Reading Kirsten Gillibrand

On Kirsten Gillibrand's book "Off the Sidelines." 
On Kirsten Gillibrand’s book "Off the Sidelines."  Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

Your humble servant is currently working his way through the books of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Think of it as summer reading so you don’t have to.

Midway through the project, though, it’s worth a pause over “Off The Sidelines” by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

First of all, that’s because it’s pretty good!

Considering the genre, the book includes surprising things like legitimately interesting details. (In the acknowledgements Gillibrand thanks her “collaborator,” writer Elizabeth Weil.)

The book was off to a good start early on with a shrewd observation about the way you can tell when men stop listening to you: “their answers become monosyllabic and they tend to agree more.”

The 2014 volume is her only adult book, so she has plenty of room for nuggets about her family and early life: her firebrand political grandmother, the embodiment of the Albany machine, and the fact that her first real date with her now-husband included a “singles” Mass.

Gillibrand writes openly about shopping for a congressional district for her first run, and before that, early career money issues: making $200,000 a year and trying to decide how much money to spend on political donations to open an avenue for her own political career.  

There’s a brutal chapter on weight and image, and the difficulties that many female politicians face that most male candidates can hardly imagine. One older member of the Senate once squeezed her waist and said he likes his girls “chubby,” she writes, adding that a New York labor leader once told her, “you need to be beautiful again” to win a race. It all started when she was young and had conversations with her own father about whether she was too heavy, including in college.

New York politicos major and minor make appearances in the book, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo (“a very direct and provocative person”).

But two politicians hover over it all. One is Hillary Clinton, who penned the foreword and appears in the book’s pages time and again offering mentorship for Gillibrand.

The other is former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, Gillibrand’s former squash partner who she describes (remember, 2014) as “charming.”

Today, Gillibrand’s drive to inherit Clinton’s Democratic-presidential-nominee mantle has been made rocky thanks to her early call for Franken to resign after reports of sexually inappropriate behavior.

That behavior was exhaustively covered by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in an article posted Monday that pokes holes in the original accuser’s story and investigates the circumstances of Franken’s quick fall.

Gillibrand’s Franken stance resulted in a backlash from donors and others that has overshadowed some of the attributes and talents showcased in this book that might have made her a major 2020 contender.

It’s not hard to imagine a different world — where this book was the cogent argument for why a high-powered lawyer and one-time representative from a rural congressional district with an A rating from the NRA would make a good Democratic presidential candidate. The book’s frank tone helps to explain all the evolutions. The fact that it’s an enjoyable read makes the parts about fighting for 9/11-related health care and against sexual assault in the military all the more convincing. The book shows Hillary pre-2016, having overcome her own twists and turns and heading toward the presidency with indomitable persistence, taking Gillibrand in hand and maybe setting her up as next in line among glass-ceiling breaking candidates: speaking to her by phone as Gillibrand considered running for Congress, persuading her husband Bill to campaign for Kirsten and seal her victory as she climbed higher and higher.

But that was before things changed for both women.

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