January 19, 2021

Book review: 'Grounded' by Jon Tester

Senator Tester's memoir could become a helpful roadmap for coastal Democrats fighting for rural votes. The question is: will they pick it up and read it?


[Cross-posted from The Daily Yonder]

By Lisa Pruitt

Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana got little fanfare from the press when he published his memoir, Grounded, in September 2020.  Only the Wall Street Journal reviewed the book, while National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed the Senator.  The New York Times finally talked to Tester, too, but only in mid-December.  

 

I can see why national media wouldn’t rush to do puff pieces on a self-serving book, which all memoirs are, of course, if only in their aim of selling books.  More so political memoirs, even when there’s no reason to believe Tester is planning a presidential run.  Indeed, at age 64 and with four years left in his third Senate term, it’s not at all clear Tester will again run for anything.  

 

But I’d have thought that the subtitle of Tester’s book, “A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” (author’s emphasis) sets it apart.  The rural-urban divide is a topic that garners a lot of airtime and column inches in the mainstream media.  Many say they want to build bridges across the burgeoning geographic chasm.  Yet, so far, neither coastal progressives nor Republicans are engaging Tester’s blueprint for that very task.  Indeed, Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ 2018 plan to win back rural Democrats arguably garnered more publicity than Grounded has thus far attracted.

 

So what gives?  Once again in 2020, Democrats did not fare well among rural voters, keeping Tester’s hybrid memoir-policy manifesto timely.  Have progressive influencers read the book and found Tester’s suggestions untenable, unpalatable, or impractical?  A bridge too far and therefore not worth discussing, let alone implementing? 

 

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I got around to reading Grounded last month, I found it to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable.  It landed on my reading list “for business,” because I think, teach and write about rural issues. But I stayed with Grounded for the pleasure of reading the life story and ruminations of a rural iconoclast in 21st century politics.

  

The book’s appeal to me is no doubt a function of my interest in rural people and places, but you don’t have to be a ruralist to appreciate Grounded. Indeed, metro folks are the ones with the most to learn from it.  And Tester has even provided a shortcut for the efficient consumer:  Skip to the Epilogue where you’ll find two handy “to do” lists, one for Democrats and one for Republicans.  But readers who cut straight to the chase will shortchange themselves on the rich detail of Tester’s life, deeply rooted in rural Big Sandy, Montana, and a short history of that state’s politics, including the successful, century-long fight to banish dark money from politics. 

 

Most people who follow national politics even a little bit know something about Tester, the giant of a Senator with a big smile, a flat-top haircut, a direct manner, and a passion for government accountability.  Some will know that Tester lost three fingers to a meat grinder in his parents’ butcher shop when he was nine years old.  Folks may also be aware that Tester is the only U.S. Senator who’s also a full-time farmer.  But did you know that Tester’s college degree is in music, that as a young man he taught music at the elementary school in Big Sandy?


Tester inherited both his politics — he’s an unapologetic FDR Democrat — and his interest in politics from his mother, Helen, who got it from her mother, Christine.  Tester’s reverence for these women, as well as for his wife Sharla, his partner in both life and the management of their 1800-acre farm, is palpable throughout the book.  

 

Tester parlayed early stints on the Big Sandy School Board and the Choteau County Soil Conservation District into a seat in the Montana State Senate in the mid 1990s; he soon became the president of that legislative body.  Then, in 2006, Tester took a big political plunge, challenging U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who had gotten entangled with scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Tester narrowly defeated Burns, thus reclaiming the Senate seat that had been held by Mike Mansfield (1953-77), the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in our nation’s history.  Assisted by former staffer Aaron Murphy (who gets some authorial credit on Grounded), Tester details these and other adventures in life and politics in a well-paced and engaging fashion.  Admitting that I’m a sucker for authenticity, grit, and hard work — as long as the deed accompanies the word — Tester’s book delivers. 

 

The central tension in Grounded arises from Tester’s 2018 re-election bid, a race that suddenly tightened that spring when President Trump set his sights on Tester’s defeat.  The senior senator from Montana caught Trump’s eye — and raised the president’s ire — when, as ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester challenged the appointment of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the Department.  (Jackson was White House physician to Trump, as he had been to Obama and Bush).  Tester’s stance on the nomination was based on credible information that Jackson had provided controlled substances without a prescription and engaged in other questionable practices.  Ultimately, Jackson withdrew his candidacy for the VA job, giving Tester a victory in round one against Trump. 

 

Enraged that Tester had derailed his nominee, Trump declared war on Tester.  The president flew to Montana four times in the ensuing months and also dispatched his children to stump for Tester’s opponent.  In a state that Trump had carried by some 20 points, the Cook Political Report eventually moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.” 

 

Come Election Day 2018, however, Tester prevailed in round two against Trump.  The Senator won his third term by garnering the votes of not only Democrats and Independents but also 7% of registered Republicans.  Indeed, it was the first time Tester won his Senate seat by a majority rather than a mere plurality.  Along the way, Donald Trump Jr. called Tester a “piece of shit,” and Tester had ample opportunity to demonstrate his political acumen. On the day of Trump’s first visit to the state, Tester took out full-page ads in 14 Montana newspapers with this text:

 

“Welcome to Montana, and thank you President Trump for supporting Jon’s legislation to help veterans and first responders, hold the VA accountable, and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government.  Washington’s a mess — but that’s not stopping Jon from getting things done for Montana.”

 

Grounded pulls no punches with Trump and his family.  Tester repeatedly refers to Donald Trump, Jr., as the “greasy-haired kid,” (p. 27) and he likens the elder Trump to the biggest bully on the Big Sandy school playground — the one Tester took on and thumped as a kid, sending a signal to all the bullies to buzz off.