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Hassett knew how to reach across the aisle

By Matt Pommer

A half century ago, Jack Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in western Wisconsin — then solid Hubert Humphrey country — ended up being driven around Dunn County in a car with a Nixon bumper sticker.

The driver was Paul Hassett, editor of the Dunn County News and chairman of the Dunn County Republican Party. Hassett would later become the top aide to Republican Gov. Warren Knowles and later chief architect and executive of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Hassett, who died this spring at the age of 92, would vote Republican that November, but he took Kennedy around the county, introducing him to business leaders and friends. It was an era of civility, long gone from the political scene. The bloggers and talk show partisans of today likely would see evil or partisan mischief in such action.

After Kennedy received his tour of the county, Hassett took him to his office at the Dunn County News. The typographer there previously had teased his boss that he only brought Republicans to the office. Hassett would remind his printer of the stop after Kennedy went to the White House.

Hassett enjoyed a special role with Gov. Knowles. Hassett had the authority to let a Knowles decision, if Hassett thought it needed another look, sit for 24 hours before it became final. It gave the governor a chance to think again if he wanted to make a comment or policy. Sometimes it meant sort of pleasing Knowles’ whims.

Knowles always thought the best way to campaign was to put his image on billboards. Hassett approved only two campaign billboards. One was between the governor’s mansion and the state Capitol and another near the entrance to the Madison airport.

Hassett had grown up in a poor family in Milwaukee during the Depression. It was a family familiar with bread lines, mourners were told. Hassett served in the military, flying both in China during World War II and later in Korea.

Many friends with gray hair joined the family for the funeral service. The older set came to say goodbye to a friend and perhaps remember another era of civility in politics, now lost in a much younger generation.

As executive of WMC, he spoke for business to politicians of both parties, and his civility made him welcome regardless of whether the governor was a Democrat or a Republican. That openness has eroded.

Hassett understood the role of newspapers. While serving as Knowles top man, a columnist in the Madison Capital Times authored a bitter, mean piece about Hassett. Hassett’s son-in-law urged him to demand a retraction or denounce the story.

Hassett demurred.

“He’s just doing his job,” Hassett shrugged. “I’ll talk to him later.”

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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