Ex-Wisconsin Rep. Kastenmeier, early Vietnam critic, dies

AP News
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Posted: Mar 20, 2015 6:29 PM
Ex-Wisconsin Rep. Kastenmeier, early Vietnam critic, dies

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Bob Kastenmeier, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin whose 32 years in Congress were marked by his early and staunch opposition to the Vietnam War, died Friday. He was 91.

Kastenmeier, a World War II veteran who represented the liberal Madison area starting in 1959, had been suffering from heart problems and died at his home in Arlington, Virginia, said his wife Dorothy. She said her husband's main interest had always been world peace, "and I think the people will remember him for that."

Kastenmeier's incessant pursuit of civil rights, nuclear disarmament and openness in government became a symbol of Madison's political climate during the 1960s and 1970s. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War, and even brought a House subcommittee to Madison to hold hearings on how the war was affecting his constituents.

"He was one of very few in Congress who took a firm stand initially," said state Sen. Fred Risser, 87, a longtime friend who campaigned with Kastenmeier. "He underwent considerable criticism for it from a number of people."

"He was probably one of the most outspoken people in the House on that issue," added former U.S. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, who worked as a Kastenmeier campaign volunteer and eventually served with him in Congress. "He thought it was a futile war."

Kastenmeier maintained his anti-war stance after he left office. He opposed the U.S. invading Iraq, saying that had President George W. Bush been president during the Cold War, his policies would have led to a nuclear holocaust.

"Let me be very clear: I do not support the war against Iraq," he said in 2002. "I am appalled by President Bush's obsession with it."

Kastenmeier was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also was a specialist in copyright legislation — in 1976, he led the passage of the first revision of the nation's copyright law since 1909.

He also favored the impeachment of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, and directed the drafting of rules that governed impeachment hearings in 1974. He even persuaded the House Judiciary Committee, of which he was a ranking member, to separately vote on each article so each charge would be openly discussed, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A native of Beaver Dam, a city in south-central Wisconsin, Kastenmeier served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946, and was a veteran of World War II. He later earned his law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1952. He began his congressional career later that decade, but in a surprise defeat lost his seat during the 1990 election to Republican Scott Klug.

Despite being out of office for nearly 25 years, Kastenmeier remained a keen observer of the political scene in both Wisconsin and Washington. In an interview published by The Capital Times last week, he said the U.S. apparently didn't learn its lessons from Vietnam.

"There are far too many trouble spots in the world," Kastenmeier said. "And we must always remember what history has taught us, that it's always very easy to get in, but terribly hard to get out."

But he closed on an optimistic note: "Don't give up the ship," he said. "There are better days ahead."

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Associated Press writer Jeff Baenen reported from Minneapolis.