“An Unlikely Candidate” reflects on an unusual campaign

During the 2010 election cycle, Arthur Lieber ran for Congress in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional district.  By percentages, Lieber lost badly to the heavily favored incumbent Todd Akin.  But the final vote tally is not as compelling as the story behind the numbers.  In a year when Democrats were positioning themselves as centrists, Lieber was openly progressive.  In a year when candidates of all parties chased donor money more frantically than ever, Lieber ran his campaign on a tiny budget and accepted no monetary donations.   And in a year when mud-slinging and smears were far more common than reasoned dialogue, Lieber’s campaign was relentlessly civil.  In fact, Lieber’s run for office was the most principled, unconventional campaign that most Missourians never heard of.  In his book, An Unlikely Candidate: Reflections on My Run for Congress, we find out why.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should begin by saying that I have known Arthur Lieber for over half my life.  Many years ago I met him when I was a high school student participating in Civitas’ Model United Nations program, and in my more adult incarnation I actually coordinate middle school programs for Civitas.  I am not an unbiased reviewer.  That said, I think anyone who picks up his book will find it a compelling read.  At its core it’s the tale of a thoughtful human being attempting to navigate the all-too-often inhumane process of campaigning for elected office.

Part one of Lieber’s book is a narrative of the congressional campaign itself.   Upon reading this section, one immediately is struck by how draining (physically, mentally, interpersonally) a political campaign is.  Canvassing, candidate forums, phone calls, candidate questionaires…and Lieber readily admits that by refusing monetary contributions he avoided the hugely time-consuming (and soul crushing task) of fundraising.  To maintain one’s sense of self in the face of such a process is a daunting task, it seems, and one that requires the sense of humor and irony that Lieber evidences again and again in the first section of the book.

Impressively, Lieber manages to give readers a true “insider” look at the campaign without engaging in petty character slams against those who slighted his candidacy or were less than genuine in their interactions with him.  In reading the book you gain insight into local media figures and politicos, but you never feel like Lieber was simply using his book to settle scores.  He is as quick to lavish praise as he is to level reasoned criticism.  Whether discussing Don Marsh, Bill McClellan, or Jack Danforth, he paints portraits of local personalities in a way that feels insightful but not exploitive or gossipy.

Furthermore, there are no sacred cows in Lieber’s book.   In one of the most powerful passages, he recounts his long standing respect (and financial support) of Planned Parenthood, and how he ultimately lost some of his esteem for the organization once he saw the process by which the organization endorsed—or didn’t endorse–candidates.  Leading and narrowly designed candidate questionaires, frustrating communication difficulties with the Planned Parenthood office, and an unwillingness to endorse a candidate unless they looked like they would win, all forced Lieber to look more critically at an organization he has long supported (and may well continue to support).

Part two of Lieber’s book focuses more on policy than narrative and attempts to layout concrete steps that could be taken to improve the political process.  In this section, Lieber is brave enough to offer unorthodox policy suggestions but also humble enough to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers.  His chapter on the need for schools that prepare students for democracy is particularly strong.  Does Lieber tilt at a few windmills here, suggesting changes to our current political and education system that seem to be highly unlikely at best?  Definitely.  But if more candidates were willing to engage in such thoughtful, unconventional problem solving, our political discourse would certainly be richer and more fruitful.

Upon finishing  An Unlikely Candidate, one can’t help but wonder how our country would be different if those who ran for office approached it more like Lieber.  Impossible?  Given our current system of funding campaigns and educating the electorate, it probably is.  But it’s exciting to imagine nevertheless.