A Veteran Senator Comes to Terms with His Gravest Fear: Defeat at the Polls

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

In political life there is a fate worse than death and taxes—and almost as inevitable: losing an election. For three-term U.S. Senator Gay lord Nelson, 64, the grim reaper came last fall, when be lost his Wisconsin seat to Republican Robert W. Kasten Jr. by a slim 40,000 votes (out of 2.2 million cast). For Nelson, a staunch liberal Democrat, it was an abrupt end to a political career spanning 32 years in office and 11 elections, including three successful campaigns for the Wisconsin State Senate and two for governor. Though stunned by his "great disappointment," Nelson is now recovering with the help of a $30,000 government pension—and a new job keeping him in Washington as the salaried director of the Wilderness Society, a 55,000-member national conservation group. It was a natural choice for Nelson, long the Senate's foremost environmentalist and the founding father of Earth Day. Recently, after a month in his new post, in which be finds himself in the sometimes awkward position of cajoling his old colleagues, Nelson discussed with PEOPLE'S Clare Crawford-Mason how be has come to live with his political defeat

Nobody likes to take a licking. When you've run for office 11 times, you've gone through the discipline 11 times of saying you're making as hard a fight as you can make but you might lose it. You've sort of steeled yourself to face up to the possibility of defeat. Still, after 32 years of doing what you most love to do in life, it's a substantial shock to face up to.

I felt all along this was a tough year. Even though three weeks before the election the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel showed me with 20 percentage point leads, I saw there were 14, 15 percent undecided, and I could anticipate a possibility of defeat. I thought the odds were against it, and they were. But then it fell apart after the President's debate with Mr. Reagan. You could feel it happen. At 10:30 election night, when I was carrying Milwaukee only 56-44, I knew it was all over. I was with my wife, Carrie Lee, my three children and eight or 10 friends. It wasn't until two o'clock in the morning when I was absolutely certain, and then I just said, "This is it, it's all over, we're defeated." There weren't any tears, and people went to bed about three o'clock. I thought it was particularly important to have the kids and family together then. Everybody did well, and I was proud of them.

You know, I've wanted to be in politics since the time my dad, a country doctor in northwestern Wisconsin, took me to hear Bob La Follette speak from the back of a train. I was 8 or 9 years old at the time. I remember I didn't understand the speech, but the gestures and the noise were impressive and on the way back my dad asked me whether I wanted to be in politics. I said yes, but that I was afraid by the time I grew up Bob La Follette would settle all the problems and there would be nothing for me to do. Thirty years later: in 1958, my dad was at the state Democratic convention in La Crosse. He was 81 years old, and he had a stroke that night, and I was a gubernatorial candidate and the keynote speaker. The last words he said to me were, "Do you think young Bob La Follette left enough problems behind for you to solve?" Since I was a boy I had dreamed about being in the U.S. Senate, but I never thought it would happen. And then it did.

So I've said to hell with the disappointment. It's in the past. I've had a marvelous career, I've enjoyed what I've done, and there's no reason to be fussing and worrying about what's past. When I lost, I did not permit myself to mope around about it. If you do that you're just eating away at yourself and spoiling your life. You have to say it's over with, and look into the future. Since I got the opportunity to get into the environmental field, which I had spent a political career on anyway, it hasn't been a big problem for me. I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I love it.

Of course it's different now. When I'm up on Capitol Hill and I see old friends in the Senate, I think it would be fun to be involved in the fight. Every time I've been over there when a roll call bell rings, all of a sudden I'm alerted to think that they're calling me, when the fact is, they aren't.

My staff people faced a shocker when I lost the election. They came to the Hill because they loved politics, and suddenly there are thousands like them around this town, and there aren't that many openings. I've tried to help with recommendations and telephone calls. That part is very troubling to me because, after all, I was lucky. There was no financial problem. My wife and I are pretty conservative and always save some money. And neither of us will miss invitations to the White House or embassies. They're the most boring events that anybody ever contrived. So are those obligatory dinners in the state where the senator is the guest of honor: three speakers, finally they introduce you at 10 o'clock at night, then you speak, and you've shot four or five hours, to say nothing of the time getting there and leaving, and it turns out to have been the 20th event by the same economic interest group around the state that year, and they're all the same. I won't have to go through that again.

Unfortunately, a large amount of the work of a U.S. senator has nothing to do with legislating. You're meeting every day with the state delegations that staff people could just as easily see. There are too many roll calls—600 one year, a tremendous waste of time. You also spend too much time running back to your state. The public demand to show yourself makes it impossible for a legislator to give serious thought to important issues.

But I miss the Senate. I love the legislative process and I love the participation in decision making, as who wouldn't? I've been involved in the biggest issues of the past 18 years—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam war, Earth Day and Watergate, and all the foreign policy and domestic issues. It's been a challenge and it's been fun.

You always wonder after a defeat whether you might have done more, campaigned harder, spent a little more time at it. But politics is such an all-consuming business that you must set some limits on how much you're going to do. I suppose it's becoming a job in which everybody ought to be single: Your constituents will be your family and you'll just be at it all day and all night, Saturdays and Sundays. But if that's the case, I'd say to hell with it, I'd give up the job before I'd be consumed by it and have no time for my family at all. My only regret is I didn't have more time with my kids as they were growing up.

For 18 years my wife has been going to the theater with friends or alone. Not long ago I told her we'll start going to the Kennedy Center together. Another thing: I've had a garden every year. The problem was that the Senate usually recesses in August, and when everything was coming into fruition, I'd be back in Wisconsin and the damn garden would turn into a weed bed. The time it needed attention, I wasn't there. Well, this year, I won't be gone, and instead of being beautiful for just June and July, that garden is going to be beautiful in August.

From Our Partners