(First published in the September 13, 2018 issue of City Pages)
A new book reveals what makes Tommy Thompson tick — from his tiny hometown, to governor, to U.S. Cabinet, and back to the farm
Tommy Thompson has never forgotten where he comes from or stopped being proud of it.
“This one is my grandfather, who farmed this land,” says Thompson, pointing to a portrait on the wall. It’s of Charles Dutton, whose parents emigrated from Ireland in the mid-1800s and became beneficiaries of the Homestead Act, a government program that gave farmland to people who proved themselves worthy by building houses, clearing fields and planting crops.
Thompson never met Charles, his mother’s father. But in his new book, Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime, co-written with Doug Moe, he calls Charles “a progressive and a disciple of Fighting Bob La Follette” who subscribed to La Follette’s Weekly (later known as The Progressive, where I now work). He ran for state Assembly in 1926 and lost.
Forty years later, his grandson, Tommy Thompson, was elected to that same Assembly seat, launching a political career that rivals Fighting Bob’s.
Thompson, now 76, served two decades in the Legislature before becoming Wisconsin’s longest-tenured governor, from 1987 to 2001. He was President George W. Bush’s first secretary of Health and Human Services, leaving that for business opportunities and to fill out his Wikipedia entry with failed bids for President in 2008 and U.S. Senate in 2012.
Today Tommy Thompson is just a guy on his family farm in Elroy, Wis., the greatest place on earth. He oversees 1,500 acres, 100 head of cattle, and sprawling fields of soybeans, hay and corn. The 4,600-square-foot home he has built here since leaving government service in 2005 is gorgeous, with spacious rooms, elegant decor and lovely views. (He and his wife, Sue Ann, also own a home in Madison and one on Lake Wisconsin, which the kids and grandkids prefer — possibly because he makes them plant trees and pull rocks on the farm, he says, to “develop a conservation ethic.”)
The walls are adorned with memorabilia. There’s a photo of Thompson with Pope Francis. There’s one at fellow Republican Scott Walker’s 2011 inauguration. There are awards everywhere, from national honors to framed certificates from Madison Magazine: Best State Politician, Man of the Year.
A sign above a doorway proclaims: “Life is better on the farm.”
It certainly is for Tommy Thompson. As he shows me around, he’s beaming: This house is his nirvana. Later, we pile into his Ram 1500 truck for a half-hour spin around his property and into Elroy (population: 1,366).
Thompson drives us to the tiny house where Charles Dutton and his wife raised 10 children, five boys and five girls, including Thompson’s mother, Julia. It was here that a feed truck ran over and killed Julia’s second child from her first marriage, 4-year-old Eddie, in 1933. He shows us what’s left of the two-room schoolhouse where Julia shared teaching duties with Allan Edward Thompson; they married and had three children, including Tommy.
We see the house his father built. This is where Tommy was born, on Nov. 19, 1941, in the front room, delivered by a woman physician. “Her name was Dr. Stella,” Thompson says.
We see where his father ran a gas station and grocery store, which got turned into Tommy and Sue Ann’s first home, with their own three children. We see Tommy’s old law office, now an art gallery, where he worked while in the Legislature. Just down the street is the library he helped get a grant for as governor. The whole town of Elroy is packed with relevance for Thompson. At one point he exclaims, “See that barn? I painted that at age 12.”
As the truck radio plays Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” Thompson drives to a vista among the soybeans. He tells the story of how, shortly after being elected governor, he authorized his lawyer to bid up to $200,000 for the family farm, which his father had sold some years before. He didn’t think it would be enough, but wanted to say he tried. The call came at 1:30 pm on Dec. 7, 1986, after a morning spent picking cabinet members.
“You got it,” the lawyer said, to Thompson’s amazement. “There were only two bidders. They bid $195,000, I bid $196,000. They bid $197,000, I bid $198,000. They bid $199,000 and I bid $200,000.”
Thompson got the farm, but needed help from his sister to pay for it. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks, looking over the fields. “I pinch myself every day.”
Thompson in the library of his home, on his family’s farm in Elroy. His autobiography, co-authored with Doug Moe, was released last week.
Doug Moe, the former editor of Madison Magazine and former columnist forThe Capital Timesand Wisconsin State Journal, was first approached in 2011 about writing a book on Thompson by two of the former governor’s associates. After consulting with UW Press, the book’s publisher, Moe suggested it be written as autobiography. The project was put on hold when Thompson decisively lost his challenge against Democrat Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate in 2012.
“I think he was really devastated by that,” Moe says. “He pulled the curtains for a little while.”
Things got back on track in spring 2015. Thompson told his story to Moe, who turned more than 30 hours of taped interviews into chapter-sized installments. Moe also interviewed people close to Thompson and dug into his papers at Marquette University. Thompson reviewed the installments and made changes, sometimes softening how things were phrased. The book, published last week, is Moe’s 10th.
Moe came away impressed by the loyalty of Thompson’s friends and colleagues. That street runs in both directions: One of Thompson’s lessons of life, relayed in the book, is “Never trade in an old friend for a new friend.”
“There’s very little duplicity in him,” Moe says of his co-author. “I don’t want this to sound simplistic, but what you see is what you get.” Thompson is not introspective; he approaches the world pragmatically, in terms of getting things done.
Yet there are moments in Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetimewhen Thompson’s 8,000-watt personality shines through.
He tells how, as a freshman legislator, he muscled his way onto the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee by making his membership a condition of his support for Harold Froehlich as Assembly Speaker.
As governor, Thompson played hardball with President Bill Clinton, who asked him to serve on the Amtrak board, as he had done under President George H.W. Bush. But the position of chairman was offered to Democrat Michael Dukakis.
“I am chairman, or I won’t do it,” Thompson recalls saying.
Clinton wouldn’t agree. Thompson: “Well, that’s fine. Goodbye.”
Days later, Clinton backed down, making Thompson the chair.
And on 9/11, as a member of George W.’s cabinet, Thompson says he initially refused orders to be taken from Washington, D.C., to an underground bunker, even after being warned this could lead to his arrest. He told his security officer, “Well, then, let them arrest me.” Thompson eventually did go but arranged a ride back later that day.
As secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson promoted organ donation, refused to undo the FDA’s approval of the RU-486 abortion pill, defended the use of embryonic stem cells in research, and championed “medical diplomacy” — the notion that addressing international health issues like HIV/AIDS is a way to create goodwill for the United States.
After leaving HHS, Thompson simultaneously held “three full-time positions” — president of Logistics Health in La Crosse, a partner with Akin Group law firm in Washington, D.C., and an adviser to Deloitte & Touche USA — while serving on numerous corporate boards, teaching at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and giving frequent speeches.
The book, which Thompson had not seen in printed form until I showed him my advance copy (“Is that all it is?” he asked, expecting it to be thicker), has great stories, like how Thompson, as a law student working nights at the Capitol for the assistant sergeant at arms, was sent to a nearby watering hole to round up a drunken state senator for a vote. The senator, a Democrat, objected to this intrusion and “threw a big roundhouse punch.” Thompson ducked, and the senator, losing his balance, ended up on his back in a gutter, out cold.
Thompson also shares “the real reason … one he never made public” why Republican Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus didn’t seek re-election in 1982. It was because he and his wife Joyce felt harassed by supporters of convicted sex offender Jack Pickens. These so-called Pickens People would show up with signs accusing Dreyfus of keeping an “innocent Christian” in prison. Joyce Dreyfus once repelled them from the governor’s mansion with a garden hose.
Now 76, Thompson served two decades in the Legislature before becoming Wisconsin’s longest-tenured governor, 1987-2001. He then became the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. His home is adorned with memorabilia of his long political career.
As governor, Thompson set out to implement broad changes, especially to the state’s welfare system. To this end he recruited then-Senate Majority Leader Tim Cullen, a Democrat, as his secretary of Health and Social Services, then the largest state agency. “He wanted reform, too, but he wanted to make sure people weren’t hurt in the process,” Thompson writes in the book.
Cullen, in an interview, agrees with this characterization, while conceding the changes to welfare did cause hurt for some. Cullen says his goal was to “hurt as few people as possible.”
Thompson’s “reforms” required most welfare recipients to work, seek work or lose benefits. The state’s caseload decreased by 65%. But the new program, Cullen says, included Medicaid, job training, transportation assistance and vouchers for daycare. Thompson “never wanted to talk about this out loud because it didn’t do him any good with his conservative followers, but he actually spent more on welfare reform than we had been spending on welfare.”
In fact, the cost of state government more than doubled during Thompson’s tenure, 1987 to 2001. Cullen, by way of explanation, notes that Thompson’s father served for decades on the Juneau County board: “Tommy grew up in a home where government wasn’t the enemy. Government did good things for people.”
Back when Cullen ran Health and Social Services, it still included the state prison system. He says Thompson let him continue a program forged under his Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Tony Earl, allowing early release for select nonviolent inmates. But when Cullen half-seriously suggested letting inmates have conjugal visits, as other states had done, Tommy killed the idea with the look on his face. “He didn’t have to say anything,” Cullen recalls.
Thompson built a number of new prisons in Wisconsin, including the unconstitutionally cruel supermax in Boscobel. Today, Thompson identifies his hardline approach to prisons as his greatest regret.
“The prison system as it exists is broken,” Thompson writes in his book. “Prisoners sit there and vegetate and get attacked and brutalized. If they could get a real education, showing some progress along the way, with a real hope of getting out in the end, I think that could have a profound impact on our prisons. They wouldn’t be the dangerous places they are today.”
In a recent op-ed in the MilwaukeeJournal Sentinel, Thompson proposed a range of prison reform ideas, including creating a “Second Chance Skills Institute” to provide job and life-skills training, with mentoring from unions and the business community. He suggests running it out of a converted state prison, perhaps one of those he now regrets building.
“I made a mistake,” Thompson says as we sit on his back deck, overlooking his domain. “I built too many prisons. We should turn those prisons into vocational schools and give these people a second chance, give them a chance to rehabilitate their lives. They’re going to get out someday, the vast majority of them. Wouldn’t you rather have them get out with a skill and a job? It just doesn’t make any sense at all, the way we’re doing it.”
Thompson is passionate about this. With employers facing worker shortages, why let inmates languish? “Let them go out and work at Foxconn,” he says. “What’s wrong with that?”
He credits his changing views in this area to his oldest child, Kelli, who now heads the Wisconsin State Public Defenders office.
Kelli, in turn, chalks up his transformation to “age, time and wisdom.”
Thompson says he hopes to work with the Legislature and governor — “whoever gets elected” in the November election — to “put together an agenda for criminal reform in Wisconsin.”
As I talk with Thompson, it becomes clear that he’s in something of a bind. The brand of politics he stands for — civil, inclusive, solution-oriented — is no longer in style.
That pains him, but his desire to get things done keeps him allied with the practitioners of the newer, coarser brand.
Take Donald Trump. Thompson praises the president for cutting taxes and hiking military spending. But he’s called Trump a “bully” and has “real problems” with how he conducts himself.
“You would never behave that way,” I tell Thompson, stating the obvious.
“Never,” he agrees. “But I ran for president and didn’t get elected.”
Thompson also won’t let the current crop of state Republicans be unfavorably compared to him, no matter how much they deserve it.
He boasts in his book that no previous governor “acquired more public land for conservation” than he did. But when asked about modern GOP antipathy to the public land stewardship, he shrugs, “Every different generation has different responses and people in power right now feel we have acquired enough.”
After defending some environmental regulations as “absolutely necessary,” Thompson suggests Republicans may be right to scale some back, saying, “I think the mining law that I signed was probably too oppressive.”
He wishes the state had done more to become energy independent, one of his goals as governor, but stresses, “I’m not going to criticize anybody.”
On climate change, Thompson’s desire not to offend pushes him toward incoherence: “I would love to see a good, bipartisan scientific evaluation where scientists from both sides sit down and say, ‘This is the problem, here are the solutions.’” Bipartisan science?
Thompson, the former Amtrak chair, won’t fault Scott Walker’s decision to pass up $810 million for a high-speed rail link between Madison and Milwaukee. “I would have supported it,” he says. “But Walker campaigned against it and won.”
And while he admits Republicans have used redistricting to make legislative races less competitive, he won’t blame them for it, saying Democrats tried to do the same.
Still, given how powerful computer mapping has become, he thinks redistricting changes are in order: “I’m not ready to say that the Legislature should be completely taken out of it, but there has to be some sort of protections for the minority party in order to get more competitive districts.”
In his book, Thompson describes the state’s political climate in 2012, when he ran for U.S. Senate. “I was dismayed at having seen Wisconsin torn apart,” he writes. “Everything was polarized. There was no middle ground, no chance for compromise. … [It] pitted ordinary citizens against each other, forcing them to pick a side. Neighbors quit talking to each other. It was ugly. That’s not the Wisconsin I knew.”
But he won’t knock Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy in going after the state’s public employee unions.
I relate something Moe told me, that Thompson would never have done what Walker did. If there was a need to change the state’s relationship with its workers, Moe says, Thompson would have called Wisconsin State Employees Union headMarty Beil and worked something out. Thompson won’t to go there.
“You’re pitting me against Scott Walker and I don’t want that to be,” he protests. “I’m out here, and Scott Walker has been a successful governor and I don’t want to tear him down in any way whatsoever. I think that he’s done a lot of good for the state.”
He goes on to say: “I was much more like Scott Walker when I started in politics than when I ended up. I moderated throughout my years. I wanted government to work, and I’m not sure either political party wants government to work as much as I did. I’m not being critical of that. I don’t want this to be I’m all right and they’re all wrong. I had some good ideas, but I had some bad ones. I want the government to work. I want people to work together, and I want Democrats and Republicans after the election to, you know, really forget about the Rs and Ds.”
When Kelli Thompson was young, she remembers, her father spent “endless hours” teaching her and others to water ski and snow ski. And while he was “not a person who was extraordinarily patient,” he was supportive and encouraging in these moments. It was important to him that his children not be afraid to try something new.
In fact, he’s why she became a public defender. As a law student at Marquette, she knew she didn’t want to practice trial law. But her father said, “You can’t decide you hate it until you at least try it,” and so, in her last year of law school, she did. She loved it.
Kelli Thompson says her father embodies that same spirit. “He is always taking on a new challenge. This is a guy who could slow down, quit. But he’s always going forward, never willing to say I’m done.”
Despite this constant striving, Tommy Thompson has achieved a zen-like state of contentment, because he knows where he’s supposed to be. “Wisconsin is his ‘It,’” Kelli says. “If he never had to leave again, he’d be fine with that.”
The truth of that resonates from every fiber of Thompson’s being. “This is where it started, right here,” he says, arms outstretched in the heart of his farm. He climbs into a massive tractor, a Massey Ferguson 7724, with a New Holland haybine behind it. He’s looking forward to using it in coming days. “I’ll go through 50 acres of hay in an afternoon,” he says proudly.
Toward the end of our interview, I ask Thompson if he has thought about how he wants to be remembered. He doesn’t need a lot of time to answer.
“I hope that people remember me as somebody that really passionately cared about this state, loved this state, and wanted it to be the best that it possibly could be, and worked damn hard to accomplish that. And I hope that people will remember that I cared about its people, about its traditions, about its environment, about its business climate, and about the educational opportunities of all individuals, to make this state truly the best state in America.”
Ten fun facts about Tommy Thompson
1. That’s his real first name, bestowed when his father told his birth doctor, “We’ll call him Tommy.” In his first race for state Assembly, some political rivals tried to get him booted from the ballot by arguing, erroneously, that he was not using his given name.
2. Thompson’s father, Allan Edward Thompson, liked to carry $1,000 in cash in his pocket. “Years later,” Thompson relates in his new book, “I made a point of carrying a little more than that,” to show that he’d done better. Asked what’s in his wallet during an interview, Thompson checks and says, “I’ve got $1,500. You want to count it?”
3. He attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., while working as a student intern for a Wisconsin congressman. He liked it.
4. Thompson met his wife, Sue Ann, a public school teacher, when he was in the state Assembly and she came to the Capitol to lobby lawmakers for more school funding. He says he told her, “I can’t give you the support you’re asking for, but how about lunch?”
5. He lost much of the hearing in his right ear while headed to the Rose Bowl in 2000, possibly due to a virus he picked up on the plane.
6. In his book, Thompson says he cries easily, and co-author Doug Moe attests, “He can’t talk about his family or even his love for Wisconsin without starting to cry.”
7. When he was U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson would “police the grounds,” pulling cigarettes out of people’s mouths. “A couple of times I got slapped.”
8. After leaving HHS, Thompson became part-owner of a racing horse, Flashy Bull, which finished 14th (of 20) in the 2006 Kentucky Derby.
9. He told 2016 presidential aspirant Donald Trump he was “wasting his time” campaigning in Wisconsin, but changed his mind a few days later after seeing a preponderance of Trump signs. He called to say, “Donald, I was wrong. You need to come back to Wisconsin. You can win.”
10. At HHS, Thompson created an emergency operations center with a large map that had one city “far and away most prominently displayed, in letters big enough that anyone would think it must be the center of the universe,” which it was to him. That city was Elroy, Wis.