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Gretchen Whitmer’s memoir is candid. But will she run for president?

If Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) hadn’t already captured your attention, last month’s presidential debate might have sparked new curiosity. President Biden’s much-publicized stumbles on stage left many Americans wondering: What about that woman from Michigan?

This summer, Americans’ confidence in both major-party candidates is low. As Democrats panic about Biden’s fitness for office, Whitmer’s record is tantalizing: She’s won two gubernatorial elections by wide margins in a decidedly purple state and passed an ambitious slate of legislation. When her science-based responses to the coronavirus pandemic prompted President Donald Trump to antagonize her, she didn’t hesitate to hit back with acerbic wit. Trump’s invective—he dismissively called her “that woman from Michigan”—not only left Whitmer unscathed, it worked to her advantage. As she notes in her new memoir, “True Gretch: What I’ve Learned About Life, Leadership, and Everything in Between,” she also profited from a wave of merchandise that embraced and reclaimed Trump’s dismissive moniker. “It wasn’t just good for me, you could argue it was good for the Michigan Etsy community,” Whitmer writes. “I refused to let the president define me. I took his insult, turned it around and made it my own insult.”

If you want to understand the real Whitmer — trailblazing executive leader, straight-talking progressive, Midwestern mom, target of a right-wing assassination plot, co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, and perhaps future presidential candidate — your best bet is to spend some time as a voter in her state. If moving to Michigan isn’t feasible, your next best bet is to see “True Gretch.”, a candid, funny, and compact collection of Whitmer’s stories and her advice.

The sixth chapter, titled “Run Toward the Fire,” chronicles the many moments in her career when she’s marched to the scariest and most uncertain places, including a harrowing account of racing to the scene of the tragic Oxford High School shooting in November 2021. Here, and throughout the book, Whitmer balances humility and wisdom. “I have no idea what to say,” she remembers thinking as her SUV sped toward the school. As she always does, she hired a lawyer and called former Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who had witnessed the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy, for his advice.

In her memoir, she asks many questions and does an unusual amount of active listening, just as she did during her various terms as an elected official, and not just to other politicians. (Another chapter is titled “Learn to Listen.”) Why do you think? And Tell me more are her favorite conversation starters, both with her constituents and her opponents.

She is also known in our state for being unusually stubborn. Her first moment in the national spotlight came in December 2013. As a senator, she spoke out against a bill that would have required a separate insurance clause to cover abortion. Minutes into her prepared remarks, she set them aside and spontaneously revealed that she had been sexually assaulted as a college student. She called the bill, which she called “rape insurance,” one of the most misogynistic bills she had ever seen. The bill passed. Nine and a half years later, as governor, she signed the historic 1931 abortion ban into law with great fanfare. The next six months brought the Reproductive Health Act — a series of proposals to expand and enshrine women’s health rights. On December 11, 2023, 10 years to the day from the day of her emotional speech as senator, she signed the bill to repeal rape insurance. “The moral of this story is: Don’t stop fighting for what you know is right,” she announced from the stage that day.

It’s rare to hear Whitmer speak, even out of nowhere, and feel confused about where she stands or what she plans to do. She won her first statewide campaign on the slogan “Fix the Damn Roads” and raised eyebrows when that four-letter word was displayed on her bus. But given that candor, it’s striking that she never mentions the presidency, or even hints at her own plans, in “True Gretch.” She might have put to rest any speculation about a possible presidential run if the book had ended with her fervent desire to retire and take up fly fishing or watercolor painting when her term ends in 2026. She offers no hint.

Yet there’s something direct enough about the book that she hardly needs to utter the P-word. Whitmer makes her case in fewer than 160 pages with almost no high-flown language. Written with Lisa Dickey, the chapters are short and, for those of us who’ve followed her for years, largely familiar. Her stories are relatable and natural. Readers will find a pop playlist and a recipe for her grandmother’s clover rolls. Whitmer’s distinctive accent resonates on every page.

There are a few surprises. She declares her affection for her ex-husband, a professional photographer who often documents her campaign events and takes family photos of Whitmer, her husband Marc Mallory and their children. Whitmer also calls herself “weird” and says that she unfortunately feels compelled to act (relatively) normal while working as governor. “When I come home, I let go of the weirdness,” she writes. She keeps a cardboard cutout of herself from a recent campaign and hides it in closets around the house to “spook visitors.”

In “True Gretch” we meet one of the few politicians who may be equipped, and perhaps even willing, to tackle the future. The book is a welcome reassurance that someone courageous and capable enough to run toward the fire that fuels our democracy. “We must never be afraid to show up,” she writes in her characteristic aphoristic style. “You won’t get everything right the first time, but you have to step in and try.”

Amanda Uhle is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Destroy This House” and the publisher and executive director of McSweeney’s.

What I’ve Learned About Life, Leadership, and Everything in Between

By Gretchen Whitmer with Lisa Dickey

Simon & Schuster. 159 pp. $26.99