Patrick Lucey meets with President John Kennedy at the White House in 1961. Lucey became a personal friend of Kennedy after helping him win the state’s key presidential primary over Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey. Image by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel files
I still get nervous before interviews--acutely more so if the subject is someone I know--but the flop sweat that rolled off me that morning in the mid 70's could've filled a good-sized moat.
I was a cub reporter at WSPT Stevens Point and my in-studio guest that day was Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey. I was in over my skis, but my boss decided that I was the right guy to interview the longtime state Democratic party stalwart, Kennedy confidant and Wisconsin chief executive.
I thanked him for the confidence but cursed him for the burden. I don't remember what I asked, and I don't remember being overwhelmed by his persona despite his massive political biography. Then again, Lucey himself on several occasions admitted he was charisma-challenged.
Lucey died this past weekend at the age of 96. Our brief time together that morning in Central Wisconsin didn't make his New York Times obit, so neither of us obviously did anything monumental during our minutes together in the recording studio.
Lucey would make a decision that would shape a lot of lives in 1977, deciding to accept President Jimmy Carter's offer to become Ambassador to Mexico. He would last but two years and wouldn't go quietly, challenging Carter's leadership abilities out loud as he departed, then heading up Senator Edward Kennedy's failed bid to wrest the Democratic nomination from the sitting President. Lucey's disdain for Carter was such that he opted to be part of John Anderson's independent White House bid, serving as the maverick's vice-presidential candidate.
Lucey's hasty departure as Wisconsin governor had a huge impact on our quiet Stevens Point existence. It set off a chain of political events that included a decision by UWSP chancellor Lee Sherman Dreyfus to launch a maverick, underfunded GOP gubernatorial bid to unseat Lucey's replacement, Acting Governor Martin Schreiber.
I got to ride journalistic shotgun as Dreyfus' effort gained steam although it wasn't enough to beat out Robert Kasten for the Republican party's coveted endorsement at the 1978 state convention. Dreyfus stayed on the primary ballot nonetheless and beat Kasten for the right to take Schreiber on that fall. Stevens Point became the hotbed of the state political universe and Dreyfus' home away from home when he and wife Joyce moved to Madison as the chancellor shocked the world and denied Schreiber a four-year term of his own.
Strange that Lucey's obits include stories about how he helped rescue the state Democratic party which held but a small number of legislative seats in the late 50's and early 60's, only to see the Dreyfus arise amid Lucey's departure, a candidate who joined the Republican party because he feared the state GOP was nearing extinction amid Democratic domination Lucey had such a big hand in crafting. Wisconsin politics had gone full circle.
Patrick Lucey lived 96 colorful years, and spent about ten minutes of that with a cub reporter in Stevens Point one day as governor. Seldom was I more nervous for an interview, or feel so inadequate. What Lucey may have self-admittedly lacked in personality that day or in life he he certainly made up for with accomplishment, with encounters and involvement few state politicians could ever match. Had I been wiser, I wouldn't have settled for a mere ten minutes, because 600 seconds was hardly enough time to get to know a subject who was so influential in shaping state and national politics.