In academic circles, William Cronon is a star.
The 56-year-old is the incoming president of the American Historical Association. A former Rhodes Scholar, he is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas professor at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin is snooping through his University of Wisconsin email account. A GOP spokesman said only that it is a lawful effort “to seek information about their government.”
Under the state’s open records law, the snooping is legal. But it also is chilling. If a political party can do this to an academic star, what will happen to other professors and teachers who haven’t been a Rhodes Scholar or a Danforth, Guggenheim and MacArthur foundation scholar?
The Republican interest in Cronon started with a blog he published urging a fuller look at the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group promoting and drafting legislation in state capitols across America.
A few days later Cronon authored an article that appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times questioning the GOP rush to change collective bargaining law in Wisconsin.
“The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency,” wrote Cronon.
Then the professor mentioned Joe McCarthy in the same sentence with Gov. Scott Walker.
“Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — may explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered,” wrote Cronon.
Later, as the GOP pressed forward, Cronon said the GOP was “trying to intimate me.” He suggested it was a “McCarthyite tactic.”
Actually the “Cronon affair,” as some have dubbed it, sounds more like something out of the Nixon era. It seems more akin to Nixon’s worries about enemies that produced botched break-ins at a psychiatrist’s office and at Watergate.
Nixon had power as does the Wisconsin Republican Party. Snooping through email seems unnecessary with that power. But power sometimes brings paranoia.
McCarthy’s name triggers strong reactions. It has been that way for more than a half-century.
But Walker ought not to fret about a link to the McCarthy memory. It’s not new.
In 1961, the University of Wisconsin Press reissued the autobiography that Robert M. La Follette wrote in 1911. A storm erupted when one reviewer said he saw strains of Old Bob in McCarthy.
La Follette clearly was self-assured. He had a strident tone, made enemies and bordered on being a demagogue.
Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.