The Gongwer Blog

9 Notable Passages In Whitmer's New Book

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: July 9, 2024 10:24 AM

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has described her book, "True Gretch," as a handbook, not a memoir, which seems an apt description.

It is not a grand autobiography on the scale of Bill Clinton's "My Life" or George W. Bush's "Decision Points." It's also clear it's not meant to be an authoritative reflection on her life and career to this point. Those hoping for Whitmer to take readers behind the curtain into any fierce internal debates within her administration about COVID shutdowns or how the ill-fated 45 cent per gallon fuel tax idea came to be will not find such insight.

At 158 pages and officially on sale today, the book is a quick read. As a handbook, Whitmer offers advice on how to endure through difficult times with chapters like, "Don't Let the Bullies Get You Down," "Learn to Listen," "Take Nothing Personally" and "You'll Never Regret Being Kind." In those chapters, Whitmer crisscrosses through her life, recalling successes (her first campaign for the state House), failures (a high school drinking incident) and how she deals with the occasionally ridiculous things people say to her (getting advice from a stranger on what brand of bra to wear).

There are funny moments. There's the story of how Whitmer and her sister, Liz, tease their brother Richard to this day about when their mother spanked him by the side of the road after he kept mouthing off in the car. Whitmer recounts her sometimes klutzy nature, her father nicknaming her "Gravity Gretchen" and includes a photo of her missing tooth from a bad fall she took as a child.

The book also has several poignant and painful moments. The governor goes further than she has in the past about how deeply the plot to kidnap her, put her on trial and execute her scarred her and her family. She writes about the moments leading up to her 2013 decision to speak on the Senate floor about when she was raped as a college student. She shares a story of how she and a friend reconciled after a difficult falling out.

Here are nine notable moments from the book.

1. 'THE WOMAN FROM MICHIGAN': Whitmer recounts the familiar story of what dramatically escalated her rise in national politics, when President Donald Trump, in the early days of COVID-19 – stung by Whitmer's criticism of his handling of the pandemic – said at a press conference he had told Vice President Mike Pence not to call "the woman from Michigan" in response to Whitmer's inquiries for federal help.

"I had been governor for only a little over a year and getting into a fight with the president wasn't something I was keen to do. I did it because I was scared. Michiganders were dying, and I had to do whatever it took to get the federal government's attention and help," she wrote.

Whitmer writes that the secret to "dealing with bullies: you take their weapon and make it your shield." She embraced "the woman from Michigan moniker."

2. 'A BIT OF A HELION': One of the stories emerging from the book is Whitmer revealing an embarrassing episode from while she was at Forest Hills Central High School in the 1980s. Whitmer has always described herself at this time of her life as less than studious. In the book, she recalls going to a football game on a Friday night as a sophomore and drinking so much alcohol with her friends that she passed out in the parking lot.

The principal found her laying on the ground between two parked cars.

"And while I'd like to say that I gathered myself enough to walk away with dignity, I actually threw up on him," Whitmer writes. "Sorry Mr. Bleke!"

The principal called Whitmer's mother, who picked her up and "was already raging when I crawled miserably into the car." Her parents grounded her for a month. Then on Monday, Whitmer was summoned to the principal's office from class, her classmates delivering an "Oooooooooh" knowing what she had done. She was suspended for three days.

Whitmer said she then "began trying to get my act together." A couple years later, Michigan State University accepted her, something the governor writes didn't seem possible a year earlier.

3. STORIES OF HER MOTHER: In 2000, Whitmer's mother, Sherry Whitmer, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain tumor. The governor recalled climbing onto the hospital bed with her mother after the first surgery. The two hugged and cried. Whitmer called it the most "terrifying, heartbreaking, wrenching time" she could remember.

But Whitmer also remembered her mother, who had been an assistant attorney general, saying, "Well, Gretchen, at least I know you'll be the best senator there ever was," before pausing and adding, "Or, wait – you're running for the House."

"We both just cracked up," Whitmer writes. "It was insanely funny, and we ended up laughing so hard we could hardly breathe."

The governor writes that it's vital to find the light even in the darkest of times – even if the light is a "dumb, filthy or totally inappropriate joke."

4. THE SPEECH: In 2013, Whitmer delivered one of the most memorable speeches in the history of the Legislature when she revealed a man raped her while she was a freshman at Michigan State University.

Anti-abortion activists had circulated an initiative petition to prohibit health insurance coverage for abortions unless a woman purchased a separate rider. The Senate Republican majority, which had signaled it would wait on the measure until January, instead decided to move on it in December.

Whitmer, the Senate minority leader, decided to share her story, which she had revealed to only a handful of partners. Much of what happened that day is known: how Whitmer decided to reveal the assault in a speech and improvised her remarks. How her staff was stunned to learn what had happened to her. And how she initially felt terrible after her speech changed no votes but was heartened the next day at support that poured in from across the country (See Gongwer Michigan Report, December 13, 2013).

Whitmer sheds some new light on what happened behind the scenes the day of the speech. She recalled her longtime aide Nancy Bohnet warning her not to give the speech. "It won't change any votes, and you'll be making yourself vulnerable." She remembers her mouth going dry at the thought of giving the speech. She remembers walking away from the lectern on the Senate floor, "my heart pounding."

Ten years later, she writes of the satisfaction of signing the repeal of that law as governor in 2013.

"When I think back to how depressed I felt after failing to sway the vote in 2013, I remember what a wise therapist once told me. 'Everyone is a lump of clay,' she said. 'When a lump of clay is hallowed out, it becomes a cup, a vessel.' I love the idea that when something is taken from you, what's left behind has a purpose. For a long time, I wanted to ignore the terrible event that happened to me in college. But now I recognize that it also helped to make me who I am, a woman who's willing to fight and not be inclined to give up. I'll always be grateful that I could use that bad experience for good."

5. FACING THE DOUBLE STANDARD AS A WOMAN IN OFFICE: Whitmer shares some stories about what she has faced as a woman serving in elected office. She laments a ridiculous piece that ran on WJBK-TV, the Fox affiliate in Detroit, after her first State of the State speech in 2019 about social media reactions to the dress she wore. "A sartorial shitshow," the governor writes.

While knocking doors during a Senate campaign, a man answering the door in his bathrobe looked her up and down and said, "Huh, you look much bigger on television."

"It was clear he meant this as a compliment – that I was more to his liking in person – so I said, 'Thank you.' Which is really all you can say in these situations," the governor writes.

Whitmer writes that a woman recently told her she was so glad she was buying better bras and upon seeing Whitmer's confused face said she had told her four years ago she needed better bras. Whitmer writes she was still wearing the same brand of bras but said thank you anyway.

"No matter how many times it happens, I'm somehow always surprised at the things people are willing to say not only about me, but to me," she writes. "Some of them are meant as compliments (I think?), but my God, the way they come out."

6. COVID: Whitmer doesn't spend a ton of space on how she led the state's response to COVID, nor does she get into the details of how she came to the decision to shut down and limit a wide swath of activities for better than a year. What she describes is generally well known about working with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, then the state's chief medical executive.

She does state, for the first time, some regret about the Detroit rally for Joe Biden's presidential campaign on the eve of the March 10, 2020, primary – also the eve of when the state would confirm its first COVID-19 cases.

"The good news was the rally was a huge success and motivated voters to turn out for Biden," she writes. "But looking back at photos of it now, I can only cringe. It looks like a superspreader event waiting to happen."

The governor does write at the ferocity of the Lansing April vehicle protest to her shutdown orders taking her aback. She was in her office in the Romney Building and a took a photo of a truck with a sign that said, "HalfWhit is the reason we need the 2nd amendment." She described stepping back from her office window after seeing the signs.

"I was trying to keep people from dying, and this was the response?" Whitmer writes. "Swastikas and hanging me in effigy? I understood that I was asking the people of Michigan to make sacrifices while we navigated this crisis. What I didn't understand, and still don't, is the reaction that because I was trying to save lives, people were threatening mine."

Then, Whitmer writes about the protest outside her home in Lansing on April 23, 2020, seeing some people bearing firearms and how that shook her, her husband and daughters.

"Seeing people with semiautomatic weapons standing just outside our home was chilling for all of us," she writes.

7. THE PLOT: Several men were convicted of conspiring to kidnap Whitmer following discussions of kidnapping and killing her. Whitmer shares some new details about the fear that gripped her family during this time.

It was the revelation that the men had discussed an attack on the family's summer home in Elk Rapids – which unlike the executive residence, lacks security – that caused the situation to become "really scary," the governor writes.

"If I happened to be there when armed people showed up wanting to kidnap or hurt me, I would be vulnerable," she writes.

Whitmer said she once had to call her husband, Marc Mallory, to urge him to leave the cottage upon police informing her the men were headed toward it.

"To this day, neither Sherry nor Sydney has gone back there, even though it was always one of our favorite places to go as a family," Whitmer writes of her daughters.

The governor said her husband closed his dental practice because of repeated threatening calls.

There was a time in Traverse City when the governor was with her daughter Sherry and an armed man near a store she was going to enter said, "There's that bitch." Her security detail, which heard the remark, hustled her and her daughter out the back door.

"When they told me why, I was crushed," Whitmer writes. "And angry."

The governor wrote she felt "gutted" when the jury hearing the case of the men charged in the plot to attack her acquitted two of the men and could not reach a verdict on two others, and the judge declared a mistrial. She wrote of "feeling depressed nearly to the brink of despair." The two men with the hung jury were convicted at retrial.

8. THAT FIRST CAMPAIGN IN 2000: Whitmer writes about how unhappy she was with her first job as an attorney for the Dickinson Wright firm, spending her days in a law library, writing briefs, interacting with almost no one.

"A politically connected friend" – Whitmer does not say who – told Whitmer her state representative (then-Rep. Laura Baird) couldn't run for reelection in 2000 because of term limits and encouraged her to think about running. Whitmer writes she never considered running for office. She had worked as an intern in the late House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr.'s office. She ran the idea by her parents, and they both encouraged her to go for it.

Whitmer said her polling showed that a few weeks before the August primary, she was down about 20 percentage points to Mary Lindemann, who had been running hard. Lindemann had castigated Whitmer during the race, at one point referring to her as "the Whitmer daughter."

Whitmer recalled a campaign adviser urging her to go scorched earth on Lindemann. Her father warned she would pay a price for it as someone who would live in the community for a long time.

Instead, a plan was hatched to get Whitmer's mother's old boss, popular former Attorney General Frank Kelley, friend to both her parents, to cut a television ad endorsing her. Kelley was less than two years removed from a 37-year run as attorney general and probably the most popular politician in state history. He had put Jennifer Granholm over the top in the 1998 attorney general race with a commercial endorsing her as his successor.

"It would cost us three times as much to do this, and it still might not work," Whitmer recalled. "But Frank said yes, and we decided to do it."

9. A COUPLE OTHER LANSING NUGGETS: Whitmer writes of not having a great relationship with the Republican chair of a committee on which she was serving in the Senate.

"When she made the unusual move of instructing members to travel around the state for meetings, rather than holding them in Lansing, I was irritated," Whitmer wrote. "I had two small children, and now I'd have to make special arrangements for them so I could go on an unnecessary road show. When she didn't turn up for a scheduled stop in Grand Rapids, I was supremely annoyed."

Whitmer said she announced at the meeting, "It would have been nice if the chairwoman had made it."

But then she was informed the chair could not attend because her husband had been hospitalized.

"Oof. I felt like such a jerk," Whitmer writes. "I was ashamed of my behavior and apologized to her both publicly and privately."

Whitmer didn't name the senator, but it appears she was likely referring to the late Sen. Nancy Cassis, then the chair of the Finance Committee. That committee held several hearings across the state in early 2007 after then-Governor Jennifer Granholm proposed a 2 percent sales tax on services. It met in Grand Rapids on March 16, 2007.

She wrote of the two of them having a much more collegial tone after the senator accepted her apology.

Longtime Lansing observers will recall a minor flap prior to the start of Whitmer's second term in the House when then-Minority Leader Dianne Byrum announced in a news release she had chosen Whitmer to serve as minority vice chair of the Appropriations Committee. House Republicans went off, noting the speaker – not the minority leader – makes committee assignments.

"That's when I realized that, even though I hadn't done anything wrong, I was the one who could, and should, fix the problem," Whitmer writes.

She said she bought some goodies from a bakery and "a nice bottle of olive oil" and presented it to the Republican Appropriations chair (then-Rep. Marc Shulman) as an "olive branch" and apology of sorts.

"That was all it took – the Republicans stood down," Whitmer wrote. "I could have refused to apologize, because I hadn't done anything wrong. But I've learned over the years it's better to focus on being effective than on winning an argument."

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