bookstore, 426 W. Gilman St. Theme: Politics.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 16, 7 pm, Barnes & Noble West. Theme: Criminal Justice. Introduction by Keith Findley, Wisconsin Innocence Project.

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