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Tommy Thompson holds granddaughter Juliana Thompson, while his daughter-in-law, Notesong Thompson, offers her an ice cream cone at the Jefferson County Fair. Thompson's children and most of his grandchildren were at the fair to help him campaign.

In the summer of 1965, at a point when pundits were still seriously suggesting that the conservative movement had died with the dramatic defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, Congressman Robert Kastenmeier organized a remarkable grass-roots hearing on the Vietnam War at a downtown Madison church.

The hearing featured a number of anti-war voices, even at that early stage in the conflict. Madison was an anti-war town; indeed, The Capital Times had been editorializing for months about the need to exit the conflict. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson was ardently opposed to the war, and Kastenmeier was emerging as one of the most outspoken foes in the House.

Yet the hearing did feature pro-war voices.

Two fresh-faced conservatives, true believers who refused to abandon the right-wing principles of the Goldwater ideal, stood their pro-war ground without giving an inch.

One was David Keene, who served as national chairman of the extreme right-wing Young Americans for Freedom organization while he was a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School. The kid from Fort Atkinson would go on to become a political adviser to Vice President Spiro Agnew and the guiding light of the American Conservative Union from the Ronald Reagan years until George W. Bush’s second term. Keene now serves as president of the National Rifle Association.

The other youthful conservative was a UW Law School student who was then the chairman of the local Young Republicans organization. Identified in media reports as “Tom Thompson,” he would go on to serve as the right-wing “Dr. No” of the state Assembly before his election as the 42nd governor of Wisconsin. During that governorship, Thompson was a hero of conservatives not just in Wisconsin but nationally — as he became identified as one of the nation’s most ardent advocates for school choice programs and draconian welfare reforms.

Back in 1965, Tom Thompson did not play the role of the respectable right-winger. He was aggressive, challenging “the wisdom, advisability and intent” of the hearing Kastenmeier had called and going so far as to suggest that it bordered on unpatriotic to question a president’s policies in a time of war.

And he did not stop there. Less than a decade after the death of Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy, Thompson mustered some of the old red-baiting fury when he declared: “If this hearing is to take up that question of abandonment — if it is only to hear the crisis of appeasement from people who cannot find enough distaste for communism to fight it — then this hearing does not serve a purpose; that is, no other purpose than to weaken dangerously the determination of our country and its people at a time when great determination and strong moral courage are demanded as fitting examples of democracy.”

Thompson was, of course, wrong. The Founding Fathers of the American experiment expected — indeed, they demanded — that citizens question the authority and the decisions of presidents, especially when those presidents were committing folly abroad and sending young Americans off on ill-thought-out military adventures.

But Thompson was certainly no liberal, let alone a progressive.

And he never has been.

So it is amusing, indeed, to hear Thompson’s fellow contenders in the Aug. 14 Republican primary for Wisconsin’s open U.S. Senate seat — especially Mark Neumann and Eric Hovde — attacking Thompson as some sort of “Republican in name only” turncoat who would if elected to the Senate make common cause with President Barack Obama and Vermont’s progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The truth is that Tommy Thompson, for all his faults, is a long-haul conservative, a faithful follower of Goldwater and Reagan who has always evolved with the movement, taking in its new ideas and new approaches. He delights in conservative ideology and activism. So it was that, when the tea party rallied on the steps of the state Capitol in 2010, at a time when many mainstream Republicans shied away from the stages of the nascent movement’s events, Tommy Thompson was there.

Thompson and I have sparred many times over the last two decades on many issues. I have disagreed with him frequently, and vociferously. I have questioned his words and deeds. But I have never questioned the depth or the sincerity of his conservatism. And, like David Keene, I find it remarkable that anyone would.

“Hard-fought nomination fights can be good for a party, but when one candidate and his supporters set out to deliberately distort the record of another, they can get ugly and help the opposition,” Keene said when the current race was getting started. “That seems to be happening in Wisconsin, where my friend, political ally and fellow conservative Tommy Thompson is being denounced by supporters of his primary opponent as a liberal of all things.”

Recalling their almost 50-year journey along the right edge of American politics, Keene says: “Tommy Thompson has a record to be proud of and while anyone in public life can be criticized for this or that decision, to call Tommy Thompson a liberal is just plain dumb!” 

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times.

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