Tim Pawlenty's Innocuous Book

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Rather than "Courage to Stand," it should be called "Well Adjusted Man From Loving Family Is Hardworking, Unlikely To Do Anything Terribly Objectionable"

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To introduce himself to America, Tim Pawlenty released an autobiography with his photograph on the cover. He is neither smiling nor frowning, just looking straight into the camera in the way an aspiring president might. The title is Courage to Stand: An American Story. Now that he's officially running it is useful in most ways a campaign book can be. There's a version of his life story, hints about how he wants to be seen by the public, and the broadest strokes of a policy agenda. It is perhaps the most endearing book ever produced by a corporate lawyer turned career politician. The reader cannot help but occasionally mutter, "That T-Paw is so gosh-darned nice."

Would the former Minnesota governor excel in the Oval Office? On that subject, the book is less helpful. Pawlenty, like most every other presidential candidate turned author, played it safe. In an effort to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, he tends toward platitudes where persuasion or insight would be preferable. In sum, what the book lacks is courage - the courage to challenge or offend some readers, if only to convince others that there is cause to desire Pawlenty's success, as opposed to merely thinking, "We could do a lot worse!" Some of the book's assertions are intellectually lazy or plain false, but in exactly the way that is true of almost every campaign book.

Judged within its peculiar genre, Courage to Stand is better than average. Were it written by someone who wasn't associated with high office, however, it would be sufficiently low on any list of biographies that no discerning person would get to it. Or so I think. Let's delve deeper and see if you're as ambivalent as I am.    

THE EARLY LIFE

From everything I saw as a child, the city of South St. Paul was a place where neighbors mattered, where family mattered, where church mattered, where respect for things mattered. Everywhere you turned, you saw hardworking, fun-loving people, doing whatever they could to get by, most all of them living by the rules and trying to do the right thing.

Based on his early years, Pawlenty is the kinda guy a lot of people would want in the White House, presuming the accuracy of the following things he wants us to know: he grew up with two brothers and two sisters in a small Minnesota town where most folks worked in meatpacking; his mom was a homemaker, his dad drove a truck, and he mostly remembers that he got to spend a lot of time with both of them; in his town, "even everyday guys who carried lunch buckets to work might be able to afford a little lake cabin;" and on Friday evenings, a brewery employee would drive around the neighborhood delivering beer to all the adults.

There's more. Everyone would go to church on Sundays before gathering at his grandmother's house for coffee, served to the kids with lots of sugar and milk; he spent not only quality time with his father, but "quantity time" too; sometimes when his dad worked weekends he'd go along to help, whether the task was inventory at the truck yard or odd jobs like cleaning out a trailer filled with rotten meat; sometimes his dad would take him into a local saloon on a weekend afternoon, where he would sip grape pop and listen to the men as they drank beer; he had a paper route; the meatpacking plant closed when he was nine, and he watched unemployment devastate the town and many of its people; his mother was a homemaker for much of her life; it took tremendous work to keep their one bathroom house clean, and to serve meals at the same time every day, but she did it; sometimes she worked part time at Christmas to help make ends meet; when he was in high school his mother got sick and died; her dying wish was that he attend college; he didn't know how he'd pay for it, but wound up with a partial scholarship and a job in the produce department of a local supermarket; with hard work, he graduated.

The appeal is straightforward: normal, loving parents give us well-adjusted, God-fearing kid sans issues, raised in a hometown right out of a Bruce Springsteen song. There are good times that evoke our nostalgia for a bygone America, and bad times that speak to adversity overcome. What does it mean, however, that Pawlenty grew up in a blue collar community, as every article about him tirelessly points out?

The answer we get is only partially satisfying.

One of his hometown's big meatpacking plants shut its doors in 1969, and though he was just 9 years old, the thousands of men left without work couldn't help but make an impression on him. "Watching how that plant's closing affected the adults around me made something very clear to me: a job is not just a job," he writes. "I suppose that's why I can't stand when jobs are reduced to nothing more than numbers and statistics. A job is, in many ways, an identity. Most people's lives revolve around their work... when a whole industry disappears, the loss is immeasurable."

It's a point he emphasizes with an anecdote. Visiting a church in his old neighborhood, Pawlenty runs into an old family friend. They catch up on one another's lives:

He said something that really struck me. "It's dying here in South St. Paul." I asked him how so, and he said there didn't seem to be anyplace to go anymore. "The stockyards took years to build up to number one, and then they just left us."

All I could think was, That happened forty years ago. Four decades later, it was just as fresh and painful for this man as it had been in the 1970s. He had worked for a while in one of the hide cellars, by all accounts a terrible place to work, yet he reminisced about Concord Street, calling it Boomtown, USA, and talking about the cattlemen who used to come in and close deals at the saloons over poker games. "It was great," he said.

"It was something else," I replied.

He was right. It was great. And I'll forever be grateful that I had a chance to glimpse some of that firsthand as a young boy. But the frightening reality that it could all disappear so quickly was a lot for a nine-year-old to absorb.

Here's what I don't understand. Politicians usually emphasize these anecdotes about the decline of industry in the Midwest and a job being "more than a job" when they're about to transition into populism. Here's this old guy, hurting 40 years later from a sudden economic dislocation. Don't you see the need for industry subsidies, or strengthening unions, or mitigating the harmful affects of foreign trade, or protecting American workers from cheap immigrant labor, or worker retraining, or even just buying American? Now, I agree with Pawlenty that most of those things are bad ideas. But I am an unelectable libertarian who dissents from the proposition that blue collar workers in the middle of the country - Iowa farmers, Detroit autoworkers, even Joe the Plumber himself - are more American, or more deserving of government help, than coastal media workers, or Hispanic immigrants, or second-generation Asian American small business owners.

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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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