Moss: ‘Grounded’ a refreshing change from the kiss-and-tell political takedowns

Sen. Jon Tester’s autobiography an interesting Montana read

Grounded by Jon Tester

Book Title: Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America
Author: Sen. Jon Tester with Aaron Murphy
Info: HarperCollins, $29.95

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”  Wendell Berry

“Grounded: A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America” mirrors Wendell Berry’s eloquent reflection. Mixing the personal with the political, book marked by transformative moments, Jon Tester and Aaron Murphy provide insights on a quintessential American story that begins in Big Sandy, Montana and a third generation family farm.

In this time of uncertainty amid a pandemic and civic tension, we need a breath of fresh Montana air and “Grounded” gives us that. At a time when endless “tell-all” books reveal the ugliness and combat sports of politics, it is even more import to hear positive stories by leaders like Tester who are dedicated to supporting policies for the common good of society. “Grounded” offers a lens into Tester’s life story that is uniquely rural, Western, American and real.

Lynda Moss Monday, January 20, 2020.(Photo courtesy of Lynda Moss)

Tester describes himself as a dirt farmer and a Senator who raises crops like wheat, barley, peas or lentils. The Tester farm is located in the demanding, rural landscape of Montana’s Golden Triangle. It is a windswept prairie where agriculture is successful when hard working wives and husbands like the Testers roll up their sleeves, repair tractors and combines, plant crops and weather permitting, look forward to a hopefully prosperous fall harvest. In his book, Tester attests to how lessons learned by troubleshooting problems on the farm have made it easier to work through some of the most complicated issues affecting the country.

Tester knew since he was eight he wanted to be a farmer and that insight at an early age sets his path from Big Sandy, Montana to Washington DC and on to and the world’s greatest deliberative body, the United States Senate. “Grounded” details Tester’s experiences growing up, his high school years, meeting Sharla, marrying as young adults and starting a family. Tester recounts lessons learned from leadership positions on the high school student council, serving on the Big Sandy school board, the soil conservation district and later in the Montana Senate. In his last session in the Montana Senate, he was elected as President of the Senate and a year later, running against a popular incumbent, Tester was elected to the U.S. Senate.

One traumatic childhood experience that weaves throughout “Grounded” happened when Tester was working the family meat grinding equipment and tragically lost three fingers on his left hand. How he perceived the accident and his insistence that it would not impact navigating the world even today, is one of the inspiring parts of the book. Another transformative experience for Tester was his father’s purchase of a brand new Cadillac Coup DeVille. When a customer of the family’s butcher shop saw the Cadillac and commented “I guess you are doing so well that you don’t need my business,” his father promptly returned the new car, a humble gesture that continues to influence Tester.

“Grounded” also provides a glimpse into Tester’s role in Congress, bringing common sense values to Washington DC Whether supporting veterans, public lands and conservation, challenging poorly designed policies or presidential nominees to federal posts, Tester has stayed true to his Montana roots.

Like former Sen. Mike Mansfield who was a laborer in the Butte mines, an educator, politician and diplomat, Tester speaks of “picking rock” in the field and the demands of manual labor, work that he believes provided him with a foundation for grass roots politics.

As the title implies, throughout the book, Tester stresses “showing up and listening” as the most important lesson for serving rural America. He advises “you have to knock on every door, you have to listen and learn to compromise.” Tester believes effective leadership requires being open to everything and understanding the dynamics of rural, small town economies which depend on rural healthcare, education and local businesses. He believes leadership like that is integral to the nation’s success. Congress itself was originally scheduled around a rural agricultural calendar and as someone who works the land and experiences extreme weather up close and person, Tester recounts “feeling the climate changing under our hands and in our bones.”

Balancing the personal with the political, “Grounded” illustrates the dynamics, the good and bad, of Washington politics. The book’s last chapter, “Epilogue: Going to the Sun” provides a list, like a policy guide or “Farmers Almanac” that may help all of us strive for common ground and perhaps make Congress a little more like Montana’s Jon Tester. Whether you read “Grounded” or listen to Tester reading the audio version of the book, you will find yourself immersed in an authentic Montana story.

Moss is the board chairwoman of the Northwest Area Foundation and she served in the Montana Senate, representing Billings, from 2005 through 2011.