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The character 'Tim Pawlenty' doesn't explain the conservative Tim Pawlenty

Courage to Stand

I freely confess, I haven’t read "Courage to Stand,’"Tim Pawlenty’s autobiography, the promotion of which is one of our ex-governor's main current excuses for running around the country divulging that he is seriously considering running for president. The book is, of course, written to stand as a campaign book, telling about his life while laying out his issue positions on the chance that he decides to seek the Repub 2012 nomination.   

But David S. Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix read it and took it seriously enough to write a book review on it, a really terrific review, I thought, that generally makes one main point. TPaw tells us about his life, his family, his adventures and some of the people he has encountered. It seems to Bernstein to be a life that would likely produce a liberal Democrat. And yet Pawlenty makes very clearly that he is an unwaveringly conservative Republican. Still, at least according to Bernstein, he doesn’t tell us why.

Bernstein adopted a device to make his point. Assuming that a book written for the particular purpose of this one isn’t to be taken too literally, he treats it as a sort of a novel and "Tim Pawlenty" as the protagonist.

“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…

"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. ...

“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. ...

"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.) ...

"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.)”

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Comments (5)

Remember your column on the Lakoff analysis of political speak?

Bernstein is thinking like a liberal and looking for a rational link between Pawlenty's heartfelt story and conservative stance. But the book is meant to appeal to conservatives, for whom such a link is irrelevant. You said it yourself: "Conservatives/Republicans understand that winning the argument in political terms is not about argument but about marketing."

It's very easy to think that this book is a self-serving fluff piece, created to garner favor among conservatives and thus guarantee T-Paw's continuing employment promoting conservative causes. It is entirely consistent with his prior actions. There's no real substance or philosophy present, just an unwavering ability to say no to those in need, to benefit he and others upon whom life has shed its gifts and benefits. Not a very "Christian" attitude, but it serves him personally very well. I wonder if his parents would be proud?

No doubt, after doing the wonderful job he did to help those hometown folks he remembers so fondly as their community went through the very challenging economic shifts of the past few decades, former Governor Pawlenty will want to retire to live among them after his (I'm not really running for president yet) bid fizzles.

I'm sure they'll be deliriously happy to have the opportunity to reward him for all he's done for them by surrounding him with love and appreciative accolades just to help him feel better.

An interesting piece, Eric. I haven’t read Pawlenty’s book, either, and don’t intend to. Campaign biographies by the people doing the campaigning are, almost by definition, self-serving.

Not having read any other campaign biographies, I have no idea how typical Pawlenty’s lack of explanation for his conservatism might be – “typical,” by the way, regardless of party or political affiliation. Do we expect, or even want, our political leaders to be introspective enough to have that sort of self-knowledge? Given that campaign biographies of this type are usually written as “preaching to the choir” documents, it doesn’t seem likely to me that there’d be very much inside the covers that would explain the process by which candidate ‘x’ acquired or formed the political views under consideration in the book, just the usual confident assertion that “this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

One of the problems, Ray, with conservative right wing thought (of which Pawlenty is to the right) is that facts tend to get in the way of their policies. That's why people like Bernstein are looking for a link from his personal life story. Unfortunately, he doesn't find one. That means we can't find justification for his political views from either his own biography or the misinformation conservatives are forced to use in explaining their contorted reasoning to the middle class. The author still comes up clueless why Pawlenty still supports the financial deregulation that precipitated our disasterous recession and near depression or fights for repeal of health care that if successfuly destroyed, will only enrich insurance comnpanies and their executives at the expense of almost everyone purchasing health insurance. Just looking for answers, Ray, and the book, according to Bernstein, still doesn't supply them.