Last month we went on a family vacation, a weeklong loop around Wyoming. While enjoying the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, I got a voice mail from former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler.
Readers attentive to symbolism may jump to snark, but consider: a 74-year-old politician reached me over 600 miles from home, on a day when no one in South Dakota would have been able to tell him where to find me, by tapping my phone number onto a mobile device made possible in part, he would say, by a bill he passed twenty years ago, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the magnum opus of his time in the Senate [p. 63].
Senator Pressler wanted to send me a copy of his new book and asked for my mailing address. I called back and left a message with my Aberdeen address, not bothering to recommend that he e-mail me a PDF that I could read on the long drive up to Sheridan and on to Spearfish. (Besides, I was on vacation!) Kerplunk—the book got to Aberdeen about the same time we did.
Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy hit online shelves last February. About the same time we communicated, Senator Pressler told KSFY that writing this book was one of the hardest things he’s ever done, because he had more to say than he could publish:
I wrote nearly 1,000 pages and I had to cut it down to 200 in order to get it published… people won’t read more than 150 pages,” Senator Larry Pressler said [Courtney Collen, “Former Senator Larry Pressler on His New Book,” KSFY, 2016.05.25].
Having read the 150 pages published, I want to read the other 850.
This slim autobiography breezes through Larry Pressler’s upbringing in Humboldt, his education at USD and Oxford, his tour of duty in Vietnam, his studies at Harvard Law, and his service to South Dakota in the U.S. House and Senate in about 45 pages. The bulk of the book, 90-some pages, recounts his Independent 2014 Senate campaign. Pressler concludes with about 15 pages of election post-mortem and recommendations for political reform.
The autobiography includes a fair number of enticing details—Pressler’s tension with his father over innovation in farming [p. 26], his heart-breaking (says Pressler) choice of Rhodes Scholarship over an unnamed USD girlfriend [p. 31], his experience in 1974 of his own party leaders’ viewing him as an “elitist outsider” [p. 46] due to his out-of-state experiences (the parallel to Matt Varilek 38 years later is noteworthy). However, with these details and others, just as I’m thinking “Interesting, tell me more,” Pressler turns to the next event, and the next. His penultimate campaign, the 1996 contest in which he lost his Senate seat to Tim Johnson, receives only a couple paragraphs, with no blow-by-blow that might inform choices made in the final campaign eighteen years later. Pressler has an interesting personal and political life; we need to hear more about it.
That breeziness becomes more frustrating when Pressler turns to the 2013 run-up and the 2014 campaign. As happened in 2008 when I read insider Jon Lauck’s “Anatomy” of the 2004 Daschle/Thune Senate race, I come away from Pressler’s first-person account of his 2014 campaign feeling like I didn’t get much of the insider detail that the man at the center of the storm could give us readers.
Pressler mentions Mike Rounds’s victory in the Republican primary in one sentence [p. 93], without any real analysis of how Rounds won that primary and what opportunities Pressler saw to win votes among the 46% of Republican primarygoers who did not vote for Rounds. Pressler spends three pages talking about the speech he gave to Sioux Falls Democratic Forum in April 2014 [pp. 87–89], but he doesn’t take that opportunity to evaluate his sense of Democrats’ support for their nominee, Rick Weiland, and his own ability to peel that support away. Pressler quotes one speculative, pot-stirring piece by Bob Mercer published a week after the primary suggesting Pressler could beat Rounds if Weiland quit and concludes, “there was a groundswell of support for Weiland to drop out and for his supporters to embrace me” [pp. 99–100]. I never saw such a groundswell; if the Pressler campaign had intel that such a groundswell existed, Pressler could share that evidence with us now. Pressler never mentions the other Independent on the 2014 ballot, Gordon Howie. Even if Pressler is of the opinion (borne out by the election) that Howie was a non-factor in the result, Pressler the astute political observer should say, “Howie was a non-factor,” and explain why the Tea Party angst Howie keeps trying to channel couldn’t get traction in the Senate race.
Pressler completely skips the Dakotafest debate, his first appearance on stage with Rounds, Weiland, and Howie, at which he acquitted himself as a still-sharp statesman brimming with policy ideas. That omission is perhaps excused by Pressler’s advancing directly to his astute cultural observations on the South Dakota State Fair. A 4-H alumnus (showing swine and competing in public speaking with the Humboldt Hustlers made Pressler the man he is today!), Pressler laments that the State Fair is a “dying tradition” [p. 102]. The fast food on the midway is “universally bad” with “no fresh fruits or vegetables… or any lean pork or beef, for that matter, although that is the criterion on which the fair’s blue-ribbon winners are determined” [p. 104]. And then Pressler turns completely into Wendell Berry:
One of the things I like to check out at state fairs is the farming equipment. I am an old tractor fan, and I like to see the new equipment. I can still recognize them, but the now seem to resemble equipment for construction rather than for farming. I don’t have the personal, emotional identification with these new types of tractors as I did with the older models.
Back when I was growing up, tractors were simpler and they actually had personalities that stemmed from their idiosyncrasies. In fact, it was almost as though the farmer’s and his tractor’s personalities merged [pp. 104–105].
Pressler weaves these observations with his account of solo campaigning amidst a State Fair crowd more interested in getting to the country western concerts, and it’s brilliant writing. I could read a couple hundred pages more like that.
But then we’re breezing along again to highlights of the campaign, to campaign talking points, media appearances, endorsements, and the tension between Pressler’s pride in not spending much on his campaign and wishing he’d had the money to hire staff and reach more voters. We learn that a spam attack shut down his campaign website server for a couple weeks in October, but otherwise, truly inside details from the campaign trail seem sparse.
But maybe the book reflects the nature of the campaign. Maybe Pressler 2014 really was one man winging it, without a team of trusted advisors analyzing the electorate and the opposition. There was no grand strategy. It was just Pressler, doing what he could with what time and money he had, and pausing every now and then to observe that Fair food is bad or that the view from the hill by Kennebec on a cold winter day makes a man feel very small [pp. 80–81].
Besides the personal snapshots of his career and what would seem to be his final campaign, Pressler offers some larger themes. Pressler contends that the Vietnam War “created a fracture in the American psyche that has never healed” [p. 34]. The “privileged elites” he saw avoiding the draft and leaving the war to be fought by the “less advantaged” forever soured him on “the Left” and undermined the common commitment to public service. Interestingly, Pressler suggests we heal the rift created by the “flawed” [p. 144] Vietnam draft by implementing mandatory national service. Young Americans could fulfill their national service obligation in many ways—military service, support work for first responders, participation in a new Civilian Conservation Corps (working as Pressler’s dad did in the 1930s, planting trees with the CCC in western South Dakota and Wyoming)—but there would be “no exceptions, no exemptions, no deferments” [p. 145].
Pressler contends in his preface that his campaign “did change politics in my state” and “did make history.” The latter portion of that statement is technically true: Pressler won 17% of the popular vote, the strongest showing of a third-party/non-party candidate for statewide office in recent memory. But that performance feels more like a historical footnote, not a watershed. Pressler’s tally did not change who won the 2014 election. Pressler’s 17% are nowhere to be seen in South Dakota’s 2016 political landscape. No one organized a “Pressler Party” or an Independents’ coordinating committee. No Independents or third-party candidates stepped forward to run for U.S. Senate or U.S. House; only seven candidates are running as Indies for South Dakota Legislature. Pressler credits Jackie Salit’s IndependentVoting.org for “trying to put together a repeal referendumon the ballot in 2016” to undo the Legislature’s effort to shut out Independent candidates with 2015’s Senate Bill 69. IndependentVoting.org did indeed help that referendum effort, but Pressler fails to note that most of the work on that successful referendum drive was done by the South Dakota Democratic Party and a certain Aberdeen blogger.
Pressler claims that his campaign “helped bring South Dakota politics back to a more moderate stance” [p. 150]. Pressler incorrectly says that our Senators have stopped trying to repeal Obamacare but doesn’t account for the anti-Obama politics that have prevented the Governor and Legislature from expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Pressler says the Obama impeachment rhetoric that he found so offensive in 2014 has faded, but he doesn’t discuss the new racism pushed by the man who won South Dakota’s GOP primary and embraced by all three of our Trump-endorsing Congressional delegates. Pressler doesn’t account the ongoing culture war waged by a Legislature obsessed with abortion, guns, and where transgender people pee, and Pressler doesn’t account for the return of the most radical conservative in the 2014 GOP primary, Stace Nelson, to politics. South Dakota politics seem as radically and oppressively conservative as before Pressler’s 2014 campaign.
Pressler seems a bit more attuned in his discussion of Independent impact and solutions to national politics. But even at that level, Pressler’s Independent bid seems not to have established a new paradigm. The discontent and desire for alternatives that Pressler says fueled his 17% take appears to have manifested itself in the big votes for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but both of those contenders chose to mount their Presidential bids within the two-party system. Michael Bloomberg toyed with but backed away from an Independent bid, and Gary Johnson and Jill Stein show no sign yet of igniting even a Ross Perot-sized 19% voter revolt. Pressler himself says an Independent stands no chance in the Presidential election at this point and advises any new party to start now if it wants to make a difference in 2020.
Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy is a gentle memoir of one man’s attempt to come out of retirement and save democracy. That story, seen strictly through Pressler’s eyes and combined with autobiography and proposals for political reform, is worth the brief time required to finish the 150-some pages. I’m glad Senator Pressler caught me on the phone in Thermopolis and sent me a copy to analyze.
But those of us joining Pressler on his mission to save our democracy want more: more details, more analysis… and more of a plan for finding that cantankerous 17%, getting each of them to bring two friends to the polls, and creating a voting majority that would send independent-minded reformers to Washington and to Pierre.