When Did Tim Pawlenty Know He Wanted to Be President?

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The former Minnesota governor tells a reporter that he's not sure when he made the call -- and that's refreshingly normal

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Were I running for the presidency, and a reporter asked when I decided to seek America's highest office, I'd pause while biting my lower lip, look wistfully into the middle distance, and tell how the dying wish of my grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran, was that his only grandson would serve his country whenever its citizens decided that he was the best man for a job. "I've honored that wish since my first campaign for the City Council," I'd say. "And if the people honor me by selecting me as their president, who am I to question or refuse the nation that has given me so much?"

Of course, that's a made up story. (The presidential candidate version of myself would be an artificially tanned liar with bleached white teeth). But contrived grandiosity is apparently what journalists want in these situations. In a recent interview, for example, Michael Crowley asked former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty when he decided he wanted to be president, and related the response:

He answers in less than grandiose terms, explaining how he'd set up a political-action committee in 2009. I try again, saying I am curious about when he first imagined himself worthy of the history books, ready to send soldiers to their deaths and endure the national stage's harsh toll. "I don't know," he replies. "I wish I had a good answer for you on that." Pawlenty says it is not an idea that crossed his mind 15 or 20 years ago but that as he considered life as a relatively young ex-governor, he felt obliged not to take the easy path and "go make some money and play hockey and drink beer." He adds that he almost didn't run at all. "Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call," he says, mentioning his wife of 24 years. He adds with a laugh, "It could have gone the other way for all the reasons you're suggesting."

Matt Yglesias, Allahpundit, Ben Smith, Grace Wyler, Juli Weiner, and others seem to regard this answer to be worthy of mockery, as if presidential candidates should create a nice story about "the moment they knew." Of course, often as not there isn't a discrete moment when someone resolves on a big life decision. Maybe the honest answer is, "I don't know when it first occurred to me, and to start out it was probably just a fleeting thought about what it might be like to run. Then one day -- I couldn't tell you when it was, but sometime in the last few years -- I thought, what if I did do that? That was shortly before a death in my family, which really occupied all my thoughts for awhile there, and then..." In other words, sorta like the answer he gave.

In the same way that romantic comedies shape our expectations about relationships in unrealistic ways -- "I knew from the first time I saw him that we'd spend our lives together" -- the conventions of presidential elections cause us to imagine that there should be some compelling narrative version of what brought someone into the race. Fine. Most politicians play along. But I fail to see why giving an honest answer instead is discrediting. To me, it's preferable. We expect our candidates to expertly craft these narratives, but they don't actually bear on whether they ought to be elected.

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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