2008/12/25:Finding inspiration in activism - Citizen Action Wisconsin

Finding inspiration in activism: Scholar, leader of grass-roots group makes a career out of doing the unexpected

By Guy Boulton of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Dec. 25, 2008

Photo: Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Robert Kraig, director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, has long been a fan of politics,
as his poster and button collection in his Milwaukee office demonstrates.

Robert Kraig's job description last fall included appearing at presidential campaign rallies in Wisconsin with a person dressed in a cow costume.

The stunt was part of the "Got Health Care" campaign by Citizen Action of Wisconsin, a grass-roots group that largely focuses on health care reform, labor unions and other organizations.

That the program director for Citizen Action would be attending rallies dressed as a cow isn't surprising. Less expected is that Kraig also is the author of a book selected by The Wall Street Journal last month as the best study on presidential rhetoric.

The book, "Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman," was ranked first in a weekly feature that asks an expert to list the five best books on a topic.

But the two parts of Kraig's life - scholar and political activist - may be less incongruous than appears. He works at the intersection of ideas and politics, and he is someone who can talk about the intricacies of health policy one minute and about political strategy the next.

"I've always been interested in the connection between learning and education and thought and (social) action," he said. "And actually, Wilson was as well."

This is partly what attracted Kraig to Wilson, a scholar and university president who later became a politician.

"Woodrow Wilson and the Lost World of the Oratorical Statesman" was an outgrowth of Kraig's dissertation for a doctorate in rhetoric from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the product of 10 years of work - the last four spent in libraries from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. doing original research.

Kraig shares credit for the book with Stephen Lucas, his adviser at UW.

"He would make sure a 60-page chapter was 20 pages," Kraig said.

The next step for most people would be a job at a university. Kraig instead went to work as state political director of the Service Employees International Union. He wanted to be in the fray.

"And I had to be out of the fray more than I wanted when I was doing the dissertation," he said.

He ended up staying more than six years. About two years ago, he moved to Citizen Action.

Few people he works with on political issues know not only that he has written a book, but also that it's a respected one.

"No kidding," R.J. Pirlot, director of legislative relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, said when told of the book and its listing in The Wall Street Journal.

"Kraig harkens back to a nostalgic, sentimental account of Woodrow Wilson that reminds us of an olden mode of political oratory," said Elvin Lim, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University.

Lim, author of "The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric From George Washington to George W. Bush," was asked by The Wall Street Journal to compile the list of the five best books on presidential rhetoric.

Kraig's interest in rhetoric stems from his youth. He received a full scholarship for debate from the University of Pittsburgh.

Kraig's book, which sold several thousand copies, was temporarily out of stock after Lim's list appeared.

He hopes that Lim's praise will encourage the publisher, Texas A&M University Press, to put the book out in paperback. If it does, Kraig hopes to write a preface on President-elect Barack Obama's rhetoric.

For now, he will continue to focus on health care reform, an issue that appeals to his academic side.

"Health policy is wonderfully complex," he said.