The unambiguous message behind former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's (R) long-awaited memoir, Courage to Stand, is captured brilliantly by one brief sentence tucked into the book's introduction: "We did it in Minnesota, and we have to do it in Washington."
While the 301-page book amusingly careens between entertaining anecdotes and spiritual encouragement, its underlying purpose is apparent from the moment you pick it up -- selling the author as a viable presidential candidate who in Minnesota conquered many of the problems plaguing America today. In fact, one quick glance at the back cover says it all: "A crushing deficit. Big government out of control. Runaway spending. Sound familiar?"
If there was any doubt before, this book emphatically erases it: Pawlenty is going to run for president. From the book's introductory pages to its closing words, Pawlenty pounds home a strong, simple message: 1) The federal government faces many of the exact challenges Minnesota's government faced when I took office. 2) In many cases, I solved them -- without raising taxes. 3) This makes me uniquely qualified to lead the country.
Of course, Pawlenty doesn't actually say that last part, but it's clear to anyone tracing his politically linear message that he's leading readers to connect the dots.
Pawlenty warns early and often about the unsustainable deficits caused by runaway spending, arguing that Americans -- i.e., voters -- understand that something must be done to reverse the country's fiscal trajectory. "You simply can't have a spending graph that does sharply up, coupled with a revenue graph that's nearly flat," he writes. "Mercifully, Americans are beginning to see this. They're smart, and they get it."
The book takes a refreshingly honest -- and surprisingly evangelical -- tone, leaning heavily on two critical aspects of Pawlenty’s life, both of which clearly influence his political worldview: his strong Christian faith and his blue-collar upbringing.
The degree to which Pawlenty's memoir leans on religious inspiration will come as perhaps the greatest surprise to political observers familiar with the affable former governor. Indeed, someone foreign to Pawlenty's past accomplishments and future aspirations may very well find themselves wondering whether this is a religious man writing about politics or a political man writing about religion. He writes at great length about his exodus from the Catholic Church, the role God has played in his life, and his daily dependence on his Savior. The book cites dozens of Bible verses, and certainly not for rhetorical purposes, as Pawlenty pairs many of them with precise examples of times when the Scriptures have sustained him during difficult times.
The intensely personal page-turner -- and it is a page-turner, easily besting similar projects from potential 2012 rivals -- also stresses Pawlenty's love for hockey, history, and his hometown of South St. Paul. He writes about the political lessons he's taken away from the hockey rink, particularly the fights, taking what could be construed as a slight jab at President Obama’s foreign policy: "If you're the one getting pummeled, you also don't want to show your weakness, because if people see you being pushed around, they're going to know you're someone who can BE pushed around, and it won't stop."
Pawlenty also spends plenty of time introducing readers to his family and working-class hometown, detailing how his truck driver father worked odd jobs on the weekend to earn extra income for the family. He shares the heartbreaking details of his mother being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a battle she lost when he was 16 -- and how her dying wish was for her youngest son, Tim, to become the first member of the family to attend college.
Between this family tragedy and the apparent heartache Pawlenty expresses when detailing the collapse of South St. Paul's stockyard industry, which for decades was the city's economic lifeblood, the book teeters at times on the brink of depressive rather than inspirational. But Pawlenty finds clever ways to offset the occasionally morbid tone, telling stories of near-fisticuffs with Jesse "The Body" Ventura and losing his lunch while helping his father clean rotting, bug-infested meat hooks.
None of Pawlenty's humorous anecdotes are empty, however. There are valuable lessons to be gleaned from his seemingly rhetorical recollections. Pawlenty's encounter with Ventura came after Pawlenty, then the state House majority leader, told reporters that the governor had "left taxpayers behind enemy lines" -- which Ventura took as a personal insult to his Navy SEAL pedigree. When Ventura angrily confronted him -- briefly prompting Pawlenty to think "he's gonna hit me!" -- Pawlenty recognized he was in the wrong and told Ventura he was sorry. "Sometimes an apology is itself a sign of strength," he wrote.
Setting aside the funny stories, family memories, and life lessons, the book is clearly written by a man preparing to run for president, and readers rarely lose sight of that -- largely because Pawlenty doesn't allow them to. Directly or indirectly, everything Pawlenty discusses in the book fits neatly into his carefully crafted message: that he's not only a blue-collar guy who can empathize with Americans struggling in the midst of a painful recession, but a proven leader who has encountered -- and triumphed over -- some of the exact problems plaguing America today.
The purpose of Pawlenty's memoir is to position himself as Republicans' most competitive option for 2012, as evidenced by his taking on Obama directly in the book's introduction: "The current administration, through the smoke-and-mirror effect of bailouts and big-government spending, has taken America's future and leveraged it into a mountain of debt so large it's nearly impossible for anyone to wrap their heads around." But the book also aims to introduce his platform, pedigree, and executive experience to the American people -- particularly the conservative Christians likely to vote in GOP primary contests.
Several passages recalling Pawlenty's days on the campaign trail as a largely unknown gubernatorial candidate foreshadow the approach he'll likely take when attempting to connect with GOP primary voters, especially in the critical early states that will likely determine his fate. He writes: "When they learn about my background, I think people can say, 'Hey, this guy's experienced some of what I've experienced.' My life was built on challenges and real-life struggle. It's a story that connects with what many Americans experience in their lives."
Convincing voters you're just like them is one challenge; Convincing them you're presidential material is quite another. Pawlenty's book courageously attempts to do both -- and if he succeeds, it will add another memorable chapter to a fascinating life story.