Washington — It was some time in the early 1960s. Quietly, one of the great La Follettes - Philip - had returned home to practice law in Wisconsin after years in the East. As a relative youngster he had carved out quite a name for himself as a two-term Wisconsin governor back in the 1930s. His experiments in social legislation and government reform had caught the eye of the nation. Some had even become blueprints for New Deal initiatives.
Now, seated in his law office from which he could look out and see the State Capitol where he had served with so much distinction, La Follette talked about the old days when he had had ''so much fun'' being governor.
Well, the reporter asked, if he had found governing so enjoyable why not try it again? La Follette looked amused but said nothing. The reporter pressed him. La Follette went to the window where he commented, whimsically, that he thought he could see the then governor, Gaylord Nelson, at work. ''Who would want to have Nelson's job?'' he said. ''In my day you could bring creative thinking to the governorship. It was a moment when new ideas from our leaders were in heavy demand. It was a stimulating experience.''
''But now,'' he went on, ''about all governors can do is try to come up with enough revenue to pay for government expenditures. I call them housekeeping chores. It's not for me.''
Actually, in the years that ensued Governor Nelson found something other to do than simply finding money to pay for government services. He discovered his own field of creative activity - shaping landmark environmental legislation.
And now to the gubernatorial scene in Madison comes an attractive youngish Democrat by the name of Anthony S. Earl who, interestingly enough, says he considers himself a progressive liberal in the tradition of the La Follettes and former Governor Nelson.
''Tony'' Earl, as most people call him, looks a lot like Nelson in his earlier years as a politician. Further, he is a strong advocate of environmental protection.
Earl says he welcomes the challenge of dealing with Wisconsin's worsening economic climate. He told reporters over breakfast that he thought Wisconsin was in for ''rough sledding.''
Yet to look at Earl, full of enthusiasm for the job ahead, one might have concluded he was about ready to take up the joyful task of moving the state forward - rather than trying to cope with adversity.
Earl says he faces a $2.5 billion state deficit during the next two-and-a-half years. And what does he do about it? Somehow, he says, he must prevail upon the legislature to give him some large tax hikes and some budget reductions. He hopes that the current special session will extend the 5 percent sales tax and defer a new property tax relief program. From this, he says, he would hope to reduce the deficit by $1 billion.
Earl had been told, as a candidate, that his position in defense of environmental protection laws would cost him votes. Instead, he says, he found that this position was a political plus - that in general people in Wisconsin are aware such protection is needed to preserve the state's tourist business.
But it is clear that Earl, like all the state governors these days, is in no position to be an activist leader. Yes, he must use all his powers of personal and political persuasion to push through budget-related legislation. And he may find some innovative ways to deal with unemployment or raise revenue.
But for the most part governors today, and for many years now, have been responding to problems rather than initiating programs to improve the lot of their people. Maybe that's the reason so many who seek the governorship these days are rather nonimaginative, colorless individuals. There are few, if any, Roosevelts, Romneys, Scrantons, Connallys, or Reagans. Jerry Brown was colorful enough, but that's another story.
Tony Earl, for his part, is quite an attractive fellow. And he may be full of good ideas. But one has to wonder whether, after knocking his head up against the legislature a few times, he may not decide that being governor just isn't all that much fun - and that he would prefer to do something else.