As I read Gov. Scott Walker’s new book I took copious notes. I felt obliged to scrutinize it on behalf of the many politically engaged Madisonians who likely will not endure it themselves.
I vowed not to write a hyperventilating column detailing the distortions, though I certainly found examples in the Republican governor’s version of recent history.
I kept reminding myself of what this book is: a 255-page press release for a narrow audience of conservative activists, mostly outside Wisconsin. That is the target audience Walker needs to impress as he pitches his tea party credentials for a run at the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
Walker began his national book tour for his book, “Unintimidated, A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge,” with an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday. Judging from that interview and others since, I suspect his self-promotion will be consistent: he’s an outsider with a record of leading big change, a leader who is not part of the morass in Washington, D.C.
Of course that also applies to Chris Christie, the charismatic New Jersey governor who recently won landslide re-election in another blue state and who dwarfs Walker in every way, including as a national persona. Slate’s John Dickerson says Christie is a leader who “creates his own weather,” while a challenge for Walker will be his “temperate demeanor.”
But Walker and his strategists probably see goal one as his becoming the top choice of the most strident tea party conservatives, leaving for later the contest against someone like Christie, maligned as he is for being too “moderate.”
That goal, to be the darling of the far, far right, probably explains why Walker has been willing for more than three years to back the most extreme position on anything before him, lest he be assailed as impure at some future Iowa caucus meeting.
So, to promote this strategy, he teamed with GOP operative Marc Thiessen, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush from 2004 until Bush left office, to share the Walker lessons from Wisconsin.
They are predictably distorted and self-serving, but three themes did emerge in my reading:
He throws even his allies under the bus: Sure, foes of Walker’s attack on public sector union rights are portrayed as thuggish, smelly, foul-mouthed, threatening and uncompromising. And they are, unlike him, the pawns of special interests.
But I was struck by how, time and again, Walker makes Republicans in the Legislature or even on his own staff look weak and clueless. He does so, I assume, to sharpen the contrast with his personal brand of vision and courage.
Take poor Mike Ellis, the GOP state Senate president, who appears in multiple references as at once profane and timid. When Walker revealed to Ellis his plan to dismantle public-sector unions, Walker wrote that his response “was more colorful than I can describe here, but his basic message was: ‘Gov. Walker has lost his mind.’ ” Ellis eventually gets it, though. Later in the seven references to Ellis in Walker’s book, he finally accepts Walker’s vision, or so he writes.
Then, when Walker is duped by a caller impersonating billionaire industrialist David Koch, Walker sounds eager to blame staff. “I had hesitated taking the call,” Walker writes. “We were so busy trying to pass the bill (abolishing union rights), I did not want any distraction from that effort. But my staff finally convinced me,” adding later, “Against my better instincts, I took the call.”
Walker even claims in his book that his staff tried for a week or more to convince him to take the call, but the impersonator says that’s false, that he only tried to get through on that single day.
As I absorbed Walker’s cumulative self-image, I thought of the old saying, “Once I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.”
His Reagan fixation is creepy: It was reported long ago that Walker first spoke of blowing up public sector union rights at an Executive Residence staff dinner. Walker writes in the book how he wanted a “Braveheart” moment, so he talked about how President Reagan had crushed (he termed it “took action against”) the air traffic controllers union during his first year in office, and that somehow helped lead to the end of the Cold War. Um, sure.
The book also describes how he and wife, Tonette, host an annual party on Reagan’s birthday in which they serve Reagan’s favorite foods — “macaroni and cheese casserole, and red, white and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans — and have musicians perform patriotic songs and Irish music.” Tonette, noting that Reagan’s birthday is the same date as their wedding anniversary, says she knows her husband will not forget the anniversary.
But the clincher for Reagan creepiness is when Walker slams GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for calling 47 percent of Americans “a bunch of moochers” during the 2012 campaign. By contrast, Walker writes, Reagan “connected with the daily struggles of ordinary Americans.”
Walker apparently wants to ignore that it was Reagan who famously introduced “welfare queen” into the national lexicon in 1976. It was a fanciful tale of a Chicago woman cheating on welfare benefits. But then, Reagan “specialized in the exaggerated, outrageous tale that was almost always unsubstantiated, usually false, yet so sensational that it merited repeated recounting,” as a University of Michigan communications professor wrote in 2005. Yup, Reagan not only talked about moochers just as Romney did, he actually created the trend.
His egocentricity is just bizarre: Throughout his book, Walker paints himself as visionary, but, even with that, some descriptions are simply odd. He tells of his visiting a GOP caucus meeting at the height of the Capitol protests. “When I arrived, the room erupted,” he says. His apparently astute comments convinced squeamish Republicans that “we have a chance to do something that will change the course of history in our state.” Walker writes that his remarks were met not simply with applause, but with “loud, sustained applause.”
And then there is the delusional self-image around courage. In fact, “courage” feels like the second most-used term in the book, trailing only “reforms,” that key GOP descriptor for attacks on public sector collective bargaining rights.
Walker portrays himself as courageous during the Capitol protests, courageous during the recall effort, and then suggests the entire nation would benefit from his brand of courageous and uncompromising leadership. In the sentence that precedes the outsized applause referenced above, he proclaims: “If there was ever a moment you could pull deep within your reservoir of courage, this is that time.”
Funny, but to me, courage is more apt for those in the military, or police officers or firefighters, or maybe the occupants of the medical emergency helicopter zooming overhead on a snowy, windy night.
Not a governor with wealthy special interest backers and majorities in both houses.
But that’s just me.