In the opening pages of his new book, Jason Kander finds himself a back-seat rider weaving through traffic on a road in Afghanistan and fearing he might throw up on fellow military officers.
The vignette hints at what’s to come in this unusual political memoir.
On one hand, Kander digs deep in his experience as a soldier for source material in “Outside The Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage.”
On the other, Missouri’s former secretary of state, and now a candidate for Kansas City mayor, casts himself not as an unblemished hero, as happens in so many of these self-justifying volumes, but as an occasional doofus who learns from his mistakes.
Take, for example, a campaign stop Kander made when running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2016. He spoke to factory workers in Kansas City and bragged that, as a member of the Missouri House, he voted against raising his legislative pay.
One fellow in the audience spoke up. “Why would you do that?” the man said. “I don’t know if I can trust a man without the good sense to accept a raise.”
Kander recognized that he did the right thing in turning down the pay increase, but he also learned that the person on one side of a podium might not share the perspective of a person on the other side.
“Perspective isn’t permanent,” he wrote, “and if you’re not strong enough to question yourself, you’ll be the last to know you’ve lost it.”
The Kansas City Democrat, who made numerous stops in Northwest Missouri during two statewide campaigns, has had an atypical career arc.
A lawyer by training, he felt called to serve and enlisted in the Army Reserve after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After his deployment to Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, he sought a seat in the state Legislature and won.
In 2012, voters elected him as secretary of state and, four years later, Kander earned the Democratic nomination to try to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
He lost that race but earned 220,000 more votes in Missouri than Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
From that loss, he formed a national organization called Let America Vote aimed at stopping disenfranchisement and voter suppression. He began showing up on national news shows, and speculation escalated about his political plans.
Just this week, Politico magazine did a story about what political “heavy hitters” were reading this summer. Along with people like Newt Gingrich and David Axelrod, Kander was included.
Kander, a fifth-generation Kansas Citian, announced on June 25 that he would run for mayor of that city.
The author emerges as a natural storyteller in unfolding his 10 lessons, which develop through anecdotes drawn from locations as far-flung as Kabul and Jefferson City.
An account of him being hoodwinked into a meeting with Hajji Abdul Zahir Qadir — a “high value individual” to American intelligence forces, a Border Guard general with dubious allegiances — reads like a thriller, with everyone armed and edgy.
Less tense, in his lesson that “Politics is a profession practiced entirely by amateurs,” Kander makes the case that governance, as practiced, looks less like “The West Wing” and more like “Parks and Recreation,” often well-intentioned in spirit but frequently bumbling in execution.
(However, the author offers an honor roll of politicians who inspire him, dedicating themselves to public service while checking their personal ambitions.)
Kander approaches all this in a nonlinear and self-deprecating way, interrupting his manuscript with footnoted digressions ranging from citations of George Brett’s baseball statistics to an assessment of the Bill Murray movie “Stripes.”
While not completely avoiding the score-settling and sanctimony of most political autobiographies, “Outside the Wire” manages a view of the modern landscape that hits a sweet spot between civics-class idealism and calloused reality.
Throughout, the book returns to its theme of everyday courage. Kander recalls a particular incident serving on a security detail for an Afghan politician.
“This elected official lived under the persistent threat of death simply because she was a woman,” he wrote.
In later years, as a state representative, Kander would call ridiculous those votes that some considered politically risky, even “courageous.” From his perspective, he had seen the real thing.
Jason Kander’s book, “Outside the Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage,” is being published by Twelve Books. It goes on sale Tuesday, Aug. 7.