What follows is a text of remarks presented by Isthmus news editor Bill Lueders at the Downtown Madison Rotary on May 4, 2011. The speech did contain a couple of asides not included here; it will be broadcast in its entirety (about 25 minutes, including questions), on Madison City Channel.
I stand before you today with a profound sense of purpose: My goal is to get you to leave here owning a copy of my book. I've thought long and hard about how to accomplish this. I've considered begging, but I decided against it, because I want you to think I have more dignity than that. I've toyed with offering a money-back guarantee, where I promise to buy the book back if you're not completely satisfied. But if this were to happen, I wouldn't be completely satisfied with you either, and I'd like to spare you the humiliation.
Instead, I intend to take a different tact: to present myself as an authority, and give you the benefit of my expertise. My book is called Watchdog: 25 Years of Muckraking and Roublerousing and it contains writing I've done over the last quarter century, as a journalist in Madison. I think pulling together this collection has given me a stronger sense of what makes Madison unique, and how our city has changed over time. And it instructs my perspective on the topic I've been asked to address: How the disruptions of the last several months fit into this community's larger narrative.
In extending this invitation, Jim Ruhly asked me whether our city and state has ever experienced anything like this. The short answer is no. But it occurs to me that what we've seen in recent weeks is the epitome and apotheosis of what has come before.
For the first time Madison has made peace with its radical past. We are more united than divided over deeply held beliefs, and that has removed the stigma that once attached to our civic reputation. The truth is that Madisonians have never liked being pitted against each other. It's just one of the many ways that Madison's image does not match its reality.
My book begins with the first column I wrote for Isthmus, in April 1986. It's called "Hello, Disneyland" and it describes my sense, from initial impressions, that Madison is something of an oddity -- atypical, enigmatic, an "exception to reality." It's the same sentiment famously sounded by Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, that Madison is a certain number of square miles -- he said 35, now it's up to 77 -- "surrounded by reality."
This is a defensible perspective. We are a different kind of community, and we appear so to outsiders. There are good and bad aspects to this, which is why saying that Madison seems to have its own reality is alternately meant either as a point of pride or as a putdown. Always there is this tension between how we are perceived, and how we perceive ourselves. I think that tension merits further examination. My thesis is that both the negative perceptions of Madison held by many outsiders and some aspects of the positive image we hold of ourselves are just plain wrong.
First, the negative perceptions. One of the earliest columns in my book, from 1990, is called, "Why People Hate Madison." It dealt with contemporary events -- a disparaging column by Mike Royko, a mocking editorial in the Tampa Tribune -- but the dynamic it identified has remained something of a constant: People ridiculing Madison as a place where wild-eyed leftists rule and common sense has been banished.
I interviewed Bob Brennen, then president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, on why Madison is hated so. His theory was that people in other places, seeing all the good things Madison has to offer, are envious. I think that's true, but only to an extent.
People who live in other places may be a bit envious, but they aren't just envious. They really do hate us. Or rather, they hate the image of Madison that they've concocted in their minds. Madison as radical hotbed. Madison as a beckon of political correctness. Madison as a place where liberals control everything and accomplish nothing.
These are caricatures they've created out of their desire to define themselves and their own communities in opposition to something detestable. It's like the Jefferson Airplane song, with a twist: Don't you want somebody to hate? Don't you need somebody to hate?
Every citizen of Madison and Dane County, every person in this room, has felt the scorn of others who regard us as foolhardy, based on their assumptions about our civic character. It is part of what we as a community must contend with. And it is, in my mind, profoundly unfair.
Take Madison's reputation as a place that can't put two bricks together. To some extent it persists to this day, even though Monona Terrace and the Kohl Center and the Overture Center and Grainger Hall and the Discovery Center and the new Union South and countless other projects bear powerful witness to Madison's capacity to join bricks. We are routinely belittled as a place that puts process over progress, where over-deliberation results in under-achievement, where opportunities are lost because projects are discussed rather than simply decreed.
I think our city's recent history proves this assessment wrong. What was often painted at the time as foolish obstructionism has in many cases proven to be wise restraint. It is a good thing that Mayor Sensenbrenner did not allow John Q. Hammonds to build his Holiday Inn on the west side, which would have drained the momentum for a meeting facility that led to Monona Terrace.
It's a good thing that a convention facility was not built on the north side of the Square, as some folks wanted, because they were too impatient to wait 60 years for Frank Wright's vision. And it's a good thing neighbors recently forced some changes in the scale of the Edgewater redevelopment, though on this issue I'll concede they would prefer downsizing it into oblivion.
Always the will to make fun of our city overrides any sense of obligation to be fair. Consider the hysteria that erupts whenever Madison happens to be ahead of the curve on any issue. There's a column in my book called "It's Time to Panic," from 2005, about Madison's decision to ban smoking in all workplaces, including bars. By this time, Madison was actually more of a follower than a leader. Dozens of communities, from Flagstaff, Ariziona, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City, had already adopted similar bans.
And yet to hear the uproar you'd think the city of Madison had been taken over by Fidel Castro, without the cigars. All the anger, all the vitriol, all the attacks on Madison as a place that hates business and tries to destroy it at every turn. Really? Is this a true assessment, or do people just not feel an obligation to be fair when it comes to bashing Madison?
But nowhere is Madison more maligned than over its reputation as a radical hotbed. And it is here that the wounds run deepest, the hurt is greatest, because this reputation is based on painful history.
Some of my columns from the 1980s and early 1990s addressed this history head-on. The anti-war protests. The War at Home. The bombing of Sterling Hall. These events were much fresher then and left a rawer mark on the city's consciousness.
To the majority of Madison residents, both the cops who cracked heads and the rads who blew up Sterling Hall are a source of deep embarrassment. We as a city have not wanted to be defined by this behavior; some of us make excuses for it; some of us condemn it; but most of us do not like it.
And in fact Madison, including its Police Department and activist community, has worked hard to distance itself from the contentiousness and discord of our collective past. Sometimes this had led to awkward moments, as when Paul Soglin served his second stint as mayor, and found himself arguing with protesters opposing the first Gulf War.
But, over time, there's been some healing, to where our civic leaders can now comfortably declare their opposition to foreign engagements and their desire for social change without being at odds with the establishment they represent. Is that progress? I think it is.
Still, nobody could have predicted how thoroughly the patterns of the past would be transcended by the events of the present. Madison is no longer a hotbed of radicalism; it's more like a warm bed of high-minded resistance.
Over the last several months, I have spent more time in that building, the state Capitol, than in the previous 25 years. I have spoken to hundreds of people -- demonstrators, fellow media members, law enforcement officers. My press credentials got me into the Capitol when it was in lockdown, and into parts of the building most citizens were barred from, like the chambers of our state Assembly.
I won't dwell on things I saw that I consider shameful -- Gov. Walker and the Republicans have gotten enough attention. I want to reflect rather on the things that made me proud of my city and my state.
I was there on March 3, when a judge ordered the Capitol building vacated, and Capitol police chief Charles Tubbs talked the remaining protesters into doing just that -- peacefully, without threats or force. (This process took about three hours, and the several hundred law enforcement officers standing around with no laws to enforce looked pretty bored. I said to some of them: "Just be glad it's not a Madison Common Council meeting.")
We've seen weeks of protests involving hundreds of thousands of citizens, dwarfing anything the occurred in Madison in the 1960s. And every event was so peaceful that Fox News had to run unrelated footage from a protest in California to support its false claims of union violence here.
I saw protesters shake hands and exchange pleasantries with police. I heard them saying "please" and "thank you" and saw them politely step aside to let police pass. I watched them cheer whenever off-duty cops and firefighters joined the gathering, protest signs in hand. And somewhere along the line, it dawned on me: The protesters and police had come to see themselves as being on the same side. How remarkable is that?
During the Vietnam war, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon divided us against ourselves. But Scott Walker has brought us together. He has given Madison another chance to disagree without becoming disagreeable. And all of us -- citizens, elected officials, police -- have risen to the challenge.
I would argue that Madison's uneasy relationship with its own past is not incidental to this outcome. Madison has wanted for some time to live down its image as a place where protesters broke laws and police officers broke bones. The citizens of Madison have been waiting for a chance to stand up for what they felt was right without engaging in conduct others thought was wrong. The police, too, have taken to heart painful lessons of the past, and seized their chance to be seen as peacekeepers.
Thank you, Scott Walker, for making this possible. Thank you for uniting the people of Madison -- politicians and pundits, protesters and police -- against a common enemy. Your radical agenda to strip away hard-won workers rights makes the tens of thousands of Madison residents who are now determined to destroy you seem, in contrast, pretty mainstream. This is a community that has never liked being thought of as radical, and now it is clear this term does not apply, at least not to us. We owe you a deep debt of gratitude.
In fact, I would like to ask any Scott Walker supporters in the room to please stand up so we can give you a round of applause. Thank you.
Seriously, these last 25 years have impressed on me that Madison is better than it is commonly perceived. We are not a community of pampered students or overpaid state workers or bomb-throwing radicals or tofu-eating food fascists or whatever else people come up with to put us down.
We are not a caricature, not a monolith, not, as Scott Walker would have us believe, a different "world" than the rest of the state. We are a diverse and responsible community, and those who get satisfaction from portraying us otherwise have lost all credibility.
So, in closing. I think we as a community can take comfort in knowing that the negative things people say about us are by and large not true. Our image is not our reality.