Gov. Granholm’s Hybrid
by Bill Castanier
September 18, 2011
Former Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and Daniel Mulhern’s new book, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future, begins with more of a bounce than a bang.
The book opens with Dan Mulhern, the governor-elect’s husband, bouncing for joy on a bed in a downtown Detroit hotel room in November 2002. Granholm has just been elected the first woman governor of Michigan, and her husband is bouncing on the bed yelling, “You won! We won! You won!”
How the exuberance of victory would soon lead to eight years of crises, budget cuts, a downward spiraling economy and the near loss of the auto industry then becomes the focus of their story.
In a recent interview, Granholm told Dome, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were coming in at the right time.”
Granholm was making reference to being elected to her first term right at a time when Michigan was at the bottom of the economic cycle. It is considered a politician’s dream to be able to lead a state from a trough to economic resurgence. In fact, her predecessors, Jim Blanchard and John Engler, had been elected in somewhat similar situations.
In the book, Granholm advisor Dave Katz is quoted as telling Granholm, “…when things bounce back later this year, you’ll reap the credit for the turnaround.” Although Granholm makes no claims that some of the advice she received was sketchy, the book indirectly makes a case for it, and Katz’s advice would not be the first nor the last time her advisors show their naivety.
As the book simply points out, reality was to be found elsewhere. Deficits had been piling up, consumers had quit buying cars and the anti-tax, smaller government movement was festering.
Granholm relates in the book how her administration quickly realized the economic turndown wasn’t cyclical, and she writes how, “Life in the governor’s chair quickly turned out to be less about enacting my agenda and more about managing a cascading series of crises.”
It is in writing about these crises, especially the fall of the Big Three, that the book really takes off. At points too chatty and sluggish, the book and Granholm appear to be at their peak in chapters titled “Free Fall” and “The Unthinkable” (Read an excerpt from The Unthinkable), which detail the December 2008–June 2009 industry meltdown and Granholm’s role in saving the U.S. auto industry from extinction. During this time the book recounts how hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost, perhaps forever, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed.
The Granholm-Mulhern book is difficult to categorize. It’s neither a true political memoir nor a true autobiography, and even though it is a first-person narrative it is clearly written by the first couple. Mulhern, whose name appears on the book dust jacket in the same size as Granholm’s, is not relegated to the role of ghostwriter. When asked if one was ever considered, he said, “No — never.”
Granholm, who Mulhern identified lovingly as his “value partner” in the interview, agrees the book is not easily categorized and calls it a “hybrid.”
“It’s about a specific period of time and crafted in a way to illustrate the similarities [between Michigan and the U.S. economies]. It is prophetic. Our problems weren’t cyclical, they were structural, and what Michigan experienced is being experienced now nationally.”
And in response to the question “Why now?,” she said it was written so soon after her term ended to “help form the [national] debate.”
“Right now debate is happening in Washington and the crises are similar to what happened in Michigan — there are so many parallels.”
She cites in the book and the interview examples of gridlock, a wealthy businessman facing off against the president (referring to her race against Richard DeVos), the rise of the conservative right and the emergence of the international economy.
“It’s déjà vu.”
Mulhern said what the Obama administration is now encountering “wasn’t unlike what Jennifer encountered.” In fact, when Granholm took office, both legislative houses and the Supreme Court were controlled by the Republican Party. She said that for someone who came in wanting to play offense, she was forced into the role of defense.
Granholm and Mulhern in the interview said they were candid in the book about how the economic crisis put stress on their marriage and family life. It’s made very clear in the book that Mulhern at one time saw himself as running for governor and then found himself as primary parent for their three children.
Granholm writes that “there was slow burning resentment in him: my preoccupation with all things Michigan had made him feel that he’d given up both the wife and the life he’d expected.”
Several scenes in the book depict some tense moments at the “control center” — twin computer screens in their bedroom where they worked side by side.
“We worked really hard to be candid,” Mulhern said.
He said the book is also about their own “personal reinvention and that leaders and followers are very much in the same boat.” And as the story is retold in the book, the boat was quickly filling with water, no matter how fast everyone bailed.
“It was such a scary time for all of us. There were so many people hanging by threads,” Granholm said.
Early in the book, she relates how she would help broker a deal to save the Detroit Medical Center from closure. Deep into her second term she would use that experience, along with the experiences learned from dealing with massive closures and layoffs of companies like Pfizer, Electrolux, Delphi and Comerica, to go on the offensive to help save the U.S. auto industry.
Unlike most memoirs, A Governor’s Story contains no blockbuster revelations or Palinesque partying stories. Readers will likely be disappointed that there aren’t at least more details about her actress tryouts and her role as a Palin stand-in at debate practice for Vice President Joe Biden.
That and her experience with the automotive bailout would help create a high profile for Granholm within the Obama administration, and she would ultimately be on the president-elect’s team of economic advisors.
Of that appointment Granholm writes in a self-deprecating manner: “I felt like the imposter, the one who’d been invited by mistake. But everyone knew why I was there. I was the voice of the most troubled state in the nation, home of the most troubled industry in America.”
In the hybrid-memoir Granholm-Mulhern also offer “eight strategies that are working in Michigan” to reinvent the economy. The list was recently trimmed to a five-point plan for an article in USA Today.
The eight strategies are what Granholm-Mulhern call “cracking the code” or changing traditional ways of looking at the economy. They write: “We experienced some failures and a growing number of successes. In the process, we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.”
She said in her interview that Michigan tried all the traditional methods, including lowering taxes and making government smaller, and none of it worked until the Obama administration allowed what she called “partnerships with government.”
In a chapter titled “Green Shoots,” the book details Michigan’s partnership with the federal government to create battery and clean energy projects in Michigan and what she called a “uniquely American strategy.” Those investments, if they pan out, could prove to be her legacy.
The Granholm-Mulhern team is now teaching at the University of California Berkeley — in what some see as the ultimate irony for a governor who was a proponent of cool cities to keep Michigan’s best and brightest from moving away. A spokesperson for the book said the Granholm’s no longer own property in Michigan, but they are in the market for lakefront property.
Granholm said she would like to someday be able to add “another chapter” to the book.
“I would love to in a few years be able to write a chapter of reinvention — it could be a story with a happy ending.”
This week expect to see Granholm popping up on a plethora of Michigan radio and national television news and talk show programs to promote the book, everything from Hardball to The Daily Show. Granholm and Mulhern both take the stage for their first Michigan book appearance the evening of Tuesday, September 27, at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor.
Although what Granholm-Mulhern write about in A Governor’s Story is recent history, it’s easy to forget the chronology and details of one of Michigan’s most desperate times. The book does an excellent job in defining those times and provides a behind-the-scenes look at a real-life, gut-wrenching drama as it unfolds.
As you might expect, it is a sympathetic look at a governor who got more than she bargained for. After all, even in a hybrid memoir you get to tell your side of the story.
Note: An excerpt from the book showing the stress of the demanding auto bankruptcy and bailout is available here, thanks to the publisher. The excerpt finds a nervous and apprehensive Granholm awaiting a call from President Obama regarding whether the federal government would force GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy.