God got Scott Walker out of a serious jam. It was February 2011, well into the showdown between the new Republican governor of Wisconsin and the public sector unions. Ian Murphy, the editor of the Buffalo Beast, called Walker’s office pretending to be donor/industrialist David Koch. The journalist, doing his best impression of a rich guy who didn’t actually sound much like Koch, goaded Walker into talking about his strategy for passing Act 10, designed to largely end collective bargaining in the public sector.
The conversation lasted 20 minutes. Walker talked; Murphy/Koch occasionally goaded him. “Bring a baseball bat,” said Murphy/Koch. “I have one in my office,” said Walker, “a Slugger with my name on it.” Walker referred obliquely to Koch’s “guy on the ground” during the crisis, and when Murphy/Koch asked about the wisdom of “planting some troublemakers,” Walker said his team had “thought about that” but dismissed it.
It was a prank that became the nadir of Walker’s crisis. In his new memoir, Unintimidated, Walker (and co-writer Marc Thiessen*, the Bush administration speechwriter turned columnist) devote a whole chapter to the call. The governor claims that he “hesitated” to take it, and “was upset that my staff had let the call get through to my office, making me look so silly.” He never actually “thought about” the fake troublemakers—he now writes that he “did not want to insult Mr. Koch by saying that we would never do something so stupid.”
He doesn’t mention the baseball bat at all, skipping right ahead to the press conference called to clean up the mess. Walker only took four questions as protesters chanted at a decibel level that rammed right through the office doors. “Only later did I realize that God had a plan for me with that episode,” writes Walker. After his press conference, he picked up his daily devotional and saw the title for Feb. 23: The power of humility, the burden of pride.
“I looked up and said, ‘I hear you, Lord,’” writes Walker. “God was sending me a clear message to not do things for personal glory or fame. It was a turning point that helped me in future challenges, helped me stay focused on the people I was elected to serve, and reminded me of God’s abundant grace and the paramount need to stay humble.”
Providence gets a starring role in Walker’s memoir. Where he travels, ordinary citizens tell him to buck up. An airport worker who hands him a piece of paper reading “Isaiah 54:17,” which Walker quickly checks on his phone: “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.” A floor manager for a TV show confides to Walker that “she and her kids got down on their knees every night and prayed for me and my family.” Walker and Thiessen supply plenty of budget numbers and gruesome details of union contracts to prove that voters would eventually thank him for cutting bloated salaries and pensions. God certainly didn’t hurt.
Walker could have been stymied; Democrats balked at a last-minute Act 10 compromise, which let Walker slam the door on them and give the email evidence to reporters. JoAnne Kloppenburg, a judicial candidate who nearly defeated a conservative judge in April 2011, was leading in Walker’s polls and “might very well have” won had she “made the race about Act 10.” Had she won, she could have blocked Act 10 and Walker “probably would not have survived” the recall. But she pivoted to an untrue personal attack, which backfired. Walker’s 2012 recall opponent whiffed when he started attacking Walker over a legal investigation instead of Act 10. The celebrities who led protests in Madison? Strictly “B-list,” as Walker reminds the reader, twice.
But why else did he win? It helped that Walker’s version of austerity hit public sector employees, not the rest of the state. Job numbers had ticked up by the time Walker was finally on the ballot again, though the governor notes, strangely, that “the Obama labor department was not going to speed up the release [of newer numbers] to help us out.” He makes one mention of his fundraising during the recall, $37 million, as “70 percent of our donors gave $50 or less.” And he did outpace the Democrats in pure donor numbers. He just doesn’t mention a loophole that allowed him to raise unlimited funds for a short period of time, eventually outraising the Democrats by better than 7-to-1.
For the purposes of Walker’s mythmaking, that doesn’t really matter. The governor is less-frequently discussed as a presidential candidate than Rep. Paul Ryan is. That might be an example of the media fighting the last war, remembering that another upper Midwestern governor ran in 2012 and collapsed at the second lap. (His name, as you have already forgotten, was Tim Pawlenty.) Walker’s sleepy eyelids and Wiscaaaahnson accent are as good a disguise for ambition as Claudius’ stutter. After he’s finished counting bodies from his rout of local Democrats, he spends pages explaining why Mitt Romney blew the 2012 election.
“Reagan did not dismiss 47 percent of the country as a bunch of moochers,” writes Walker. “Reagan would never have uttered the words ‘self-deportation.’” Also, the Romney team’s copy of the 1980 anti-Carter campaign was all wrong: “‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ was Reagan’s closing argument, not his entire argument.’” Walker, it’s strongly implied, would not have muffed this. He and his wife, he tells us elsewhere in the story, “host a dinner each year on Reagan’s birthday. We serve his favorite foods—macaroni and cheese casserole, and red, white, and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans.”
The message: This governor knows his place in the universe. On the night of his recall victory, his wife Tonette urged him to open with a jokey reference to the pro-union protesters: “This is what democracy looks like!” Walker considered it.
“Perhaps,” he writes, “after all we had been through, I could have indulged myself for one small moment. But then I remembered that devotional reading after the prank call on ‘the power of humility.’”
Correction, Oct. 28, 2013: The article originally misspelled Marc Thiessen's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)