- - Monday, April 2, 2012

By Nikki Haley
Sentinel, $27.95, 245 pages

Conservative women no longer seem rare in American politics, which makes it natural to ask: Is there someone out there who is going to be our Margaret Thatcher? Sarah Palin threw away her chance by abandoning the governorship of Alaska. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s chance dimmed when she botched her critique of Gov. Rick Perry and his appalling bid to impose a vaccination against a sexually transmitted disease on teenage girls in Texas.

What about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley? The 40-year-old governor, first elected to public office in 2004, has leapt to prominence along with the Tea Party on a platform of making government less wasteful, less intrusive and more accountable to the people. With her term just a year-and-a-half old, it is too early to say how much of her ambitious agenda - to reform the state’s tax code, retirement systems and education-funding formula - she will achieve. But Mrs. Haley’s underdog electoral victories certainly give her the aura of Thatcherite toughness.

Her memoir, “Can’t Is Not an Option: My American Story,” is inspiring. The child of Sikh immigrants from the Punjab region of India, Nikki Randhawa Haley is one of a family of six who settled in Bamberg, S.C. (population: 2,500) in the late 1960s. Her parents had left behind “a culture and a political system that judges people by the family or the caste or religion they come from,” she writes. They came here to be able to “stand before the law and before government as individuals, not as members of a group. … They might succeed and they might fail. But they wouldn’t have the game rigged against them because of who they were.”

Who they were certainly drew attention. Mrs. Haley’s father, a professor, wears the traditional Sikh turban. She grew up watching him handle with equanimity the bigotry that many in the community showed. She tried to do the same when other children would come up to her and demand to know, “Are you white or are you black?” As a defense mechanism, she became “adept in the art of finding common ground,” which is another way of saying - though she never quite puts it this way - that this “different” girl from a striving, hardworking family was in training for a life in politics.

Nikki Randhawa did not think of herself as political in the partisan sense. Her becoming a pro-business Republican seems to have come indirectly from the fact that her mother started a business in their home and, through frugality, will and creativity, built it into a highly successful clothing enterprise.

Mrs. Raj Randhawa is, by the way, the most remarkable person in the book. Born to privilege in India, where women were not expected to stand out, she started off here on the bottom of the economic scale, immediately becoming part of a struggling two-income household. She seems like a feminist working mom of the 1970s - until Mrs. Haley narrates the part where she brings home a boyfriend who is not Indian, but white. Mrs. Randhawa and her husband tried to stop their second daughter from marrying Michael Haley. As is typical in America, the wishes of the younger generation prevailed.

Mrs. Haley’s views on race and politics are hard-won. She has seen South Carolina change toward minorities in her lifetime, and for the better. That, too, appears to have inclined her toward the Republican Party - or at least away from the Democratic Party. She writes: “Racial-identity politics may have had better intentions behind it than the good-old-boy system, but at root they both take power from the people and give it to the government.”

Along with her slight Southern drawl, Mrs. Haley has the reassuringly boring speech cadences and manner of an accountant - her profession, in fact, before she defeated an incumbent state House member in 2004. (In the memoir she keeps mentioning rocking out to the music of the Black Eyed Peas and Joan Jett so we don’t think her a total geek, which is itself a little geeky.)

This extremely proper wife and mother of two had charges of adultery thrown at her by political opponents - fellow Republicans, in fact. The GOP does not come out smelling like a rose in this book. The false scandal-mongering is depressing; so is the overspending of taxpayer money by Republicans, in South Carolina and in Washington, especially given the GOP’s claim that it is the fiscally responsible party.

Mrs. Haley several times mentions public servants entering office with the best of intentions but losing their ability to stand on principle because they get too comfortable with the perks and the power. Her challenge will be to avoid those snares herself. If she does, Bamberg may - just may - become as famous as Grantham, birthplace of Britain’s Iron Lady.

Lauren Weiner was a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates from 2007 to 2010.

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