What Pawlenty Said

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The Democratic National Committee has been having fun with my recent profile of Tim Pawlenty–specifically by bashing him, as this video does, for allegedly responding “I don’t know, I wish I had a good answer for you” when I asked him why he’s running for President.

But that’s a distortion of our exchange. Although our conversation touched on Pawlenty’s rationale for running, my questions were after something different. I was curious to know when Pawlenty, whose strength and weakness is his regular-guy persona, came to think of himself as presidential material. In the hope of clearing things up, I’m posting the transcript of our exchange on this question, which occurred at a radio station in Des Moines earlier this month, and which I have edited very lightly to clean up grammar and elide irrelevant asides:

TIME: Was there a time when you remember starting to think about the possibility of running for President?

PAWLENTY: Well, I was really — I know in terms of seriously considering, it was probably in fall of — fall of ’10…. No, I’m sorry, it would’ve been in the fall of ’09. So I was thinking that, you know, this was a possibility. I wasn’t sure whether I was gonna do it or not, but I wanted to at least do some things to explore the idea and preserve the option. And as it turns out, a number of other things happened that kind of did that on a parallel track anyhow. So I became the vice chair of the [Republican Governor's Association],  which wasn’t directly related to running for President, but allowed me to help other candidates around the country and raise money for them and get acquainted with a broader political network. And then, two, we started a PAC in the fall of ’09, the Freedom First PAC, and that became kind of the platform and vehicle for travel and speeches and political activity. And that was geared – it genuinely was used to influence the 2010 elections. But it was during that time where I started to think, ‘Well, I at least should explore this, or at least think about it.’ And in terms of a final decision and seriously thinking about it, it was kind of this last holiday season, kind of Christmas season.

TIME: I guess I mean it almost in a more existential way – you know, you think about the way Haley Barbour phrased it–

PAWLENTY: Oh–

TIME: …when he said he didn’t want to run. I think he phrased it well: You have to be ready for a 10 year commitment to this onslaught. And you are going to go into the history books, and you will be sending people to their deaths. And all that gravity, it must start stirring up, I don’t know, in the middle of the night. I mean, in other words, surely before the fall of 2009 you started to think to yourself, ‘Can I do this? Am I one of these chosen few in history?’ And where did that germinate from?

PAWLENTY: You know, I don’t know. I wish I had a good answer for you for that. I didn’t seriously consider it until recently, and I could have gone either way with the decision in the sense that over this last holiday season, Mary and I talked about this at length, and many times, and it was a close call. I mean, it could have easily gone the other way [laughs] for all the reasons youre suggesting. [laughs] You know, I  turned 50 last year, and I’m realizing I’m — if I’m not in the fourth quarter, I’m in the third quarter of the chronological clock. I was governor for eight years and majority leader for four and have done a lot, and so you start to think about, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just go make some money and play golf and play hockey and drink some beer, and life will be good. But then you start thinking, ‘Well, how cynical is that? You know, to take the easy path, take the path that is just comfortable but is not as meaningful. And then you get inspired to make a difference. But it was a close call, I’ll be very candid with you. It could have gone either way, and I struggled with the decision in the sense that – not that I don’t think I can do the job, or couldn’t win. But was it really right for me and my family? But in terms of any other notions early on, or, you know, 20 years ago or 15 years ago or something, I never really thought about it in concrete terms until kind of late in my governorship….

TIME: Do ever regret – you studied dentistry, right? – do you ever imagine yourself with a nice practice, you go home at six o’clock… [laughs]

PAWLENTY: I do. I like other things, too. I like sports. I enjoy creative talent and work. I love my family and friends. I enjoy my church. I enjoy reading, I enjoy outdoor activities–I like to fish, I like to hunt. I like to learn. And I like to get involved in charity and community events. I like to walk my dog, I like to watch football. I can be very happy not being in politics. In fact I’m often very happy not — doing nonpolitical things. So I look at all that and I think, ‘I really don’t need this.’ But I also take to heart this notion that I don’t think we were put here just to take the easy path. I think we were put here to try to make a difference and take what we’ve been given and try to do some good with it. And for me– it’s not for everybody–that has led to the ability to endure politics and do pretty well at it. And there’s an opportunity, I think, to do even more.