The Friends of Tim Pawlenty

The governor's right: Many "public servants" do what he and the friends of Tim have done. That's what reeks about it.

Call him Babyface. Even Tim Pawlenty's political foes are prone to leavening their criticisms with testaments to what a personable guy he is. The quality is an asset to any politician, but it's especially useful to one with Pawlenty's slash-and-burn fiscal politics. If you conjure the names of other Midwestern governors who have pushed similar spending devolutions--Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson, Michigan's John Engler--you notice that most are polarizing figures with a reputation for public mean-spiritedness. Not Pawlenty. Up to now, anyway, he has shared Jesse Ventura's greatest political strength, which was the public impression that what you saw was what you got. And what you saw in Governor Tim's case, or were supposed to see, was an earnest if penurious public servant who was not out to hurt people, even if his policies did just that. (As to the last, so what? In American politics, professed intentions always count for more than results.)

One reason nice-guy politicians like Pawlenty fare so well is that people naturally assume they possess the other attributes we associate with nice people, such as fairness, guilelessness (relatively speaking; they needn't be Pollyannas, but they can't be inveterate schemers either), and a habit of treating others as they would like to be treated--in other words, of holding themselves to the same standards of conduct as everybody else.

Clearly none of this applies in Pawlenty's case, unless you take the governor's doe-eyed account of his current troubles at face value. We are asked to believe that he a) served actively and responsibly as a board officer for a telecom holding company, earning stock that he eventually cashed in for $10,000, yet never knew a thing about the questionable marketing habits of a key subsidiary; and b) gave no thought to concealment when he set up the functional equivalent of a blind shell company to receive tens of thousands of dollars in payments from a pal and telecom associate during his 2002 run for governor.

Pawlenty's flair for political calculation under pressure has never been more evident than on the Tuesday after the first Pioneer Press story broke. He spent an astonishing two hours talking to the press about allegations that a telecom whose board he'd served on was guilty of shady business practices; his manner was humble, though he never exactly stopped talking like a lawyer. "I don't want to say I wasn't responsible," he hedged. "All I want to say are the facts. Should I have known? If the answer is yes, then I am responsible, no question about it." If the governor balks, you must let him walk!

During the session, Pawlenty offered an additional, oh by the way disclosure: He had also received large payments from his friend, political ally, and telecom associate Elam Baer during Pawlenty's run for governor last year. These fees (or not) were said to total considerably more than he earned as a legislator, yet the arrangement was never publicly disclosed. Moreover, he conceded, he could not really account for any specific legal projects he had worked on.

The governor only wanted to come clean about his associations with the Baer circle, he implied--though he had obviously felt no need to disclose any aspect of them before the shit hit the fan. When the press sit-down was over, no one in attendance commented in writing on the mastery of what Pawlenty had done: He had used the occasion of a minor scandal to let the air out of a potentially major one. Public opinion usually does not look kindly upon undisclosed financial relationships between politically connected businesses and politicians who seem to have done no demonstrable work for their money.

So far the gambit is working reasonably well. The local papers did dwell on the "consulting" disclosure for a couple of days, but by last Friday the stories had grown softer and were full of experts making excuses on the governor's behalf, about the ease of making such a mistake and of correcting it. In Friday's Pioneer Press, one story logged pundits' complaints that the governor himself was keeping the scandals alive by talking about them too much. I guess it's left to me to defend his intelligence and sound judgment: The governor, like any good lawyer caught at a disadvantage, is talking about them just enough to dilute and confuse the real issue.

Pawlenty's preemptive disclosure was hardly brilliant in one sense. Lots of nine-year-olds have already figured out there's less trouble if you 'fess up in toto when you're caught. But it was both shrewd and bold by the lights of contemporary political practice, which typically dictates more lies and stonewalling in the hope that people will get bored and forget about the whole mess. And they always do. Seen from that angle, maybe there is a bit of genius in Pawlenty's approach--by his Tuesday revelation, he slipped a real live baby into the tepid bathwater of the board membership scandal. And now, barring fresh disclosures, all he has to do is wait for it to be thrown out. The DFL has already indicated through its silence that it won't be pursuing the affair seriously (see Robson, p. 20).

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