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A Conversation with Gov. Tim Pawlenty

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

As I fill-in for radio host Hugh Hewitt on his nationally syndicated program this week, I had the opportunity to interview former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty about his just-released autobiography, Courage to Stand. Our discussion touched on a number of topics – from last weekend’s Tucson atrocity, to his faith, to his passion for hockey, to the big question: Is he running for president?

Begin Transcript.

GB: I am delighted to be joined now by the former governor of the great state of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who has a new book that is out today. It is called The Courage To Stand. Governor, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt show.

TP: Guy, it’s great to be with you, and I feel like I’ve got an upgrade on this flight with you hosting and Hugh being gone.

GB: I won’t tell him you said that, Governor. You’ve got this book out. I read it on my way out to California from D.C. I really enjoyed it, and we’ll get to it in due course. But I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you and get your reaction about the horrible events that unfolded this past weekend in Arizona. And in some ways, it actually does tie into your book, because you talked about a moment during your governorship, and we all remember 2007, very dark days for Minnesota when that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. You were really the face of the state level response to that. It was, it involved the loss of life. It also involved, I thought, an egregious and immediate political calculation by certain people. And there are, I think, some parallels, perhaps, between what we’re seeing today and what you went through as governor. Do you think that’s fair to say?

TP: Yeah, well thank you, Guy, and first, I think all of us should just stop and pause and reflect. We’ve got fellow citizens who lost their lives, and they all have loved ones. And of course, our hearts and prayers go out to them. So we need to first just focus on that.

GB: Of course.

TP: And secondly, based on what we know, it appears like this incident in Arizona was caused by an individual who is mentally unstable. And sadly, mentally unstable people from time to time do very irrational and senseless things. And unless the facts are different or new developments occurred, for people to make broad-sweeping statements or judgments or condemnations when not all the facts are on the table about either parts of the media, or individuals, or leaders, you know, it’s at best premature, and at worst, you know, it’s speculative and quite unfair. And in the bridge collapse, we had the same problem. Within minutes, really, just the first few hours of that crisis unfolding, Guy, when we still had bodies in the water, people in the water, the rescue was still active and underway, we had a Democrat call a staff member in my office and say I’m going to use this incident to carve the governor up politically. And of course, we had all sorts of false accusations and statements about why the bridge may have collapsed. They all turned out to be wrong. A year later, the National Transportation Safety Board determined the bridge fell because of an original design flaw dating back to the 1960s. In the meantime, we had just very reckless, hurtful comments being made by lots of people.

GB: Yeah, we’re seeing some of that unfortunately this week in relation to Arizona. And Governor, one thing you mention in the very introduction of your book, you said, you kind of stressed how important it is for elected officials, and specifically people who consider themselves to be leaders, to embody a certain informed optimism. That is the phrase that you use. And I think a lot of people right now are deeply shaken by what we’re seeing not only the actual events on the ground in Tucson, but also the way that the country and some people in the political class have reacted to it. How would you go about making recommendations? If you had to give advice to the President, to Governor Brewer, to members of Congress, as they face these harrowing days, and the political maelstrom is well underway, what would you say to them if they sought your counsel?

TP: Well, and thank you. These points, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was kind of a lessons learned, not just from my time as governor, but from life more broadly, of growing up in a meat packing town and facing a lot of challenges. So some of these topics tie in as a leadership lesson to what’s in the book. But I would give them this counsel and advice. First, on a human level, and an empathetic level, a heart and a gut level, make sure you focus on those families who are suffering or hurting, that were impacted directly either because of loss of life or injury because of this incident. Number two, be calm and thoughtful about when and how you disburse information, and make sure it’s accurate. Make sure it’s measured so that we don’t add to either the hysteria or inflammatory nature of the fallout from this event. Third, it’s important to hold people accountable, but we’ve got to do so based on good facts and good information, so we can make good decisions. And then lastly, a role model, I think, in all of this is Ronald Reagan, as he is with so many things – a strong leader, a person of great conviction, both morally and philosophically, and from a policy standpoint. But in almost all instances, he was civil, he was thoughtful, he was decent, he was optimistic and hopeful, and he didn’t just say here’s a problem. He educated people about how we got into the problem, and then he showed them a way out, a positive way forward. And so I think it’s important for leaders to take that step as well.

- - - -

GB: Governor, I was really struck as I read your book by the presence of a number of really strong women who influenced your life. And I thought that your reflections on your relationship with your mother were fascinating and deeply touching. Talk about your mom, and how you got to know her for those really tragically short sixteen years that you did.

TP: Well, you’re nice to ask. I think, and you know, like I mentioned, I had a growing up in a blue collar meat packing town. It was home to some of the world’s largest stock yards and meat packing plants. And my dad, for much of his life, was a truck driver. And my mom, for much of her life, was a homemaker. And I just had a great upbringing. It wasn’t easy. We had a modest situation. But she died when I was sixteen. But along the way, I just developed so much admiration and love for her. And one lesson amongst many, I just will share with your listeners is when she was dying, you know, my older brothers and sisters didn’t have a chance to go college, not because they weren’t capable, they just didn’t have the opportunity. And she gathered them together essentially on her deathbed, and made my family commit to one way or the other, find a way to give me a chance to get to college. And I knew early on after she died that education was going to be a ticket forward for me. And because of that, I really dedicated myself to trying to study and get the best opportunity, the best education that I could. And that’s just one of many, many great acts of love and kindness that my mom gave to me.

GB: And you talked about how it was really those seminal years in the 1970s where you had to grow up, you thought, perhaps faster than a lot of your fellow peers around you with the death of your mother, and a whole bunch of other factors. And you also mention that she had a bit of a conservative streak. So I’m sure she would just be so proud to see everything that you’ve accomplished so far. One thing that I thought was funny is how you, as a teenager, subscribed to U.S. News and World Report, perhaps the only teenager in the history of the country to do so. But you enjoyed it, and you got into regular and spirited, thoughtful debates with your father, who took an interest in the magazine once you started reading it. Do you think that that process really prepared you for the rough and tumble reality of everyday American politics at very high levels?

TP: Well, you know, of course we’re all a product of our experiences and our upbringing. And my dad was a very gregarious guy. But you know, he had strong views, and he didn’t necessarily have access to a lot of fancy information. But once he saw my subscriptions laying around, he started reading it. And it was somewhat of a surprise to me. I’d come home, and he’d want to have a debate about Social Security reform, or you know, nuclear reduction or whatever. And at times, it got heated. But it was good, it was a great way to spend some time with my dad. But also, it was good training in the sense that it was a good debate, and it was at times intense. But I loved it, and my family wasn’t political in the sense that they didn’t get involved formally in politics, but we loved to sit around the table and argue and debate. So it was not only enjoyable, but I think it was also educational.

GB: There is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to your spiritual life. But really, throughout the entire book, the reader finds Scripture sprinkled throughout as you applied various elements of Scripture to various incidents and occurrences that were happening in your life at the time. I know that it’s a horrible question to ask in such a condensed format, but if you would just talk about your spiritual journey, because you started off as a Roman Catholic, and you ended up being a Protestant, it seems like your overarching faith has really played a major element in who you are, yes?

TP: Yeah, it really has, Guy. And again, as people think about lessons learned along the way, and that’s what the book is really about, it includes what informs you, what kind of values do you have, what kind of character do you have, and where did you get it from, what’s the source of that. And for all of us, it’s partly our upbringing and our parents and our family. But for so many of us, that’s our faith as well. And for Mary and me, that’s our Christian faith, and our belief in Jesus Christ. And I was raised, as you said, Catholic and loved the Catholic Church. But when I met Mary, and we decided to get married and start a family, you know, we had to reconcile our faith life. So we ended up at an interdenominational church, but it’s Biblically based, and believes that Jesus is who He says He was. And we have had, I think, a very good faith walk through that church otherwise. And again, it’s a church that celebrates the Christian faith and the Bible, and I think has a lot of people of different denominations attending. So I think that’s worked. But more broadly, you know, the faith component in people’s life is important. And then I always get asked well, how do you reconcile that with your public office, or your public responsibilities. And we address that in the book. But it goes back to the founding fathers founding this nation, really, under God. And then lastly, you know, the publisher for the book is Tyndale, which is a very well known Christian publishing company. And one of the things they do with the profits from their company is donate them to mission work and charities around the world.

GB: One element in the state of Minnesota that is not quite religious in nature, but it’s pretty darned close, is hockey. And it’s one of your passions, as you describe in your book as well. You love playing hockey, you love watching hockey, and you also talk about how to the casual eye, it might seem like a very violent sport, but it certainly has its own civility to it. So just talk about your love affair with the sport. I’m a Devils fan, so it’s been a very tough year for me. It’s just not going well. But the Minnesota Wild, what a fan base you have up there.

TP: And for the uninitiated, we should make it clear that you’re referring to the New Jersey hockey Devils, and not the devils generally, right?

GB: No, absolutely. Thank you.

TP: But you know, hockey is a great sport, and I know it’s a little regional, but you know, as I mention in the book, is a website where people who are interested, I mean, it’s barbaric. It’s a bunch of videos of hockey fights. And it is probably a little violent in that regard. But there is a code to hockey fights. And you don’t punch somebody when they’re down, you don’t pick on somebody who is dramatically smaller than you. You know, before the fight, you usually give some fair notice that it’s coming. And there’s an enforcement component to it. It’s not just all theater and thuggery. But I love hockey. And it’s a great game, it’s fast-paced, and it’s got a lot of subplots to it. I play it, I watch it, I enjoy it, but all that’s discussed a little bit in the book, too. What lessons can you learn from hockey fights that might apply to life, and…

GB: Right, some analogs to politics.

TP: Yeah, right.

GB: And what would you say would be first among those?

KTP: Well, the first thing is you know, you’ve got to make sure you don’t get pushed around, because if the message is you’re a leader who gets pushed around and tolerates that too often or too much, you invite more of it. And so it’s why in hockey, you’ve got to stand up for you and for your teammates. Hockey’s also a team sport. And so if you play tennis by yourself or as an individual…but if you’re going to play hockey, you’ve got to play as a team.

- - - -

GB: Governor, on Page 113 of the book, you describe this decision that you had to make earlier in your career about whether or not you were going to run for high office. And you had pretty much decided that you were not going to run for governor in 2002 in Minnesota. And your wife, Mary, another one of those strong women that I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, she gave you what you call a little bit of a pep talk, a Rocky Balboa-esque speech about how this was something that you had in you, and that you had to do to effect change. And you ultimately, of course, went on to not only run, but win the nomination against some pretty significant odds, and then win in a blue state as a conservative Republican, and then go ahead and get reelected four years later in 2006, which we all remember was a brutal year for Republicans everywhere. You were able to buck that trend a little bit. As…of course, you talk about paying attention to pundits, and people like, frankly, me, who are constantly talking about who might run for president in 2012, your name is always in the mix. That’s something that you’re of course aware of. And some people say well, the timing of this book has to do with the fact that candidates tend to write books and that type of thing. Ultimately, what you hear from a lot of people, and I think it’s true, is that the decision to run has to be a full family decision. And I’m wondering, are you still grappling with this call? Is Mary, are your daughters, are they involved actively in this discussion? And when might you make a decision one way or the other?

TP: Yeah, well let me answer each of those directly. Yes, I am seriously considering it. I’m going to make a decision and an announcement probably sometime in the next few months. And really, two things weigh most heavily on my mind, Guy. One is what are the needs of the nation, and what do I bring to the table uniquely or semi-uniquely that may not be available if I don’t run and try and serve and lead the country. And number two, it’s exactly what you just said, which is the impact on my family. As you know if you do this, it’s all consuming. And I do have a family, I’ve got young children and a spouse I love very much. I love them all. I’ve got a little dog, too. And so they do support my public service, but it comes at a cost, and I want to make sure that I’ve thought that through on behalf of our family before I make a final decision. But Mary would be loving and supporting and encouraging no matter what I chose. But she’s been a terrific, positive force for me in public service.

GB: Governor, we have about 30 seconds left. Analytically, what qualities and expertise does the next Republican presidential nominee need to exhibit to defeat President Obama?

TP: Well, to govern and lead the country, I think the next president is going to have an unusual, really historic amount of fortitude. And I think there’s going to be a lot of similarities on various issues that Republican candidates are espousing. But I think the question people should ask is based on their life experiences, based on their record, not just who gives a pretty speech or who offered a failed amendment, but who actually has demonstrated in their life and their walk and their record, who’ve got the fortitude to do what needs to get done, because I think we’ve got some incredibly tough challenges coming up, Guy.

GB: There’s no doubt about that. Governor, I really enjoyed the book. Thank you so much for coming on today.

End Transcript.

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