The Book On T-Paw

Tim Pawlenty -- or, more accurately, "Tim Pawlenty," the character in Courage to Stand: an American Story loosely based on the Minnesota Governor -- comes across as very likable. He's an aw-shucks guy from a small town, self-confident but not conceited, principled but not stubborn, deeply religious but not preachy. He loves hockey, and his family, possibly in that order. He tells happy tales of youthful antics that he would never allow his own children to engage in. He admires his father and adores his mother, who died when he was 15. And, when necessary, he applies his leadership skills to public service -- and just might feel called to do so again in the upcoming 2012 Presidential contest.

How closely this character resembles the real Pawlenty is largely moot; campaign-launch memoirs of this type are always best taken as works of fiction -- part of the marketing process of creating a national candidate.

Like the best first-person novels, these memoirs also usually paint a portrait more complex than the protagonist intends. Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, with its deeply unlikable narcissist seeping through the narrator's intended flattering self-portrait, rivals anything Philip Roth could conjure. Mitt Romney's Turnaround similarly revealed an overprivileged, deceitful manipulator through his own words ostensibly to the contrary.

The narrator of Courage to Stand is also far more interesting, in the reading, than the surface story he presents. Likable as he is, "Tim Pawlenty" is a strangely oblivious character who floats through life, never connecting the world he experiences around him, with the world as he imagines it in his political ideology.

Pawlenty's politics are unusually cold-blooded toward those who receive any government help. From the book's second paragraph he is denouncing (in the context of Greece) people "addicted to entitlements and living the good life off the government dole." That attitude continues throughout. He seems genuinely disgusted by "people who have money in their pocket that they never had to work for" (this apparently does not apply to inherited money, which he thinks should not be taxed); people who "feel entitled to get paid... as if it's the government's job or someone else's duty to provide for them." His policy sections are devoted almost exclusively to the end goals of shrinking government and lowering taxes; there are rarely any positive functions of government discussed, nor any regret for, or even awareness of, the effects of government cuts.

Pawlenty displays a child-like sunshiny incuriousness at those around him. Take his beloved Grandma Rose, who raised 10 children including Pawlenty's father, and whose husband died when Pawlenty was four. "I've often thought what it would take to raise ten kids... on a modest budget," Pawlenty briefly muses. But he is not actually interested in the answer, instead happily recalling that "God provided for Grandma Rose, and I don't remember her ever being anxious or expressing worry."

Indeed, anyone who isn't actively complaining strikes Pawlenty as happy and worry-free. He imagines his mother as a happy and fulfilled homemaker, never wondering whether she ever felt repressed or limited (or the effect of her father abandoning her at a young age). He sees only content workers toiling at the Armour and Swift & Co. meatpacking plants that dominated his hometown of South St. Paul.

In a particularly striking digression, Pawlenty tells of a "perennially pleasant" gentleman named Lafayette, who cleaned the underground parking ramp at the law firm where Pawlenty and his wife worked. It is unclear whether Lafayette is this man's first or last name, let alone anything about his personal life or circumstances, but after some years of noticing Lafayette's "genuinely positive attitude," Pawlenty asked him about it, and Lafayette attributed it to his faith in God. This makes Pawlenty feel wonderful; throughout the book Pawlenty sees virtually everything that has happened or might happen as entirely at God's whims and hidden purposes. In any event, that's the last we hear of Lafayette.

The life-story portions of Courage To Stand are filled with characters and experiences that never return to inform the governance-and-policy portions. It's not that his experiences should have made him more liberal -- people are perfectly capable of concluding that conservative positions are best at addressing real-world problems. What's striking is that Pawlenty makes no attempt to connect the dots at all between his real-life experience and his political beliefs.

For example, Pawlenty notes at several points that his father and other relatives were active union members. You expect, knowing his current hard-line anti-union stance, to see Pawlenty at some point struggle with the issue, and explain why he concluded they were wrong. Such soul-searching, or even justification, never comes. His anti-union stance seems completely divorced in his mind from the organization that ensured the wages, job security, and workplace safety of his father.

Elsewhere, Pawlenty hints that earlier detection, and access to then-rare diagnostic equipment, might have prevented his mother's tragic death from cancer in 1977. If this informs his later thinking on health care reform, you'd never know it.

In another odd digression, Pawlenty talks of being deeply moved by the words of an openly gay law professor, who later died of HIV/AIDS. The professor, quoting Mark Twain, advised his students to look beyond the letter of the law, and use their empathy to care about people affected by the law as individuals. Pawlenty notes that he has referenced that lesson in his own speeches at graduations; he does not indicate in that he ever applied that lesson in any way himself. (He also does not recall that beloved professor a few pages later, when casually expressing his opposition to same-sex marriage.)

There are plenty of examples, but the most obvious, gnawing throughout the book, is the collapse of his beloved home town of South St. Paul. Practically a "company town," it thrived entirely on the meatpacking industry, and thus suffered terribly when the plants shut down -- Pawlenty is struck, revisiting recently, at how bitter people are over the wound all these years later, and laments the community and psychological damage done.

This was taking place all around Pawlenty -- the Swift plant closed in 1969, when he was eight, and Armour left 10 years later -- but don't seem to interfere at all with his memory of the happy and contented citizenry of his idealized hometown.

More importantly, the book's reader can't help thinking that the lessons of South St. Paul are a perfect framework for discussing today's most pressing problem -- unemployment ruining lives and communities, with the strong sense that the old jobs are gone forever, and something must be done to prepare people for entirely new types of work. The meatpacking plants left because of larger-scale forces seemingly beyond anyone's control. (The built-up highway system, and advances in refrigeration methods, made it feasible to do the work closer to the cattle farms, rather than at South St. Paul's rail-and-river distribution node to the eastern cities -- not that Pawlenty expresses any interest in causes, other than an aside that high union wages probably contributed.)

The reader waits in vain for Pawlenty to do anything with that connection. Unemployment, to him, is something else -- a theoretical issue pertaining to corporate tax rates and burdensome regulation, and welfare addicts expecting handouts that only reinforce their shiftlessness.

So, where does this conservative philosophy come from, that seems to have been formed independently of Pawlenty's life experiences? It appears to have emerged within him, fully formed, as a teenager.

Here is as close as Pawlenty comes in the book to explaining the roots of his conservative thought:

When I was growing up, my family was largely apolitical. Yet as my brothers and sisters moved into early adulthood, because of their upbringing or life circumstances, I discovered they were largely what's called "lunch-bucket Democrats." Why I became a conservative so early is anyone's guess, but my steadfast views were on display immediately through the course of those kitchen-table debates with my dad or others.

What a fascinating character this "Tim Pawlenty" is, so dissociated from his self that he declares it is "anyone's guess" why he believes what he believes -- and believes very, very strongly.

We never get close, in Courage to Stand, to understanding why Pawlenty believes the check-list of conservative policy positions he holds. Instead, we get a sense that his bedrock principle is remaining unwaveringly loyal to those positions, whatever they may be and whatever mysterious process led him to them. He repeatedly tells us of the importance of standing firm, not wavering, never bending -- certainly not to political winds of change. (This is presumably to contrast with the famously flip-flopping Mitt Romney.)

Nor does Pawlenty shift when conditions around him change -- as they did when he became Governor and faced a $4 billion budget deficit. Pawlenty insisted on massive spending cuts, none of which he specifies in the book, because he will not, no way, no-how, go back on his vow against tax increases. Two years later, not facing a deficit, Pawlenty forces a showdown and government stoppage by proposing a tax cut along with spending cuts that he again fails to specify. (These unfilled blanks recur throughout the book. Pawlenty doesn't give a single example in his discussion of the dire need to slash federal spending; in describing the accomplishments of his four years as Minnesota House Majority Leader, all he writes is "we got things done.")

Not even the horrific collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis affects his thinking. After initially declaring that the bridge had been recently inspected, and no problems discovered, Pawlenty learned "that information would turn out to be inaccurate." Pawlenty says that he "relearned an important lesson that night" -- but not that slashing infrastructure budget might have been an error, but that he shouldn't say anything publicly that might come back to bite you.

Now, it's important to step back and note that this is not a character in a novel; this is a political candidate crafting a self-promoting story for a campaign. Tim Pawlenty is a real person, and there are limits to reading Courage To Stand as a novel, in which we tease out the inner life of the character "Tim Pawlenty."

I want to mention that because, reading this as a novel, I would argue that "Tim Pawlenty" cleverly, cautiously, reveals himself to us through two things that he, as narrator, tells separately and never connects -- but that we, the reader, understand are fully intertwined.

As I mentioned before, Pawlenty writes that he became interested in politics for the first time in 1976, when he became a devotee of Ronald Reagan, who was challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination.

That summer of 1976 was also when his mother became ill -- deteriorating over months until it became "truly debilitating." Only then did she see a doctor, who diagnosed her with the same ovarian cancer that had killed Pawlenty's aunt a couple of years earlier. She lived only another six months, during which time Pawlenty's father, having been promoted, "was in the middle of dealing with a truckers' strike"; the older sister ran the household. Not long after, his dad got laid off.

That diagnosis came in August, 1976 -- the same month as the Republican National Convention. Again, were this fiction, I would assume that we were meant to understand that young Tim Pawlenty, devastated by the loss of his mother, disappointed in his father's impotence to prevent it, found in Ronald Reagan and the conservative philosophy the strength, and sure answers, that were so absent in his real life. That would be the crucial nexus of character development, when the actual world, so painful, so purposeless, so inexplicable, became divorced from the political world, which provides rock-solid certainty, as long as you stick by your conservative principles.

But Pawlwenty is a real person, and not a character in a novel, so I don't know whether to read that conclusion into his story. He certainly never connects the death of his mother to his becoming a conservative in the book. He does write that this was when he learned to draw deeply on trust in God's will. That faith has not changed in the succeeding 35 years. Neither have his political beliefs. In fact, he seems to have changed very little since he was 16 years old -- and, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to remember everything from before that age as blissful small-town Americana, and everything since as progressive deterioration of the world. With only him having the courage to stand in place.

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