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.

As far as I can tell, the endlessly repeated narrative of growing up around blue collar people when their industry went bust builds to no special Pawlenty insight or policy proposal (even a counterintuitive one). There's never even a hint that he has an opinion of who was right during the major labor versus union battles that happened in meat packing. So why does he tell these stories? Is Pawlenty's emphasis on growing up around blue collar workers meant to signify anything of substance?

Is the mere fact of it sufficient to win votes?

THE THEME

Reform, renewal, and recovery will demand courage and patience. But so does everything worth pursuing in this world. The path before us will be difficult--but it always has been. After all, if freedom were easy, everyone would be free. But they're not. We are free because, throughout our history, Americans have embraced the virtues of individual responsibility, integrity, courage, and faith in God.

As Pawlenty came of age, his family faced tough times: his mom died; his dad was heartbroken, and got laid off not long afterward; he was heartbroken too. "I could turn down a dark path filled with self-pity, or I could choose a positive path," he wrote. "I knew I could draw upon the example of my parents, two people who lived lives of hard work, strength, joy, perseverance, and faith. I was convinced that despite my mother's death, God loved me deeply and had a plan for my life. I spent the better part of the next two years under a cloud, but one thing that helped was focusing intently on schoolwork, as it was the one measurable step I could take down the path of purpose."

What a trying circumstance - and an admirable response. This is the likable Pawlenty with the good upbringing and sound character. It is understandable, given those experiences, that he defines courage as follows: "Courage is the will to move forward in a positive direction even in the face of life's most difficult circumstances." Would steadfastness or resilience be a better word? Sure. And there's courage involved too. But the thinking here grows more problematic when courage is cast as the central theme of the book and the primary answer to the country's problems.

Fixing the United States won't be easy, the reader is told:

But America was built on grit and courage, on the backs of men and women who have been willing to shoulder the weight of the seemingly impossible tasks laid out before them, and who have only grown stronger in the face of obstacles and opposition. Every one of us has that courage inside us. The courage to do the right thing. The courage to say, "No" when everyone else says "Yes" - because we know it's the right thing to do; and the courage to say "Yes" to what's right, even in the face of staunch opposition. It comes down to the courage to stand up for what we believe in, as well as the courage to simply stand up - no matter how many times we're knocked down. Calling upon that courage when it's needed most is the American way.

America has a civic creed, and it concerns life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness more than courage. I am sure our people are as brave as any, but being more prosperous than most we have less occasion to test it.

Truth be told, it doesn't even seem like Pawlenty himself has led a particularly courageous life. He grew up during the post World War II boom to a mother and father who loved him, and had an idyllic childhood up until the death of his mother. True, he dealt with the grief at her passing in the best way imaginable, and worked his way through college, an admirable achievement that ought not be minimized. Thereafter, however, he took the least "courageous" career path imaginable - unsure what to do after college, he went to law school knowing it would pay off financially, then went to work for a corporate law firm. He worked long hours, made good money, married an awesome wife, had two awesome kids, and won a lot of Minnesota elections in a row.

Courage is an attribute Americans think a president should have, and I am not saying that Pawlenty lacks it. But a more accurate biography theme would be, "Well Adjusted Man From Loving Family Is Hardworking, Unlikely To Do Anything Terribly Objectionable, And Possessed Of More Wisdom Than Average." That ought to be more appealing than "courage" at this point.

I wonder if pressure to demonstrate courage caused Pawlenty to write nonsense like this: "I took the job of leading Minnesotans through one of the most trying and difficult periods of change the state has ever known." Really? More difficult than settling Minnesota? Worse than the Dakota War of 1862, or when the state sent 22,000 to fight in the Civil War? More trying than the aftermath of the Great Hinkley Fire of 1894? The Great Depression? The World War II years? The closure of the meat packing plants that Pawlenty saw during his own childhood? He led the state through a time far more prosperous by most measures than most of its history.

Similarly dubious is claiming that "courage" is what America needs to get back on track when your agenda is opposition to raising taxes, significant cuts to entitlement spending, and strengthening public education. These may well be the correct policy prescriptions for a more prosperous tomorrow. Unless you're poor enough to rely on entitlements, however, how does advocating them require courage? I don't see how, and least of all from the politicians involved. Come 2013, either Barack Obama or Tim Pawlenty, or possibly both, are going to have lost a presidential election... at which point they'll both return to a comfortable house, a loving wife, two wonderful daughters, a healthy bank account balance, lucrative opportunities in numerous professions, and every measure of security anyone could ever want. It's time to stop pretending that modern heads of state require courage. Riding into battle on the lead horse they ain't.

THE POLICIES

This is the most disappointing section of the book. A work of this length affords an opportunity to give expansive thoughts on policy, but we basically just find out that Pawlenty is a social conservative, adamantly opposed to raising taxes, favors free trade, and is vague on foreign policy, where he has the same weak criticisms of President Obama - he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism! He isn't tough enough in his rhetoric! - as the rest of the Republican field.

Here's a typical passage:

President Obama will not call this effort what it is. He has stopped using the phrase "war on terror." His administration never makes pointed references--or any references--to the real problem: radical Islamic terrorism. Apparently that isn't politically correct. The fact is, radical Islamic terrorism exists. Pointing that out doesn't condemn all Muslims. But there is an element of Islam that is radical and that has terrorist intentions. We need to call it what it is. We need to confront it, and we need to defeat it.

Pitted against Obama in a televised debate, where the president talks about killing Osama bin Laden, sending drones into Pakistan, "kinetic military action" in Libya, increased troop strength in Afghanistan, and whatever else is going on as Election 2012 draws near, the GOP nominee is going to need something better than, "You don't refer to all the things you're doing with the appropriate rhetoric." Especially if the opponent's foreign policy experience is limited to a few trade missions, attending military funerals, and commanding the Minnesota National Guard during a bridge collapse. I continue to think it makes more political sense to run to Obama's left on national security.

Pawlenty will have a tough time doing that.

CONCLUSIONS

Pawlenty did himself a favor by writing this book. He has an appealing life story, even if he doesn't effectively connect its narrative to the policies he wants to implement, and I imagine that the average reader will come away marginally more likely to vote for the man. Despite my general distaste for campaign books and my specific criticisms, that's true of me. But if the theme and policy arguments on offer were previews of what we're going to see in the campaign, I think the farthest Pawlenty can go is winning the Republican nomination. In that contest, he ought to be a satisfying choice for both economic and social conservatives, and as yet he hasn't said anything particularly offensive to libertarians. But a general election victory requires more than telling conservatives everything they want to here about the country and what's necessary to fix it.

Near the end of the book, Pawlenty says America once again needs a leader who is going to tell the people, "We can put this back together. We can do this. We're going to return to American common sense. We're going to return to an American can-do attitude. I'm going to shoot it to you straight, and I'm not going to go back on my word." Yes. We. Can! See the problem? He's calling for a cheerleader in chief. Would anyone choose him for that post? Pawlenty is nice, decent, and seemingly capable. He isn't inspiring, though, even when he tries really hard:
 

Even if you think that commercial works for Pawlenty, the fact is that Jerry Bruckheimer won't be in the control room during the presidential debates - or the hypothetical Pawlenty First Inaugural. I don't see how this guy can beat President Obama if he insists on platitudes and slick slogans. With policies a bit more specific, and critiques a bit more thoughtful? Given all that, a nice guy from Minnesota would seem to have as good a chance at victory as anyone else on offer. And he probably wouldn't make a bad president, even if I'm as yet undecided about whether he'd make a good one. It's a good sign that after telling Iowans that ethanol subsidies must go, Pawlenty eschewed calling it courageous, and instead merely said that he'd always tell the truth.

Can he continue to play on his strengths, recognize his limitations, and make sorta boring work?
 

Image credit: Reuters

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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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