D.J. Tice: Pawlenty's book offers the who, what, when, where -- but not why

  • Article by: D.J. TICE
  • Updated: January 10, 2011 - 8:53 PM

You'll know what he's about politically, but not how he came to be that way.

D.J. Tice with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's book, "Courage to Stand"

D.J. Tice with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's book, "Courage to Stand"

Star Tribune

Tim Pawlenty's book is a lot like Tim Pawlenty.

It is likable without being inspiring.

It is adamant without being harsh.

It is clear without being deep.

The book contains no big news -- no unambiguous commitment to a national candidacy.

Yet if confirmation were needed that this is a campaign manifesto, written to introduce Pawlenty as a presidential prospect to Republicans across the country, evidence might be found in the one feature of this self-revelation Minnesotans may find surprising.

That would be the author's outspoken religiosity, something Pawlenty as governor seldom displayed with such enthusiasm.

Except perhaps for the scripture-slinging, a Minnesotan can assure readers elsewhere that the Tim Pawlenty they will encounter in "Courage to Stand" is the same easy-going crusader we've watched play a pivotal role in state politics for the better part of two decades.

The book tells the story of a disarmingly ordinary guy with an extraordinary determination to make almost a complete political philosophy out of reducing government spending and taxes.

Minnesota readers, meanwhile, will notice something else if they're willing, for argument's sake, to grant two assumptions that will come more naturally to loyal Republicans in New Hampshire or Iowa than they do to Pawlenty's home-state critics.

Grant that Pawlenty has been entirely right in trying to cut Minnesota's state budget, and that his actions have been uniformly principled and nonpolitical, and his exploits really do take on a certain pluck.

He grows up humble and faithful in a broad-shouldered town perfumed by the world's largest stockyards; becomes the first in his family to get a college education (the dream of his prematurely deceased mother); wrests the GOP nomination for governor away from a wealthy establishment rival; survives, through candor and humility, a major campaign finance blunder; fights off spendthrift liberals through a succession of showdowns involving record vetoes, special sessions, lawsuits, a government shutdown and an "unallotment" crisis, and wins reelection by a whisker amid a nationwide bloodletting for Republicans.

Add the bridge collapse, the vice-presidential near-miss and more, and it's not at all a dull yarn -- nor an unimpressive conservative résumé.

While the book's version of this tale is plenty heroic, Pawlenty's tone is generally modest and always genteel. There are no long knives here. Obama gets roughed up, but entirely over matters of policy. Minnesota political figures -- Jesse Ventura, R.T. Rybak, Roger Moe, even Mike Hatch -- emerge almost without a scratch. The few villains described are not named.

One has the sense, in fact, that the nonpolitical parts of the book were the parts the author most enjoyed. Anyhow, many readers will feel that way.

Childhood in South St. Paul is lovingly and amusingly rendered. Pawlenty's portrait of his father gives off a warm aroma of truth. He pays a somewhat unexpected tribute to an openly gay professor who enlightened him.

And while his stories of heartwarming one-on-one encounters with ordinary citizens -- his efforts to comfort shaken storm victims, for instance -- may strike some readers as overdrawn and self-serving, many Minnesota journalists have seen those people skills in action.

The book, however, will disappoint readers looking for political philosophy, rather than political rhetoric and stories.

"Why I became a conservative so early on is anyone's guess," Pawlenty writes early in the volume.

And the "why" of his conservatism still requires some guesswork at the end.

It is clear as high noon what he thinks -- "America is spending blindly toward the edge of a cliff" -- but one searches mostly in vain for underlying economic, social and political ideas that persuade him spending cuts alone are is the only sane course ahead.

He cites Reagan, Lincoln and a few other standard heroes. But intellectual lodestars? Burke? Hayek? Toqueville?

Anyone's guess.

The thinness of the intellectual diet is apparent even in the area of religion. Scripture verses are abundant; so is testimony to the central importance of faith.

But when he comes to discuss his decision to leave the Catholic church of his family and youth for his wife's evangelical congregation, Pawlenty has little to say about his thinking or feelings.

It is hard to imagine that a person as serious about faith as author Pawlenty appears to be wouldn't have found such a sundering of religious roots wrenching, or at least interesting. But in this telling the switch seems implausibly casual.

Does "Courage to Stand" leave one thinking Pawlenty actually could be a presidential contender?

An observer from a prophet's own country is never the best judge.

But while devotion to the smaller-government creed doesn't move Pawlenty to offer a detailed plan for cutting spending at the federal level, the book shows him preaching and practicing that doctrine with convincing passion.

And it comes at a moment when the challenge of rebalancing public finances has rarely been more central in the nation's politics.

"The first thing Washington must do," Pawlenty writes, "is stop. Stop the spending, stop the borrowing, and stop the meddling."

The story of his governorship, at least as told here, confirms that he has a knack and a zest for stopping things.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. He is at dtice@startribune.com.

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D.J. Tice with former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's book, "Courage to Stand"