Does the Jason Kander Story Have a Third Act?

The once-future star of the Democratic Party is resurfacing with a memoir about mental illness. The question is whether it’s a prequel to his return to politics.

Jason Kander at Kansas City Community College
Photograph by Chase Castor for The Atlantic

There’s a saying, though it’s more of a whisper, that politicians are damaged people. That those who run for office have a pathological need for validation, that they’re willing to go to obscene lengths to get attention, even if it means putting themselves or their family at risk. Jason Kander is ready to admit that all of this is true.

You may remember Kander as the Millennial Afghanistan veteran who emerged on the national stage just under a decade ago. He was the clean-shaven, strong-jawlined Democrat who rapidly climbed the ranks in Missouri politics, and was soon seen as the left’s “next big thing.” He believed he was too. He gleefully racked up hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers and basked in the DMs that rolled in from new friends. Celebrities such as Chelsea Handler and Andy Cohen once threw him fundraisers. Kander was daring enough to explore a run for president at the age of 36. His idol, Barack Obama, even granted him a private meeting to discuss the idea. “Jason, you have what I had,” he recalls Obama saying. “You’re the natural.”

Kander was reminiscing about this chapter of his life as we sat in his black pickup truck waiting in the carpool line for his son, True, to come out of elementary school. He has a warm baritone and speaks with a midwestern lilt, sounding, one would imagine, as the Brawny paper-towel guy might if he showed up on a cable-news panel. Kander’s intonation also resembles Obama’s. When the two sat down, in the winter of 2018, the former president dispensed what Kander described as “tactical” campaign advice, as well as this maxim: Never believe your team’s hype about you, and never let a rival (or Fox News) get under your skin. Obama told Kander that if he was really going to run for president, he’d have to maintain a sense of who he was independent of the machine around him.

“I remember thinking, Yeah, this is a man who did that really well,” Kander told me. “And also thinking, I’m not very good at that.”

Kander paused his story as his son opened the passenger door and climbed in. True was wearing his baseball jersey; he had a Little League game that night—his dad is head coach. After dinner, on the drive to the ballpark, Kander blasted John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and bobbed along to its earworm chorus: “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play!” After the game, Coach Kander delivered a motivational speech to a semicircle of second graders. His wife, Diana, looked on, as did his daughter, Bella. Kander’s parents were there too, seated behind the backstop in folding blue lawn chairs. As the sky faded to pink, the scene coalesced into a comically wholesome portrait of old-fashioned Americana. Though he obviously did not become president, right now it seems as though Jason Kander has manifested a dream life back home in Kansas City.

The memoir he’s publishing next month, Invisible Storm, tells a darker, more complicated story about how he got here. Even people close to Kander—his friends and family members—told me they were shocked by what they read. Diana, for her part, said she’s less apprehensive about what reviewers will say than what their neighbors might think. The invisible storm of the book’s title is a reference to Kander’s struggle with PTSD, which derailed his political career. He’s now ready to offer a more complete picture of what happened. One way to interpret this decision is that he hopes his personal story can help others. You could also argue that he’s truly finished with politics and therefore has nothing to lose. A more cynical reader might view this project as Kander slyly setting the stage for a comeback. Maybe the fairest thing to say is that he’s undecided and in conflict with himself over his future.

Kander’s dad told me that, even though he was primed for what to expect, the story was still deeply painful for him to read. He said that the act of revealing these personal demons is something he himself “probably never would have done,” and that he’s in awe of his son’s courage. “Jason, particularly, and Diana, too, saw a real need for disclosure, and I’m very proud that they chose to do that,” he said.

“I’m also scared for them,” he went on, “because there are things in that book that will be thrown back at him for years to come if he ever decides to seek public office again. And he knows that.”

The following day, back at Kander’s house, as we began a conversation about the military’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, his left eyelid started twitching. This is one manifestation of his lingering PTSD. There are many. He prefers to not sit with his back to the door at restaurants. For years after his deployment, he had debilitating insomnia. When he was able to sleep, he battled night terrors. For a long time, he was consumed with obsessive thoughts about home invaders. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, he’d stalk his house with a loaded gun.

Kander maintained a politician’s eye contact and sat ramrod straight in the bedroom turned home office he and Diana share. But then his gaze drifted and his posture slipped as he started to talk about his problem, that four-consonant abbreviation. “It’s, like, right here,” Kander said, touching the back of his neck. He snapped his fingers behind his right ear in quick succession. “It’s just at me.” His giant schnauzer, Talia, shuffled into the room and rested her chin on his lap. Kander stroked her back. Doing so seemed to calm him down.

His current aim is to be the guy who conquered his mental-health challenges, the one who beat the beast. But he acknowledges that it would be a mistake to classify him as “cured.” That tension permeates many aspects of Kander’s life. Though his second act is rooted in publicly destigmatizing PTSD, he sometimes feels that he hasn’t earned his own PTSD, because he never killed anyone or faced grim combat conditions. His first book, Outside the Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage, was a classic golden-boy story, the sort of thing a politician writes in order to sand off many of life’s edges. The Kander on that cover was smiling in three different settings—no PTSD in sight. On this book’s jacket, half of Kander’s face is obscured by a shadow. Though you’ll still notice some political platitudes, his new prose is filled with dark humor that occasionally crosses over into self-loathing: “I still don’t know how much of my political career was about fighting battles to help others and how much of it was about fighting battles to convince myself that I wasn’t a piece of shit.”

I found him extremely generous with his time, almost to a fault. He has a need for everyone in the room to feel comfortable. Within a few hours of our meeting, as the outside temperature kicked up above 90, he looked down at my jeans and offered me a pair of his shorts. (I politely declined.) His house is big and bright, with a general “live laugh love” sentiment. A supportive column in the kitchen is stenciled with inspirational reminders: IN THIS FAMILY WE DO ENCOURAGEMENT, WE DO FUN, WE DO 2ND CHANCES … (It keeps going like that for nearly two dozen lines.) The smiles and laughter around the dinner table counterbalance all the other stuff Kander is still working through.

Late last summer, he was on the phone with an Afghan ally at the Kabul airport, trying to get him and his family out of the country after the Taliban takeover, when a bomb exploded in the background. The man survived, but his wife, who was pregnant, had a miscarriage. The distraught Afghan later texted Kander a photo of his stillborn baby. Kander, who is among the many U.S. vets still working to resettle refugees, began to feel that familiar tension in his neck. Sometimes, he said, PTSD feels like a constriction in his chest, like a too-tight garment. “At some point it went from triggering to newly traumatic,” Kander told me of the phone call. His eyelid spasmed as he said the word triggering.

Not long ago, he returned to regular therapy sessions at the VA. “Sometimes it will disrupt your life, and you have to deal with that,” he said, referring to PTSD. “Right now, it’s disrupting my life.”

Four years ago, after that life-changing conversation with Obama, Kander began soft-running for president. A few months later he swerved, opting instead to try to become mayor of Kansas City. Everyone around him was baffled. “I knew something was very wrong,” Kander’s father told me. “And I had written him a couple of emails saying, ‘What’s the deal? This doesn’t make sense.’ But I never really got a response to that.” That fall, when Kander was outraising the competition and seemed poised to win, he swerved again. In October 2018, he released an 800-word statement announcing that he was withdrawing from the mayoral race. This letter was the first time he disclosed his PTSD, and how serious it was: He revealed that he had recently called the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line because he was having suicidal thoughts, and that it wasn’t the first time.

The funny thing about publicly coming forward with a deeply personal problem is that you’re suddenly expected to talk about it in any setting. Along with the Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Kander is one of the most recognizable people in all of Kansas City. Strangers sometimes stop him at the grocery store to ask how he’s doing. One morning, as we ate breakfast in a strip mall, he was approached twice within 20 minutes. He dutifully stood and smiled and nodded as his eggs got cold.

Diana has to talk about the “it,” too. “When you share this stuff, and you don’t have to carry it around, it’s incredibly freeing,” she told me. “So I don’t want to say all the sharing is selfish, but it’s good for us not to carry it.”

Diana is a Ukrainian immigrant whose family fled the Soviet Union when she was a child; she and Jason were high-school sweethearts. Like him, Diana will hold your gaze directly for minutes at a time. She once practiced MMA fighting at a local gym, and still carries that vibe with her. Some days she talks about her husband’s journey with ease; other times it’s considerably harder for her. “When Jason told me that he was contemplating suicide, I was like …” Diana lowered her voice. She was standing at the kitchen counter, slicing a pear for True, who was fiddling with his iPad on the living-room couch.

“I reacted with shame,” she said. She began to cry. “Not the best tool in one’s arsenal. And now I feel like I know how to be there for somebody in a much different way.” She offered the metaphor of a person who’s drowning, how your primal instinct is to leap in after them to try to save their life. “It’s much better to throw the life preserver than jump in the water.”

Throughout Invisible Storm, Diana chimes in with her memories of certain events. She also reveals that her husband’s thoughts became her own—that she ended up developing secondary PTSD, a condition in which someone else’s trauma affects another individual. Whenever Jason was on the road, Diana felt too scared to even open the blinds. At night, she would lie awake in bed with a knife hidden under her pillow, convinced that a break-in was imminent. As she and I drove to the supermarket to pick up food for dinner, she told me about finally going to therapy herself.

I asked her how she would get through those particularly hard nights at home before she sought professional help.

“I would try to call Jason,” she said. “And if he wasn’t available, there was literally nobody else I could call—because nobody else knew.”

Why do so many people feel they have to hide their depression, or anxiety, or PTSD? I posed this question to Bryan Meyer, the CEO and a co-founder of Veterans Community Project, where Kander works as the president of national expansion. “I think that for some individuals—especially the Iraq and Afghanistan generation—it’s like, if I admit to having this, then somehow I am setting myself up for failure, because I’ll be either looked down upon or treated with kid gloves,” he told me. Meyer was in the Marine Corps for five years, a door gunner on a helicopter; his old helmet sits behind his desk. He also has PTSD. “We’ll run around here and talk about it openly,” he said. “And I think that that’s a very important part of the progress of the stigma around it.”

VCP, as locals call it, is a nonprofit aimed at getting homeless veterans off the streets. Kander has devoted most of his post-politics energy to the project, which is designed to be more user-friendly than the sometimes byzantine VA system: Any vet can walk into VCP and immediately receive services to help them make the transition back into civilian life. Across the street from its headquarters is a village of tiny houses where vets are invited to live free of charge. The plot of land is designed to look like an Army base. Many vets are relieved to just set up a mailing address. If you give someone a place to live, even a one-room studio, and provide them with basic services such as health and dental care, you restore their sense of dignity, Kander said. “If you got one tooth in your mouth, it’s a real impediment in a job interview.”

The military theme runs through VCP’s offices. Camouflage nets hang from the drop ceiling. Kander’s desk faces the doorway—another subtle manifestation of his PTSD. A vintage ’76 Bennington flag is draped on one wall and an AR-15 is mounted right below it. Guns have played a curious role in Kander’s life. After early success in the State House of Representatives, and later as Missouri secretary of state, Kander ran for U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Roy Blunt. In one viral campaign ad, he assembled an AR-15 while blindfolded, ostensibly in support of background checks, challenging Blunt to do the same. Though he lost the race, he cemented his reputation as a “different” sort of Democratic candidate, a military veteran from the heartland. Kander told me that, now that he’s a father, he no longer keeps any gun in the house.

Although he identifies as a progressive and recently participated in a live taping of Pod Save America, he mostly avoids politics when it comes to work. Hardly any of his VCP colleagues appear to be bleeding-heart liberals. Kander’s main objective is to use his Rolodex to fundraise so that VCP can open other sites around the country. “I’m raising money for something that is tax-deductible and nonpolitical” is how he starts a typical donor pitch. This framing, noble as it may be, doesn’t always work. Often the powerful rich people on the other end simply want to know if Kander’s going to hit the campaign trail again, and if so, when? Politicians such as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg—similarly youthful Democrats who did actually run for president in 2020—have both swung through VCP for Kander-guided tours. He disagreed with my sentiment that the three of them would fall into the same “bucket” if they all ran against one another some day. His politics, Kander said, are more in line with those of Elizabeth Warren, someone he considers a friend.

In this photo taken on Oct. 14, 2016, Democratic candidate from Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander participates in a campaign rally with Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in Kansas City, Missouri. (Reed Hoffmann/AP)
Jason Kander, then a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri, participates in a campaign rally with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in October 2016. (Reed Hoffmann / AP)

In multiple conversations, Kander insisted to me that Invisible Storm is not a precursor to a 2024 presidential announcement. But with each passing day, as pressure grows on Joe Biden to not seek reelection, Democrats are again on the lookout for their “next big thing.” And according to Kellyn Sloan, his right hand for more than a decade, Kander’s presidential future is a persistent topic of curiosity: “I don’t think that those calls have ever stopped.”

One lingering issue is whether Americans would be ready for a leader who is open about his mental-health challenges. I took this question to the CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who has long been supportive of veterans’ causes and developed a rapport with Kander during the latter’s brief stint as a commentator at the network. “The honest answer is I don’t know,” Tapper said. He noted that it was unlikely that previous veterans who have run for president, such as John McCain, didn’t also have some degree of PTSD, even if they didn’t publicly disclose it.

“The bigger challenge for Jason as a presidential candidate would be that he doesn’t currently hold elected office,” he went on. “It’d be easier if you were a mayor running than a non-mayor running.”

Kander has kept one foot in the world of politics by putting out a weekly podcast, Majority 54, that aims to fulfill the elusive task of getting progressives to “reach across the aisle.” At VCP, I asked Kander how it feels to know that some people view his every action—even his current work—as a political chess move. How will he respond to critics who say Invisible Storm is nothing more than a professional politician using his PTSD for self-promotion?

“It’s funny to think about people reading the book like that,” Kander said. “There will be a guy at the RNC assigned to read the book, right? And, like, write shit down. I assume there’s a guy who has to listen to my podcast. Poor guy.” He looked down at the floor for a moment, deep in thought. “You know, it’s funny, because I don’t really think about it through that lens, but some people will.”

If stepping away from political life was part of what helped Kander begin to heal, why jeopardize all of this progress? I asked his podcast co-host, Ravi Gupta, what he thinks about Kander’s potential dilemma. “The friend in me doesn’t want him to run,” he said. “The American in me does want him to run.”

One afternoon Kander and I sat in his kitchen scarfing “Z-man” sandwiches from Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, one of Anthony Bourdain’s “13 places to eat before you die.” The Z-man is an artery-clogging bacchanal of smoked brisket, provolone, onion rings, and barbecue sauce on a kaiser roll. Kander snuck bites of his Z between that day’s VCP donor calls. I was permitted to listen in on the condition that I didn’t record the conversations or reveal whom he was speaking with. I can say that I recognized virtually every name, and that you would too.

It was a fascinating exercise that proved, more than anything else during our time together, that Kander can’t ever really ditch the retail-politics traits that made him “the natural.” A new phone call started. The man who picked up on the other end had a southern accent. Knowingly or not, Kander let his own voice adopt a sympathetic twang.

A little while later, another potential donor asked him how he was doing. Diana was milling about in the other room. They were getting ready to pick up True from school. All four Kanders would be at the table for a home-cooked dinner that night.

“I’m doing good,” Kander said. He paused. “I had to think about that for a second. I’m doing good.”