Plains Folk

Gentle Curves


Turning Points is the much-anticipated new book by George better-known-as Bud Sinner, Governor of North Dakota from 1985 to 1992, written in collaboration with Bob Jansen, who was his press secretary. The book is published by Dakota Institute Press.

What is this book? It’s not an autobiography, because it doesn’t tell a full life story. It’s not a memoir, because it doesn’t provide an exposition of the times. It is, rather, a book of sketches, some of them connected and others not.

It occurs to me that this is the same sort of book that Dwight Eisenhower, for whom Sinner expresses some admiration, wrote and entitled, At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends. In fact, quite a few details disclosed by Sinner strike me for their similarity to Eisenhower, as I know him from going through his papers in Abilene.

1. Sinner remarks twice he is a slow reader. He also notes he is less comfortable giving a speech from a prepared text than speaking informally.

2. He is good at delegating authority and empowering his subordinates.

3. He is a problem-solver, not a visionary.

4. He is attentive to relationships and has a talent for negotiation.

This all adds up to a man with the mental characteristics and leadership style that Eisenhower had. There is another important layer to Bud Sinner, and that is his faith. This is a man who declared publicly that religious faith must not be written into law, and yet everything he did was grounded in his faith that the Holy Spirit provides guidance in times of trouble; that God makes things work out, even when you make dumb mistakes; and that the most important thing of all is forgiveness.

Sinner was governor in bad times, times when the declensionist narrative–the belief that North Dakota was in decline, and it was only going to get worse, so get out if you can–when the declensionist narrative reached high, or I should rather say low, tide. In 1989 the state tried to mount a joyous celebration of its centennial. Any sense of optimism, however, was wiped away by the Referral of 1989, when voters refused to invest further in a state in which they had no faith. Somehow, at the same time, Bud Sinner, who campaigned hard and sometimes angrily against the referral, remained popular.

So, just what did Sinner bring to the governorship in these troubled times? First of all, he was not a declensionist. He was not joining with those who sought to dismantle North Dakota and sell it for parts. He could not stop the wrecking crew, but he was attentive to human impacts and softened them when he could.

Sinner was no visionary, but a visionary would have been crushed in those times. People were too dispirited for vision. As a fixer, a man of faith, and someone who concerned himself with human impacts, Bud Sinner was perhaps the best possible person to lead North Dakota through the 1980s.

Today, a time of possibilities, we need visionaries in North Dakota. I don’t know where they will come from, but it is time for them. Twenty years ago, though, we needed Bud Sinner.

I don’t know where the title of the book comes from. It isn’t oriented around any particular turning points. If it were, it wouldn’t be true to its subject, because what Sinner did was to try to turn hard edges into gentle curves.

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