The Conscience of an Independent

There is a level of emotion that only men—and I mean men—who have run for public office and lost can appreciate. You pour every bit of male egocentric pride into a humungous unwieldy uncontrolled risky effort, take positions that will enliven some people to ecstasy and passionately infuriate others to blind rage, suffer every fool gladly seeing yourself as wise, go into debt, hazard your most cherished relationships, and permit petty concerns tear apart every seam of your psyche and soul, all in full public view. When you lose, it’s plaintively evident who voted for you and who didn’t. The voters say so. The others tell you how much they admire you. It is not a game for the faint of heart.

I lost an election once. Sixteen years later I can state with alacrity and high confidence that my experience had no lasting consequence in the public mind. It’s precisely for that reason that I have so much respect for my friend of decades Larry Pressler, and for what he’s just done.

Pressler Waving ParadeSenator Pressler has a new book, and I’ve been fortunate to be along for the whole ride. It tells a story, but the story of the story—there are deep layers here—is even better than his narrative proper. We need to begin at its germination.

In May 2013, Pressler accompanied me and the redoubtable Kathleen Murphy, my native guide to New York publishing and literary partner-in-crime, to the book launch and signing of The Navigator at BookExpo America. For that brief shining moment I was the momentary celebrity as he hung back, watching. He was there because he was interested in publishing a book, ruminating at the stage where the idea of a book is just taking root, still without form. Over there, out of the crush of the crowd, was a tall, quiet, good-looking guy—and not a single one of the hundreds of people in line to meet me had any clue that right there beside them was a man who had credibly run for President in 1980, served two terms in Congress and eighteen years as US Senator from South Dakota, thrived in private sector boardrooms, law firms, and classrooms, and then . . .

There was a movie.

American Hustle, released at Christmas 2013. The plot revolved around an almost long-forgotten political scandal in 1979 called ABSCAM, short for “Arab scam.” The FBI set up multiple stings, offering cash to members of Congress and Senators. Larry Pressler not only flat turned down the bribe immediately, he turned the FBI sting con man in to the FBI. Walter Cronkite called him an American hero. Pressler wasn’t having any of it. “I turned down an illegal contribution,” he said. “Where have we come to if that’s considered heroic?”

By the time American Hustle was released, Larry Pressler had been gone from politics, lawyering and teaching for seventeen years. That book he was thinking about at BEA would have to wait. The movie revived ABSCAM and interest in Larry Pressler.

With old media and new unexpectedly re-remembering him, Larry decided to run again in South Dakota, standing for election to his old Senate seat, open in the 2014 election cycle. Only this time, it wouldn’t be as a Republican, the lifelong loyalty of a Midwestern farm boy. He ran as an Independent.

Pressler’s book, An Independent Mission, is being published this week. It’s memoir, history, narrative, reflection, redemption, the story of his 2014 campaign, and prescription for America—or at least, for the part of America that isn’t already enamored with Trump world or the dynasticism of Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush.

So why did he run? Let’s let Larry Pressler tell it firsthand:

During my eighteen years out of public office, I was a professor and a columnist/contributor to South Dakota’s newspapers. In early 2013, I wrote a series of articles expressing my criticism of our nation’s exorbitant overseas military spending. As a Vietnam combat veteran . . . I expressed opposition to the foreign invasions, such as Iraq, that our military-industrial state seems to promote. I was surprised at the number of people who called me to voice their support for my position and to ask me to run for public office again.

One issue that inspired me was a proposal to establish a series of treatment centers around the country to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I suffer from PTSD myself and I wanted to weigh in on this idea. I had sponsored some of the original legislation to get PTSD listed as a disability and worked extensively with veterans in a volunteer capacity. If elected to the Senate, I wanted to introduce a bill that would make it easier for veterans to get support for their treatment and not hurt their careers.

Pressler John Deere TractorI began to tell people that I would be willing to serve again, but not as a traditional Republican or Democrat. I only wanted to go back to Washington as an Independent, where I would not have to submit to the power of special interests in one of the Senate party caucuses. To be honest, in my soul, I was seeking a role where I could still be useful in public service—but I did not want to be handcuffed by our deadlocked political system. And that meant becoming an Independent US senator. I began to believe that this was the time and the opportunity to do it.

A key part of my belief, and desire to run again, was that if we could elect two to five Independents to the US Senate, it would break the gridlock in our federal government. The Senate is really the key chamber in terms of getting new legislation passed. President Abraham Lincoln envisioned something similar in his quest to get several new Republican senators to break the political deadlock in the 1850s.

Pressler’s voice as a writer—the cadence of Dakota prairie honed at Oxford and Harvard by way of Vietnam—is deep, sentimental, kind, probing, and genuine. His innate strength is a spiritual seeking, and in An Independent Mission that strength is character, not composed reason, not diffuse passion. It’s plaintive soul expressed with competence, decency, and vision.

When he was writing his book this summer, Pressler and I talked a lot about its title, which came late and after a lot of temporizing. He even tossed around half-seriously the idea of calling it The Squandering Generation or The Worst Generation, just to get readers’ attention—a bold way of saying that our Baby Boomer generation (he is just ahead of its leading edge, I am in the middle) let the nation get to this point of dissonance in our political dialogue.

The most poignant passages in An Independent Mission are also the most personal: Larry’s stammering as a child. The University of South Dakota on the edge of The Sixties. His Future Farmers of America trip to Washington to meet JFK. Harvard Law as a veteran in the hotbed of Vietnam protests, “turned off by the whole war.” Tricia Nixon’s wedding (he was a groomsman for Ed Cox). ABSCAM. Ronald Reagan inquiring, perhaps with prescience, about his father’s early Alzheimer’s disease.

And there’s one part that’s intimately personal—especially to combat veterans. I’ve known for a long time about Larry Pressler’s struggle with PTSD. What’s remarkable is that he shares his “invisible wounds.” He had headed to Vietnam, ending his Rhodes Scholarship a year early, as a volunteer—earning a Bronze Star as an infantry officer.

LT Larry Pressler VietnamIn late 1967, I contracted hepatitis and was sent to a military convalescent center in South Vietnam. I experienced frightening nightmares when I was there. The events that triggered these nightmares had taken place earlier that year. At the time, the American news media were up in arms about the US military’s accounting of enemy body counts, which the journalists charged were flagrantly inflated. To counter their negative stories, the South Vietnamese government instituted a body count verification program to verify the statistics. Teams of Vietnamese soldiers and some American advisers were dispatched into the field to provide eyewitness accounts. I accompanied one of these teams. What I saw during that mission was seared forever in my mind’s eye: dozens of dead Vietnamese (it was impossible to tell whether they were VC or civilians), their brains spilling out of their broken skulls, their teeth scattered on the blood-soaked ground. And worse—much, much worse.

The sights that met me at the convalescent center were just as horrific as those on fields of old battles. I saw soldiers and Marines with empty eye sockets and half their faces blown away. Some of the men were in such horrible condition that they were kept strapped down and in induced comas until they could be evacuated to better-equipped military hospitals in Japan and the Philippines.

If you ever wonder what propels individuals into public service beyond personal ambition, there is your answer. The narrative arc here is quite literally fifty years of American politics and social turmoil, lived by one man whose fundamental humility still appears to be remarkably intact—which may be why his 2014 independent campaign came that close, but was ultimately unsuccessful.

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There is one area that as authors we don’t talk about all that often, because for the most part these matters are in the hands of our legacy publishers, where at best we get to believe the polite fiction that we’re part of the book production decision process.

An Independent Mission CoverLarry Pressler’s book—the physical, pick-up-and-hold-it book—actually reflects the man and his values. Pressler made an intrepid early decision to self-publish An Independent Mission—principally so that he could control its timing. Kathleen Murphy (whose pedigree is Amherst, Harvard, and Simon & Schuster) stepped in to advise the Senator on preparing it for publication as he finished and polished the last few drafts. He then made a number of bold choices that not only enhance his message of independence and “winning by losing,” but convey it beyond some of our usual publishing conventions—to which Pressler doesn’t necessarily adhere.

The graphic front is stunning, its red-on-blue hues resonating Pressler’s 1986 study Star Wars: The Strategic Defense Initiative Debates in Congress (Praeger). The page set-up is ragged right with a slightly opened line spacing, which gives his written language a slower, important, lyrical feel—not unlike his favorite cowboy poetry, a recurring theme. He’s included photographs interleaved in the text rather than bunched in a center insert, and then he spaced and paced the book to impart significant gravitas and weight, kind of a keen psychological treatment. As a result it’s more worthy and fulfilling than the bookshelves full of Washington memoirs that, frankly, don’t matter nearly as much as An Independent Mission. The integration of the physical set-ups with the “mission” may be one of Pressler’s most innovative memetics.

In politics and service, Larry Pressler is an American giant. An Independent Mission is a book worthy of its author’s great gifts and life.