A former governor sees “bright, committed” people taking us into the future.
Jim Doyle’s story has always been linked to UW–Madison. The former Wisconsin governor’s parents, Ruth ’38 and James Doyle ’37, met as UW students and settled in Madison after World War II. He grew up three blocks from campus, earned a degree in history, and is a longtime men’s basketball season-ticket holder.
During spring semester, Doyle ’67 taught a course on state policy and politics for graduate students at the La Follette School of Public Affairs. The class covered weighty issues that don’t have easy answers, including health care, corrections, and taxation — issues he grappled with during two terms as governor and four as the state’s attorney general. Doyle previously taught at Edgewood College and at Harvard, where he earned his law degree.
I’ve heard you say that politics is about people — talking and listening and relating to a wide range of people. Do you think that is harder than it used to be for elected officials?
I think it’s gotten a lot harder. This is true all over the country, and the partisan position on an issue sort of shuts off further discussion. But I think there are a lot of people who are elected to state legislatures around the country and to Congress who want to do [politics] another way and are looking for ways.
What role can the university play in helping government work better and helping policymakers solve our biggest problems?
In my administration, just in the governor’s office, there were probably four or five La Follette graduates. [The university] plays a very important role, and the really big role it plays is in research and economic development — the whole university is critical to the health of the state, the health of the world, in many ways.
Is it encouraging to be around students?
Whenever I finish one of these semesters, I always walk away feeling we’re in pretty good shape in the long run. Whatever the … issues are that people are confronting, I just see really bright, committed, interested, active people.
Based on what you have seen and heard from your students, how do you think they view public service?
I think [their outlook is] surprisingly positive, given the popular view of the world of politics and public service right now. But I doubt that any of them are that interested in being a candidate for anything. And so that really worries me.
Did you have a favorite class or professor at UW?
Coming [to UW–Madison] was like coming to the most alive, involved campus. George Mosse was teaching European cultural history, which was the twentieth-century rise of Nazism. This campus, particularly the history department, had giants in it. I’d come out of Stanford, which was supposedly prestigious, supposedly ranked higher academically, and I was sitting in the class [thinking], “This is beyond me.” I had to really work hard, so to me, it was a great experience.
If you could go back and get a do-over, would you still choose a career in public service?
This is really a truthful answer, even though it sounds so political: I loved every minute I was in it. I’ve loved every minute of not being in it. Politics is a very high calling, and I do believe that we need people who want to pursue it and pursue it for the right reasons. You can’t say you like democracy when it turns out your way, but you don’t like it when it turns out the other way. You can’t play it that way.
Published in the Summer 2015 issue