In 1934, the year of David Durenberger’s birth in central Minnesota, an ambitious young politician was planning his campaign to become governor of Minnesota. In 1938, Harold Stassen won the governorship at age 31, as a progressive Republican. That election became the starting point of Durenberger’s new book covering about 80 years of Minnesota (and national) electoral politics.
Co-written with veteran Star Tribune journalist Lori Sturdevant, “When Republicans Were Progressive” is a fascinating combination of Durenberger’s firsthand account regarding three terms in the U.S. Senate, hundreds of anecdotes about Minnesota politics, a nostalgic look back at bipartisanship among political parties, a cri de coeur about current ugly electoral politics, a platform for positive change and a skimpy yet alluring look into his personal life.
For potential readers obsessed with the current political divide, yes, Durenberger despises Donald Trump, the national Republican Party and almost every iota of their platforms. Durenberger is also dismayed by the current state of the Minnesota Republican Party.
Overall, though, the tone of the book is about equally upbeat and downbeat. Durenberger believes that the glorious past can be prologue, that the nation and Minnesota might emerge from the darkness, that perhaps readers will listen to his ideas for a better future.
About Minnesota, Durenberger believes some of the decline commenced in 1974, when the Legislature began meeting every year rather than less frequently. Promising community leaders who cared deeply about their state could no longer afford to leave their hometowns and their families, which meant that the Legislature became the home to full-time politicians who placed their personal futures above the common good. To get ahead, those politicians felt the need to demonstrate political party loyalty, a phenomenon that eroded bipartisanship.
Durenberger’s entry into the U.S. Senate in 1978, after the death of Sen. Hubert Humphrey, occurred as the national erosion of bipartisanship was about to pick up speed. The election of Ronald Reagan as president gave congressional Republicans, masterminded by fanatically partisan Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, an opening to reject compromise with Democrats and independents.
During his 16 years as senator, Durenberger developed into a subject-matter expert in several realms, most notably health care. He favored expansion of affordable health insurance for every American, but could never gather enough votes for single-payer insurance or something similar.
He had hopes at the beginning of the Clinton administration that he could work across political party divides with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Durenberger established a pleasant personal relationship with the first lady, whom he regarded as impressive with her command of detail. Ultimately, though, Durenberger found the Democratic leadership dismissive of his carefully crafted plan.
Every word allotted for this book review could be consumed by simply listing the Minnesota and national political figures mentioned substantively by Durenberger and Sturdevant. The pages are quite likely to hold endless fascination for politically inclined Minnesotans.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer and book critic in Missouri.