Tim Pawlenty: Working Class Stalwart or Typical Careerist?

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The former governor praises small town values but has lived the life of a member of America's career driven, meritocratic elite

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Where Tim Pawlenty grew up, as he tells it, most guys worked hard during their shifts in the stockyards, stopped for the day at 5 p.m., and got their weekends off. They bought beer on Friday nights, played Saturday morning hockey, or took their families to the lake. "South St. Paul was a place where neighbors mattered, where family mattered, where church mattered, where respect for things mattered," he wrote in his autobiography. "Everywhere you turned, you saw hardworking, fun-loving people, doing whatever they could to get by, most all of them living by the rules."

On the campaign trail, Pawlenty taps into nostalgia for that sort of small town lifestyle. In his own life, however, he has taken a different approach: ever since graduating college, he's been in professions and worked hours associated with the high achieving graduates of competitive colleges rather than blue collar middle America. Times change. Folks in small town Minnesota are nostalgic for the 1950s and 1960s partly because some appealing aspects of that lifestyle are no longer available, even for those who'd choose them. Even so, had he wanted to do so, Pawlenty could have lived a lot more like his parents than he has. Truth be told, his commitment to the culture he extols is belied by his life choices. That won't hurt him politically, because Americans demand a consuming work ethic and a certain kind of outsized ambition from their leaders, however much we pretend to be enamored of normal, down to earth people.

This contradiction is present in most every candidate who touts their "real American" bona fides. Take Sarah Palin. For all her talk of Wasilla values, her life story is one of unusual ambition and a single-minded focus on career advancement. It's no accident that she wound up with a seven figure contract as a pundit, multiple book deals, a reality television show, and a movie in the works -- and that having made a tidy fortune that could keep her in hunting gear and fishing tackle for life, she shows no sign of fading from the scene to enjoy a quiet life in the Alaska countryside.

In American politics, especially at the national level, there is no escaping career-driven ladder climbers. It's not discussed, even when candidates hoodwink voters by pretending their values are different, because journalists are often blind to the contradiction, being career oriented people in a subculture where 60+ hour work weeks and ambitious ladder-climbing is taken for granted.

This isn't to say that roots are irrelevant -- Pawlenty doubtless has more insight into working class life than George W. Bush or Donald Trump -- or that his life story isn't basically appealing. Raised by a truck driver who was later promoted to dispatcher and a mother who was mostly a homemaker, he fondly remembers helping his hardworking father when he had to do inventory at the truck yard on weekends or take an odd job in order to earn a bit of extra money. He and his father would watch TV together in the living room, take weekend trips to his uncle's vacation cabin on a Minnesota lake, or just sit around on Saturday afternoons in a local saloon:

He genuinely seemed to enjoy my company, and he always found something fun for me to do. I appreciated that. "You got nothing to do? Let's hop in the car and go look at minibikes," or "Let's go see your Uncle Delmer," or "Let's go down to the airport and watch the planes come in," or "Let's go down to the Coop for some fried chicken." This was years before psychologists and experts started talking about spending "quality time" with your kids--something my dad and I certainly shared. But the thing I think I appreciated most about my dad is that he also shared quantity time with me. He was around. My dad came home for lunch most days.

That's a nice phrase: "Quantity time." Pawlenty later wrote that "the overwhelming thing I remember about my childhood is that my mom and dad were both there." As a husband and a father whose wife also had a high-powered career, however, it seems safe to surmise that Pawlenty was around less for his own kids, which isn't to say he's a bad parent. Forced to wager, I'd put money on there being no better dad in the race -- he seems to be a capable and loving, and even coached his girls' soccer games for awhile. What I'm saying is that he extols his upbringing but raises his own kids differently. He chose to be a full time corporate lawyer who also spent his free time working on political campaigns, kept his law job while serving as a part time legislator in Minnesota, and ultimately transitioned into two terms as governor, a 24/7 job if ever there was one. Insofar as every major elected official must sacrifice time with their family for the job, Pawlenty did too. Put another way, it's career more than anything else that received the "quantity time" in his life. The passage in his autobiography that best illustrates this is as follows:

There was one night during that '88 Durenberger campaign when I was up in the middle of the night, working feverishly after what had already been a long day, or more likely a series of long days. Mary leaned into the doorway of our little home office and begged me to stop and get some sleep. She was genuinely worried about my health as she watched the long hours I was putting into the campaign. And I told her, "Mary, after this campaign is over, things are going to be different. It's gonna calm down. It'll be better -- just after this campaign." In the coming years I would find myself repeating that mantra often. "After this campaign," or "After this legislative session, things will slow down."
Sometime in the late 1990s, in the middle of a similar late-night work session, I repeated a similar response to my wife's "you need to take a break" request, and she said, "Tim! You've been saying that for a dozen years!" We both had to laugh. It was true! That cycle of extremely hard work followed by a period of rest that would never quite materialize became the pattern of our lives -- and that line of mine about things slowing down has carried on as a standing joke between the two of us.

This approach was partly a matter of being hardworking and having perseverance, values Pawlenty was taught as a kid. But the relentless focus on career matters? The ambition to make more money or ascend one more rung on the political ladder, long after your family has  enough to survive comfortably? Admire it or hate it, the mindset is that of the modern ruling class. 

Remember what Pawlenty said when Michael Crowley asked about his decision to run for president? "As he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor," Crowley wrote, "he felt obliged not to take the easy path and 'go make some money and play hockey and drink beer.'"
Is there any quote that better demonstrates how different Pawlenty is from other sons of South St. Paul? He almost makes it sound like a personal failing to make some money, play some hockey, and drink some beer! That's noteworthy since what's also implied in that lifestyle is more time with the family, trips to the lake, attending church in the same place every Sunday, etc.

Perhaps it's good that every presidential candidate is of this type. It seems to be a job that requires almost superhuman stamina. But maybe Americans find it hard to balance work and life not only due to changing economic realities and technology, but because our politics and culture are both shaped by the folks for whom the rat race worked best. We pretend otherwise, telling ourselves that what we need is a regular American as president -- the kind of person who prefers a beer with the guys or family weekends at the lake to hobnobbing with elites in Davos or Washington, D.C.

But folks who actually prefer that life are living it, not running for president -- and if they filed the appropriate paperwork, do you know what would happen? We'd totally ignore them in favor of stories on Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and other high achieving political celebrities.

I am not just talking about what the press would do. I am talking about the public too. Web traffic and presidential polls don't lie. What American voters demand are hyper-career driven people who pretend to be normal. Thus politicians like Pawlenty play up their nostalgia for a life that they could have had but rejected. Perhaps if we accept that we're going to be governed by abnormal people who often put career ahead of family, friends, religion, and/or leisure, we can be more attuned to the actual world view of elected officials, and better compensate for their blind spots.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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