The Cipher

He’s not there.

It’s 2:20 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in early June and a small pack of political bloodhounds are camping out on a conference call. A Republican party functionary comes on the line, greets the far-flung national press corps, and introduces today’s speaker: Tim Pawlenty, co-chair of the John McCain for President campaign and governor of Minnesota.

Outside, on the streets of St. Paul, 32,000 souls are starting to muster around the Xcel Energy Center to see Barack Obama claim the Democratic presidential nomination. Minnesota Public Radio will report that the queue stretches for a mile and a half. Approximately 32,000 of these people will be voting for someone other than John McCain on November 6—unless, that is, someone can waylay the Obama juggernaut. Unless someone will lie down beneath the churning wheels.

Which is where Pawlenty comes in. Or where he should come in. Instead, a digital demon takes possession of the call. Pawlenty’s voice—an instrument of eternal calm and reason—starts echoing like a skipping CD player. Soon, the cacophony grows more primal, until it resembles Pink Floyd’s “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict.”

When Pawlenty finally breaks through the din, he does his bit to dirty up the new nominee: Obama hasn’t been to Iraq recently. Obama is more liberal than the liberal liberals. Pawlenty scores the hour’s sound bite when he describes Obama as “a gifted orator and speaker. But being able to read a TelePrompTer is not preparation to be president.”

Uncharacteristically, Pawlenty trips over his talking points, switching awkwardly from “we” to “I.” Is he trash-talking for himself or for his country? Finally, Pawlenty finishes his remarks. The reporters, who have stories to file, blogs to write, and Sudoku squares to fill, pose a half-dozen tepid questions. And then the trite ritual is done: This is the way the most talented Minnesota politician of his generation auditions to be the attack dog on a presidential ticket.

For most Minnesotans, observing this disembodied Pawlenty is a little like reading about your favorite Twin in a sports column from another city. Whether we’re fans or hecklers, we’ve watched him from the bleachers for years, memorized his routines—he’s ours. Yet there he is, standing in front of new crowds in Georgia, North Carolina, or Washington, D.C., dusting off his blue-collar origins, talking up his team, spinning like a future All-Star. He seems to be having such a swell time that you begin to wonder if he has any intention of ever coming home.

Or so you might think if you hadn’t seen the man that very morning at the governor’s Summit Avenue mansion, as dumbfoundingly amiable as ever. He apologizes gracefully—needlessly—for being a few minutes late: There’s a daughter with a final exam; a pet with a situation. Pawlenty’s own attack dog, it turns out, is a Shih Tzu-Yorkie-Bichon mix named Mazy. She scurries out to the porch, passing the piano, where a pair of hymnals are open to the songs “Jesus Loves Me” and “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates.”

The governor coos to Mazy, “That’s my little sweetie.” He doesn’t make the slightest effort to keep her off the furniture.

A dank wind is gusting through the screen, which seems perfectly agreeable to Pawlenty. “I get up every morning, literally—and people always say this—but I get up every morning excited about my day and about the opportunity to serve. And I feel very grateful—and I mean, really grateful—that I have this chance. Today I get to try to make a difference. I get to try to do something positive.”

Pawlenty, indirectly, is talking down his aspirations to join the way-hypothetical McCain administration. He doesn’t particularly want to discuss the veepstakes (what he wants, of course, is for other, more powerful people who are not in this room to discuss the veepstakes). But questions about a potential cabinet post—Education? Energy?—bring a less Delphic response.

“I have, I think, a fairly realistic view of what those positions are,” Pawlenty says. “And I think there’s a mistaken impression that going from governor to a cabinet post is somehow a promotion. I don’t necessarily view it that way.”
Self-possession and self-effacement mix about as easily as Kahlua and Clamato. But that’s the governor’s intoxicating style, his gift as a communicator. Here, sitting at a round glass table, serving coffee out of fine china on top of a paper cocktail napkin with the state seal on it, explaining how a light tasting menu of conservative innovations can sate the appetites of a famished electorate—this is the Tim Pawlenty we know.

This is the Tim Pawlenty we think we know, at least. Even as the rest of the nation gets acquainted with the sunny kid from South St. Paul, people who’ve watched him for years can’t agree on some pretty basic things: how he thinks, what he believes, who he is.

Some of the discrepancies are ideological, and over the years have been reported exhaustively. For a movement conservative, Pawlenty has spent too much time raising taxes (or cigarette-user fees, if you must) and building stadiums—and not enough time praying in public and banishing Mexicans. For a putative pragmatist, he won’t end up leaving his name on many highways or hospitals. For a nice guy, he has a not-so-nice agenda: There’s a reason more than a few of his Democratic opponents like to call him “a Boy Scout with a switchblade.”

But it goes beyond philosophical inconsistencies. In a deeper sense, Pawlenty’s friends, allies, adversaries, and staff often don’t seem to be describing the same person. In the course of some two-dozen interviews, the points of contention that emerge are trifling, perplexing, and ultimately baffling:

He’s energized by crowds; he’s exhausted by crowds.

He’s laid-back; he’s driven.

He’s ambitious; he’s contented.

He’s present; he’s absent.

He’s deeply religious and faithful; he’s going through the motions while tagging along with his devout wife.

He’s probingly intellectual; he’s habitually incurious to matters of theology, philosophy, art, history.

As unlikely a figure as Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart—a Pawlenty classmate from South St. Paul—admits to having wrestled with the mystery. “I knew the guy for years,” Hart once told columnist Jim Walsh, “and it’s still like he’s a cipher. He’s Chauncey Gardener”—the idiot philosopher in the comic novel and film Being There—“with a lot less Zen.”

Mary Pawlenty, the governor’s wife and a retired Dakota County judge, would spare us from trying to psychoanalyze her husband. “He’s not that complex,” she says. “He’s a good guy who loves public policy, who’s trying his very best to be a good governor for Minnesota. What you see is what you get!”

This much is clear: The people who run the national GOP, they like what they see. Love it, in fact. Republican National Committee member Holly Hughes went barnstorming in her native Michigan with Pawlenty this past January. “We want your governor!” she says. For Michigan, for America.

But which Pawlenty is she talking about? The drudge on the conference call? The Sunday morning envoy to FOX & Friends?

To Minnesotans, this highly scripted Pawlenty appears about as authentic as one of those kids on The Hills, as if he’s trying out for a part on a political soap opera, and it’s not clear how many episodes he’s going to get. Isn’t that why he drops by Connecticut to headline the 30th annual Prescott Bush Awards Dinner? Or why he picks up $46,000 at the Georgetown townhouse of former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman, surrounded by 200 of his bestest Republican friends?

For Pawlenty, being governor of Minnesota has become part of a widening portfolio. He’s CEO of his own image now—to what end, even he may not know.

To understand how it came to this, what we need to do is go back, to find the man behind the brand. And so our little political biography will have to run in reverse, from the last page to the first. We start today, in early summer 2008, with the Ghost of Campaigns present, then tunnel back through the years in search of Tiny Tim.

. . .

The complete version of “The Cipher” will be in Minnesota Monthly‘s August issue, on newsstands July 24th.