MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Late in 2005, I ran into an attorney who was a top aide to then County Attorney Amy Klobuchar. I shared what I thought was my expert opinion that while Klobuchar was a good county attorney, she would stand little chance against Patty Wetterling, who I considered the leading candidate for the DFL nomination for Minnesota’s open U.S. Senate seat.
The woman looked at me and said, “You don’t know Amy. Don’t underestimate her.”
Wetterling would eventually drop out of the race and Klobuchar went on to rout Congressman Mark Kennedy by 20 percentage points in the 2006 general election.
No one in Minnesota underestimates Klobuchar these days, and her new memoir reveals what has led to her remarkable political success.
“The Senator Next Door” is a candid and often funny memoir. It peels back the layers of what on the surface appeared an ideal childhood growing up in what Klobuchar describes as the new suburban frontier of Plymouth. But beneath the sheen of ’60s suburbia, there was trouble.
The Klobuchar home was menaced by the alcoholism of Klobuchar’s celebrated father, Jim, who was a star columnist for the Star Tribune. After one of Jim’s DUI arrests, the word “drunk” was written on her locker at Wayzata High School, (where it remained for several days). There was a harrowing near-car accident and delayed Christmas celebrations as Klobuchar, her sister and mother waited for Jim to return home.
The most searing anecdote comes when the senator was just 15. That’s when her father asked her mother for a divorce on Thanksgiving Day. A devastated Klobuchar sat out of sight around the corner and heard her mother sob, “How can I afford this ? How can I stay in the house?”
While her father later found sobriety, the senator writes how being a child of an alcoholic shaped her. In perhaps the most telling line from the book, Klobuchar says her father’s battle with alcohol “has given me a low tolerance for lying, and a high tolerance for trying to fix every problem that comes across my path, even when it isn’t possible.”
While the book is bluntly honest, at times it is also very funny. She is at her very best as a writer and a storyteller when she focuses on the personal. The book is a gem on the foibles of politics and personality.
In one story, when she once delivered a televised speech from the Senate floor, she received an anonymous note saying: “Senator Klobuchar pull up your shirt, your cleavage is showing.”
In another anecdote, her teenage daughter Abigail, thrilled her mom got her into a dinner and photo opportunity with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ended up cropping the senator out of the photo. And there is the priceless anecdote of her delaying a U.S. Senate vote because of an urgent call from Abigail who needed help getting dad — Klobuchar’s husband University of Baltimore Law School Professor John Bessler — to understand that a “tankini” is not the same as a bikini and that it is OK to wear to a school swimming party.
The book is a great read for anyone who has struggled with work and family balance. It is also a humorous look back at the challenges posed by the first generation of women entering the workplace in the aftermath of the ’70s women’s movement. (I had forgotten about those floppy bow ties we all wore with our boxy suits.) And it is also a refreshing and amusing insight into the arcane workings of the U.S. Senate.
The senator has repeatedly been asked if this book is also a launching pad for a run for higher office, possibly even the presidency. While Klobuchar has repeatedly denied such aspirations, her book’s closing chapter outlines a domestic and international leadership view that suggests higher office is squarely in her sight lines.
For now, it’s not clear what if any traction this book will get outside of Minnesota. But this candid and often humorous memoir offers a singular leadership perspective straight from Middle America. And in the unlikely chance her political career gets derailed, the senator has one obvious option: This senator next door know how to write.