The Cipher

Thanks to John McCain, the Governor of Minnesota is the man of the moment, a new political brand. Yet even as the rest of the country gets acquainted with Tim Pawlenty, the people he’s worked with for years are still struggling to understand who he is—and what, exactly, he believes.

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 Governor’s office


He’s the Governor of Brigadoon. That’s the way Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the speaker of the Minnesota House, sometimes thinks about Tim Pawlenty. Every so often, she’ll detect a figment of practicality—the shadow of a person she could do business with. “One moment you may think that’s materializing,” Kelliher says, “and then it can evaporate very quickly.”

Last August, she stands side by side with the governor on the Tenth Avenue Bridge, meditating on a tangle of metal in the water. It’s a Third World mess down there, the scene from an Air Force video of the bombing of Belgrade. And the crowds that keep vigil with their cell-phone cameras suggest a creeping anxiety about what’s happened—an uneasiness that a politician can’t afford to ignore.

“I think his instinct when he talked about being willing to be for some kind of gas tax was sincere,” Kelliher says today. “And then I think he listened to other people—or was forced to listen to other people—who said that wasn’t the best thing to do.” Minority leader Marty Seifert didn’t want it. Maybe Grover Norquist—national tax scourge and scrooge-ish Republican kingmaker—didn’t want it, Kelliher says.

Sitting in his city-hall office, Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak echoes the House speaker’s memories about the days after the 35W collapse. And though he’s widely seen to be preparing his own 2010 gubernatorial bid, Rybak asserts that he’s genuinely befuddled by Pawlenty’s approach: “We’re trying to build a light-rail line along University between Minneapolis and St. Paul. And he asked several of us to personally sit on the implementation team, to make tough choices”— whether to jam the line down Washington Avenue, the main artery of the University of Minnesota, for example—“and we delivered. Then, out-of-the-blue, he vetoed the bill.”

Rybak can’t explain Pawlenty’s apparent reversals, other than to say: “After six years of working together, I can’t tell you anything other than that he doesn’t seem to be very engaged by what he’s doing.”

The mayor is not the only one wondering if the governor might be, of all things, bored. In March, MPR’s capitol reporter Tom Scheck tallied the number of times, between January 1 and March 12, that the governor traveled out of state. Scheck counted 25 partial or whole days. Many days the governor’s calendar read, “no public events scheduled”—a claim that was undermined when Pawlenty turned up on, say, Hannity & Colmes.

Who can blame him? At least the FOX show has Hannity, the conservative blunderbuss. Back in St. Paul, it’s a whole lot of Colmes. Since 2002—the year Pawlenty took office—the state GOP has lost 33 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate.

The governor doesn’t attribute these losses to his leadership or ideology.

“I think there are other things involved here as well,” Pawlenty says. “For example, the war is a big issue—and I’m a proponent of winning the war. That doesn’t necessarily equate with the Democrats’ agenda for single-payer health care, which I don’t like. President Bush had a pretty serious slide with the response to Katrina. That doesn’t directly relate to, you know, education reform. So there are things that I think are causing some of the shift that don’t translate to a mandate for liberal approaches to public policy.”

Such explanations give comfort to twitchy Republicans across the nation. For if Pawlenty’s rhetorical balm is working in Minnesota—at last check, his approval rating stood at 54 percent—maybe the Grand Old Party isn’t headed the way of the Whigs. “Sam’s Club” Republicanism is what Pawlenty calls it: a way to convince low-income workers that free markets are more than an imaginary friend.

Practically speaking, Pawlenty spends the 2008 session vetoing the DFL’s transportation bill and their minimum-wage proposal. He won’t sign the Democrats’ bonding bill, either. Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller compares Pawlenty’s tactics to those of a “spoiled teenager.” “Having been overridden on the gas tax,” Pogemiller explains, the governor essentially declared: “I’m going to take my ball and go home.”

Even a staunch backer like U.S. senator and onetime boss Dave Durenberger sometimes questions whether the governor’s approach is reaping results. “I’ve had legacy discussions with him where I’d say he’s not going to be remembered for any one thing,” Durenberger says. “He’s going to be remembered for holding the office.”

Durenberger takes a half step back from that thought. The governor’s real passion, he believes, is for the issues. It can almost seem as if Pawlenty cares more about inventing ideas than achieving outcomes. And after all the governor’s mandatory face time with constituent groups—bison ranchers and Slovenian trade delegations—there aren’t enough hours in the week to tinker with everything. You’ve got to pick an issue or two, Durenberger declares, and stick with it. “Whether it’s 70 hours he works or 80 hours—he’s good at every one of those 70 hours,” he says. “He’s good at it all….The challenge for those of us who are his friends, who have watched him and know his potential, is we see so much more he could accomplish.”

Others, too, have begun to notice how the governor’s placid exterior masks a fidgety intellect. In December, in a quietly damning article in the Star Tribune, political reporter Patricia Lopez reviews the fleeting “gestures” and questionable achievements of the governor’s “idea-a-minute style.” There was his passing plan to tap Indian casino revenues, his fleeting push to restore the death penalty.

The restlessness isn’t limited to public policy. Forget about picking an issue or two; the guy can hardly pick a TV station. Mary Pawlenty describes a kind of seasickness that comes from sharing a couch with her spouse. ESPN, CMT, The Food Network—they blur past in a second. “It’s a little random,” Mary says. “But suffice it to say it’s not always the stuff I would stop on.”

Yet it’s this same frenetic energy that propels Pawlenty through the dozens of events that make up a governor’s daily schedule. Ask the governor what he did the day before and he’ll turn to his communications director with genuine curiosity: What did I do? On a random day in June, for example, Pawlenty meets with the Legislative Commission to End Poverty, interviews eight judicial candidates, records a videotape to celebrate local gospel singer Tom Tipton’s 75th birthday, greets a reception for the host committee of the Republican National Convention, and dines with the new archbishop. A man without Pawlenty’s motor would need amphetamines to get through a day like that.

It’s a paradox of the dizzyingly busy that the more they do, the more they seem to miss. Pawlenty—who is by every account a dutiful father to his two daughters Anna, 15, and Mara, 11—speaks with remorse about having missed Anna’s last volleyball tournament of the school year. And if you counted the missed suppers? Well, it would be easier to count the ones the governor makes. By Mary Pawlenty’s tally, the family manages to sit down together about twice a week. Breakfasts are better.

The First Lady accepts the hurried life. She can’t imagine what they’d do without it. “Are there moments I wish he would just be able to come home for dinner every night? Sure, there are times I think that would be terrific. And then he will come home on a Saturday morning, and I’ll think, this is wonderful. He has nothing on his schedule, a very rare occurrence. We have this whole Saturday before us! So we’ll get up and I’ll make a homemade pancake recipe. We have this great family breakfast and dishes are done. It’s 10 o’clock in the morning and he’ll say”—her voice quavers uneasily—“Well, what’s the schedule? Well, we don’t really have a schedule today. Well what are we going to be doing? And he begins to get antsy because he needs to be doing something. And then I think, either time for a chore list for this man or time for him to go out and do something else.”

There is a bigger something else that looms in Pawlenty’s future, of course. Not the question of how to fill a Saturday, but how the governor will fill the next four years if he doesn’t take up residence in the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Mary, for one, can’t imagine her husband parked in the government-relations department of a stolid law firm. “He never has been, and never could be, wired to sit still at a desk and bill hours,” the First Lady says. “He would become a very unhappy person, very quickly.”

And right now—though the DFL may hardly believe it—Pawlenty is happy. Still happy. How many lawyers have a chance to create a new state park at Lake Vermilion? Or to introduce performance-based pay for Minnesota teachers? How many corporate lawyers will be praising Tom Tipton on his 75th birthday video? Maybe Pawlenty seized the opportunity to paraphrase one of his favorite Bible verses, Luke 12:48:
To whom much is given, much is expected.

“There’s nothing like being in the public sector,” says Charlie Weaver, the governor’s former chief of staff, who currently lobbies for the Minnesota Business Partnership. “Whether you’re the governor or a legislator or any kind of public service position, it’s all better than making money.” And if you don’t think the governor believes that, say his friends, you don’t know the first thing about him.



The Governor’s Residence

January 2003

For a new governor, a departing politician like Jesse Ventura is the greatest warm-up act in the world. Ventura sullied a perfectly reasonable policy record with money-grubbing stunts, like his announcing stint in the XFL. His paranoia spiked when he accused the media of slandering his 22-year-old son with claims that the boy liked to throw a party—granted, at the governor’s residence.

Compared to that pay-per-view event, the Pawlenty who takes office in 2003 is a relief, promising what Warren Harding once called “a return to normalcy.” No one needs to babysit Pawlenty—that’s one thing. He carries cash in his pocket to pay for Taco John’s on the road. He can speak for a half hour off four bullet points. Commissioners and deputies quickly come to realize that Pawlenty knows his brief—and he knows your brief.

In those days, he sometimes likes to go unstaffed. Former communications director Daniel Wolter recalls Pawlenty proposing to solo a national governor’s conference and leave his security at home. (The governor remembers the discussion differently.)

Some of it is thrift. Pawlenty takes office to a $4.5-billion deficit (created, in no small part, by the tax cuts he helped script as House majority leader). And the no-tax-hike pledge that he signed in June 2002 to help win the Republican endorsement? That doesn’t help fill the budget gap. A vast canyon is what it really is. Looking back, some observers will say that Brian Sullivan—Pawlenty’s hard-right Republican primary opponent—has lost the endorsement but won the war.

One such observer is Sullivan himself. “Part of what campaigns are for is to set the agenda,” Sullivan says in a phone interview. “And I think that my agenda became the governor’s agenda that first term.”

Doing more with less: That’s Pawlenty’s creed now. Resources are finite. Taxes are already stifling growth. Government needs to do its job better, smarter. And yes, leaner.

Yet for all the knife-work he’ll have to do—slices to schools, giant chops to health care and local aid—Pawlenty wears the burden lightly. Being governor is fun and he acts like it. After a visit from the state champion Anoka High School hockey team, Pawlenty busts out his stick and practices penalty shots against the reception-room fireplace in the formal office. Weaver guards the net. After a few tries, the governor finally gets some lift on the puck—and nearly unmans Weaver in the act. Nutting your chief of staff? Now that’s a joke that never stops giving, something to brighten up a car ride to Zumbrota.

For the outnumbered and outmaneuvered DFL, he’s a moving target. Pawlenty logs 1,000 miles of state travel in his first 100 days. Tom Hanson, then a director of legislative and cabinet affairs, can’t recall another governor visiting his hometown of Mahnomen (pop. 1,200) on the White Earth Reservation, ever. Pawlenty stops there twice.

He has trouble showing up on time. Sometimes a novice, overwhelmed staff is to blame, recalls Wolter. Other times, former spokesperson Leslie Kupchella says, Pawlenty will spot a bowling alley on the side of the road and pull everyone over to X a few frames. He’s a good bet to break a hundred; 150 takes some luck.

On the way to a conference in 2003, Pawlenty stops to greet an airfield worker rolling down Aitkin’s primitive grass strip. “The governor looked at the four-wheeler,” Weaver recalls, “and said, ‘Can I take that for a spin?’ And the next thing you know it’s like RWWWAAAHH! He’s tearing down the runway and the security guys are left in the dust.”

Wherever he goes, there he is. This may be the Pawlenty that friends like best.

The State Capitol


The House majority leader’s chamber is a place where anger goes to sleep. Republican legislators stomp in to Pawlenty’s office and they slam the door. Brenda Elmer, a Pawlenty assistant with an adjoining office, hears the shouting, then hears it abate. What she doesn’t hear is Pawlenty’s voice: Even in the most volcanic meetings, it doesn’t rise.

It’s 1998, and on the House floor, Pawlenty is the smartest conservative counterpuncher in memory. He razzes and puns, devotes a speech to the finer sentiments of Sonny and Cher. But when the time comes to coax rural moderates and suburban wingers into holding hands, Pawlenty subsumes himself in the task. He’s empathetic, imperturbable. “His people skills were just phenomenal,” Elmer says today.

Pawlenty’s unflappability can be almost inhuman. Hanson, then a senior House staffer, remembers Pawlenty coming out of a Republican conference at an east St. Paul Ramada Inn to discover his car missing from the parking lot. Gone. Stolen.

Soon to be crashed.

Pawlenty’s response, according to Hanson? “It was kind of, ‘This happened, we have to resolve the situation.’”

He’s creative and flexible enough to tame the Cerberus known as tripartisanship. In 1999, anticipating a $4 billion surplus, the Republicans climb on the same side of the seesaw as Ventura, leaving the Democrats in the air to argue for more spending. In 2002, Pawlenty and DFLer John Hottinger tag team Ventura, all but daring him to veto their budget agreement. In between, all three parties agree to flip property taxes upside down. They cut more than a billion dollars from the biennial budget—and make a mess out of school funding for years to come.

Though Pawlenty is a regular quote in the capitol news, the wins go to the Republican caucus. “I never got the sense that he was planning his strategy when he was in the House, taking votes so he could be governor,” says Weaver, who represented Anoka, Champlin, and Coon Rapids in the House for 10 years. “In some people you can tell from the first time they run for office they want to get somewhere. Everything is a stepping stone to the next office. But the governor, I don’t sense that. I don’t think most people did.”

Pawlenty may be able to conceal his ambition, but he doesn’t try to mask his competitiveness. As the coach of his daughter’s soccer team, Pawlenty will instruct the girls to taunt the opposing team’s leader. That’s the rumor that gets back to then-House speaker Steve Sviggum. Running alongside the players, Sviggum says, Pawlenty “coach[es] the girls to chant, like the army chants, Oh I don’t know but I’ve been told/Mr. Johnson’s very old.”

Sviggum gets a taste of the same treatment on his regular runs with Pawlenty. No one would mistake the future governor for a fluid, elegant runner. Pawlenty’s a loper. But he’s also 10 years younger and faster than Sviggum—a fact that Pawlenty doesn’t let Sviggum forget.

At the end of their runs, Pawlenty will often challenge Sviggum to sprint the last 450 yards or race him up the capitol steps. A Rocky moment for the two Republicans. But the outcome is never in doubt. Pawlenty always wins.



Spring 1984

Plan A is to become a dentist. An organic chemistry course at the University of Minnesota relegates Pawlenty to Plan B.

Which is how Pawlenty is available to be bagged and tagged when Dennis O’Brien comes hunting at the University of Minnesota Law School. It’s 1984—the height of the Reagan revolution on the national stage, the last gasp of Mondaleism at home—and O’Brien is recruiting summer associates for his law firm.

O’Brien is trying to flush out “talent, drive, energy,” he remembers, but what he finds are “mediocre B students.” It doesn’t take him long to realize that all the talented third-year law students have been snapped up, and so he peers further down the ladder at the second years. He spends 20 minutes with each student, eight hours a day, for three days straight. That’s when he lowers his sights to the first years.

Which is where he finds Tim Pawlenty, back from a summer in the D.C. office of First District congressman Arlen Erdahl. “He had can’t miss written all over him,” O’Brien recalls. “He liked politics—we had that in common—and he was a very articulate, genuinely nice person.”

O’Brien specializes in education law. Pawlenty comes along for the ride. “After three months of working together,” O’Brien says, “I sat down with him one day and said you’re already doing a quality of work better than three- or four-year lawyers at the firm. I could use you, but it could mess up your grades.”

Pawlenty starts working 20, 30 hours a week while also taking a full class load. Pawlenty is “driven,” O’Brien says—“the most disciplined person I’ve ever known by a very large factor.”

The truth is, Pawlenty is accustomed to spending nights and weekends in the produce department at Applebaum’s. His brother Steve helped him land that grocery job—a union gig with benefits—and it partly put him through college. “We’d come in after a late night and wield knives in the early morning hours,” Pawlenty says. “That was fun.”

It’s an inoculation against pretension, you can say that for produce work. Beyond that, Pawlenty’s ideology is starting to set him apart from the other junior associates. O’Brien—a prodigious reader and an even more prodigious talker—recalls the disquisitions the pair would have at the office. “One point I know resonated with him was that Republicans have got to quit being accountants for Democratic social programs,” O’Brien says. Liberalism had become the status quo; union heads, the real reactionaries.

Pawlenty trails his mentor to the law firm of Rider Bennett where they become the leading litigators for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Along the way, O’Brien almost loses his protégé. Between work and study, Pawlenty starts flying down to Houston to visit Mary Anderson, a pal from the law school. She’s a summa cum laude grad of Bethel University, now a first-year associate at a Texas firm.

O’Brien recalls hearing, “‘Mary’s arranged for me to have job interviews in Houston, and I’ve got a job offer. But I told Mary I want to get into politics in Minnesota, so she’s coming back.’”

According to O’Brien, the seed for Pawlenty’s public career is always there; the shoots just need to be encouraged to climb quick and high. “The plan was to move to a suburb and run for a city council seat,” O’Brien says. “Then run for an open seat at the capitol.”

Pawlenty doesn’t stray from the road map. He takes a seat on the Eagan planning commission, then steps up to the Eagan city council. In 1992, he wins election to District 38B of the Minnesota house with 49 percent of the vote. (Pawlenty will make a habit of winning office without a majority; neither gubernatorial victory nets him more than 47 percent of the electorate.)

It’s just before this time, 1987 perhaps, that the Reverend Leith Anderson first meets Tim Pawlenty. Mary’s family had been attending his Wooddale Church since she was in junior high. Pawlenty is about to become a lapsed Catholic. The Bible, he’ll come to believe, “is the anointed word of God.”

Anderson, who is presently the head of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, has married countless young couples before he meets the Pawlentys, and he’s married hundreds of couples in the two decades since. “I remember talking to them then and thinking, Someday this guy is going to be a great leader,” says Anderson. “That’s an unusual thought; I don’t pretend to be a prophet. I think I was impressed by his style, his integrity, his education. Even though he’d never held public office at that point, he had a heart for public leadership. It’s not like I thought his career through—I didn’t. But I remember thinking, This is going to be someone who is going to do his country good.

South St. Paul

circa 1975

The fountainhead of the Pawlenty legend is the deathbed scene: a story that calls out to you like a Capra film on Christmas Eve. There’s Ginny Pawlenty—homemaker, part-time bookkeeper—lying in bed, cancer in full bloom, summoning the kids: Dan and Steve, Peggy and Rosie. Timmy is the only one who isn’t there. But he’s the topic of this conference, agenda items one through ten.

The boy has got to go to college. That’s it, Ginny has decided. Timmy’s the one with the brains and the gift. No one else in the family has gone to college before and no one else will go. Meeting adjourned.

Ginny dies when Timmy is 16 years old, a sophomore at South St. Paul Senior High. He discovers things about his mom after her death. She was nearly the valedictorian of her own high-school class, for instance. She was also, in a family of DFL voters and union members, a kind of closet Goldwater Republican.

Pawlenty’s dad, Gene, loses his trucking job a few months later. He won’t find work for another year. “That was a pretty significant eye opener in terms of the curveballs life can throw at you,” Pawlenty says. “Beanball” would be getting closer to the truth.

Pawlenty doesn’t dwell on that drama. It makes the other four siblings sound like go-nowheres and layabouts. Which they aren’t, he says. They’re cast from the same mold, the five Pawlenty kids: energetic, upbeat, industrious. Talking about them and that time, Pawlenty drifts into a kind of reverie—a homily about his hometown of South St. Paul. It may be the biggest stockyard in the world when Pawlenty is a boy, home to Armour and Swift. Up and down the streets, in every parish, everybody works in the same place and everybody has the same amount of money—little to none.

Timmy works hard, even before the produce job at Applebaum’s. As the winter sets in, he shuttles upriver to Mendota Heights where he assembles Christmas wreaths. The cash, what there is of it, goes into a savings account at the Southview Savings Bank on Southview Boulevard.

People tend to ask Pawlenty if he grew up feeling envious and the answer is no. The interlocutors are looking for the password to Pawlenty’s internal hard drive: What compelled this one kid to get ahead?

“I think family was an ethic,” Pawlenty says. “And pride. There was a pride in South St. Paul.”

Maybe the pride helps to stanch the scent of the stockyards, the bleating and mooing beasts, ankle-deep in excrement. In winter, when the air inverts and sits still over the river, you’d think you were smelling not just Death but Death’s armpit. The natives, Pawlenty says, pretend not to notice.

But the miasma never keeps Timmy from sprinting through the streets playing touch football. Or from skating on the rink that Dad floods with a hose, out behind the new house on 12th Avenue with the three bedrooms and the tuck-under garage. It’s evening and the parents—the parents who aren’t sleepwalking through second and third shifts—are out on their steps. More than a few are drinking beers. “It was a good home and a good neighborhood,” Pawlenty says. “There were good neighbors. It was a good upbringing.” It’s all good!

We’re close to the beginning now. Tim and Dan—the boys share a room—are out back burning garbage in a 55-gallon drum. Compared to the stockyards, smoking plastic smells like one of those cardboard air fresheners that dangle from the rearview mirror. It’s a time before cancer, before toxic fumes and plumes. Everything goes in the fire.

And there Timmy is lacing up his ice skates, hair parted neatly to the side. Later, in high school, the part will shift to the center: Who knows where nature stops and nurture begins?

We’re looking backward but Timmy is looking forward. Always forward. Mom calls from inside: The homework won’t do itself. You must keep an eye on this boy.

Michael Tortorello is a writer at large for Minnesota Monthly.