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Book review: All the way from Big Sandy, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s 'Grounded' new memoir

Book review: All the way from Big Sandy, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s 'Grounded' new memoir

Tester's book

Montana's senior U.S. senator is a headlining speaker at this year's book festival. He'll talk about his new book with Jeff Ament, a fellow Big Sandy native and Pearl Jam bassist.

On the sweltering Monday evening of Aug. 29, 2005, I was part of a crowd of several thousand people assembled to see the band Pearl Jam play the Adams Center at the University of Montana. As my friends and I waited just outside the front entrance, a burly mountain of a man with a tight flat-top haircut pressed past us and opened the door. He smiled at me and said, “I need to get inside!”

“Yeah, you do,” I said and held the door wide so he could shoulder through. When the door slammed shut behind him, my buddy said, “Who was that guy?”

“That’s the guy we are here for,” I said. “That’s Jon Tester.”

Though he’s certainly forgotten our brief interaction, the tale of that Pearl Jam show in Missoula and how it came to be is just one of many stories U.S. Sen. Jon Tester relates in his new book, “Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons On Winning Back Rural America.” The Pearl Jam concert was a fundraiser for the Democrat's first campaign in pursuit of joining the “most exclusive club in the world,” the United States Senate. Tester won that race, defeating incumbent Conrad Burns, a Republican, in a tightly-contested election in 2006. That election, and many events to follow, are key moments that turned a relatively unknown politician from a sparsely-populated region of a sparsely-populated state into one of the most recognizable personalities in the modern politics of the United States of America. A staunch and outspoken supporter of rural, working class people and veterans, Tester weathered, in his last campaign for re-election in 2018, a full court press by the 45th President of the United States to see him defeated. “Grounded” opens with that particular story, and in its telling I felt the smug satisfaction of how those events played out all over again.

There are two things I appreciate immediately about Tester’s book. First, for something it’s not: another tell-all book about the current president of the United States of a type currently dominating the world of political nonfiction. It seems every few weeks another muckraking book about how awful 45 is is breathlessly unleashed on the world, and people gobble it up. This is tedious and off-putting, frankly, and the sooner these books and their ilk fade from memory the better. The point here is that if you haven’t figured out yet that the guy in the oval office is a pathological liar and a narcissist out only for himself, you’re never going to.

The second thing about Tester’s book, and most important, is that “Grounded” is actually good! Tester is an affable guy and relates a good story, whether it is the incident with the meat grinder that cost him several fingers as a child, or his experiences as a referee for small town high school basketball. The man has always seemed to me to be a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy. Since that first brief encounter with him at his big benefit show, I’ve crossed paths with the senator many times over the years, in both sanctioned events and informal encounters, and he has always been friendly and generous with his time. That attitude comes through in his book, and if his stories lean a little, “Ah, shucks…," folksy it’s because that is who he is.

Biased as I am — Jon Tester is the first political candidate I ever actively participated in support of via campaign donations, attending fundraisers, etc. — I did not expect to like the book much. Yes, Tester spends quite a few pages relaying his political achievements, but it doesn’t read like the chest thumping one comes to expect from this type of book. The way the book is broken up, his stories overlap with stories from his youth; for example, anecdotes where his father makes the young man troubleshoot farm problems on his own (a farm Tester takes over while still in his 20s), that later serve him well in politics. These little gems help forge a larger picture of the senator, and I found myself liking him even more.

A nod must be made to co-author Aaron Murphy for the book’s readability. Murphy served as Tester’s press secretary and communications director from 2006-2013, and as his Chief of Staff from 2017-2019. Whatever role Murphy played in getting Tester’s memoir onto the page—and I suspect it was a significant one—he did so tastefully and with a light touch. This is Tester’s voice we are hearing here.

“Grounded” is a quick, interesting read. Tester’s political commentary on politics, from as inside as one can get, pulls no punches. I respect the honesty. Readers will come away with not just a fresh perspective on one of our country’s more notable public servants, but also, hopefully, inspired.

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