John Kroger's book describes his life as a federal prosecutor in New York before he moved to Oregon. It's a surprising book, because judging from our Attorney General's public demeanor recently—gray suit, flat delivery, no charges for Mayor Sam Adams over the Breedlove scandal—you could be forgiven for thinking he's boring.
He's not. Kroger's austere father kicked him out of their Texas home at age 16, after police caught Oregon's future supreme prosecutor drunkenly stealing hubcaps from a Ford Mustang that belonged to a state senator. Lacking direction or a roof over his head, Kroger joined the marines, where he became an expert with a rifle and learned to swim long distances in the ocean under the cover of darkness. Never mind potential future governor of Oregon—by chapter two, Kroger sounds like he's auditioning for a role in a remake of Under Siege.
Kroger's military experience was a riot of fistfights, sexism, and drunken brawls, he writes. From there he studied philosophy at Yale, where it seems he acquired a new moral conscience. Then he went to Harvard Law before working as a senior policy advisor for Bill Clinton at just 26. I was surprised when Kroger told me during a recent phone interview that he has never experienced jealousy directed at the professional success or opportunities he's enjoyed. Perhaps he's just been unaware of it—I, for one, would probably have preferred working for Clinton than an unpaid internship here at the Mercury at the same age.
Was Kroger's description of his military experience a preemptive tell-all in the vein of Barack Obama writing that he "did a little blow now and then" in The Audacity of Hope, I wondered?
"No. The book was 90 percent written before I started thinking about running for office, and so all that was already written," says Kroger. "If it causes political trouble, it causes political trouble. But 40 years from now, when my life is near an end, I want to say that this book was the best book I could write."
Kroger took inspiration from New Yorker medicine writer Atul Gawande, who "writes about medicine in a way that's very accessible to people who are not physicians," he says. From Clinton's office, Kroger became an Assistant United States Attorney and set about prosecuting "drug dealers, mafia kingpins, and Enron thieves," to quote the jacket text. These cases are described in sufficient detail to be engaging without compromising the book's narrative tautness.
Kroger's most consistent theme is exploring the ethical conflicts of being a prosecutor, between the utilitarian goal of doing good for the most people, and treating each criminal as an individual in their own right. This was a tough line for Kroger to walk when flipping Mafia capos against their bosses in exchange for shorter sentences, but it is crystallized in the book when Kroger prosecutes the wife of an Enron executive who might otherwise have been let off with a small fine, only to put pressure on the woman's husband to cooperate in a larger case against the firm.
Does Kroger's rigorous ethical self-examination make him ill suited for a life in government?
"You do get ethical quandaries in government, and I tend to struggle with them, I think that is accurate," he says. "But I think that's not a negative, I think that's a positive, because I think I'm more often aware of the ethical complexity of government action than I would be otherwise."
Imagine, an Oregon politician who's honest both about his past and in the examination of his own conscience. I'd be recommending Kroger's book even if it were terribly written, but it shines.