If it’s true that timing is everything, Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy, by former South Dakota U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (Fortis, 166 pp., $8.95, paper) is an example of perfect timing. This refreshing book has hit the market during a presidential election campaign in which the American public rates both major candidates low in trustworthiness.
Larry Pressler grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His family experienced poverty. His interest and love of politics grew out of his successful 4-H work. In 1964, after getting his degree from the University of South Dakota—where he was student body president and Phi Beta Kappa—he was awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.
In England, Pressler remembered words his father had told him: “If you decide not to go to Vietnam, it will mean that someone poorer and less able than you will have to go in your place. And knowing you, that will trouble your conscience for the rest of your life. So you might as well just go and do it.”
Larry Pressler decided to forfeit his deferment and joined the Army. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War from 1966-68. That included providing security along Highway 44 on the outskirts of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. With enemy snipers all around, Pressler says that he and his men often felt like sitting ducks.
In 1967 Pressler contracted hepatitis and was sent to a convalescent center in South Vietnam where he experienced frightening nightmares based on what he had seen earlier in his tour. Although he received the Bronze Star and other medals during his two tours in Vietnam, Pressler turned down a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was turned off by the entire war.
Larry Pressler’s political life took off when he ran for Congress in 1974 as a Republican and won by 15,000 votes, unseating an incumbent Democrat. After two terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Vietnam War veteran to serve in that august body where her served three six-year terms.
In 1979, Pressler ran for President in the Republican primaries on a platform emphasizing improving conditions for Vietnam veterans. He needed funds, and an opportunity to acquire money soon appeared. True to his character, he turned down what he believed was an illegal campaign contribution. It was—and it also was an FBI sting that became known as the Abscam scandal. The senator was very surprised when he was praised as a hero for doing the right thing.
Sen. Pressler was a favorite of Ronald Reagan. I found it interesting that they often discussed how Pressler’s father was doing with his Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps the strongest of Pressler’s attributes was his sincerity in dealing with the problems of people regardless of their political affiliations. That included working to improve the lives of Native Americans in his home state.
Pressler lost his Senate seat in the 1996 election, but decided to try a comeback by running as an independent in the 2014 South Dakota Senate race. The challenges he faced in that endeavor bring the reader a much clearer understanding of what has been going on in the highly partisan atmosphere of congressional politics today. Pressler makes a convincing case for the need for more independent candidates.
I recommend this book to those who want to make sense out this election year. A special recommendation goes to those whose favorite line is, “It’s just politics.” With more involvement by people with the integrity of Sen. Pressler we might learn we don’t have to just muddle through.
The Senator says that taking the high road of politics has set him free. He closes with a quote from Isaiah 25 made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Free at last, Free at last! Great God Almighty, Free at last.”
Sen. Larry Pressler shows us how to change a nightmare into a dream.
The author’s website is senatorlarrypressler.com