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The Gonzo Option

+(Jason Lindsey)

The Gonzo Option

Brian Schweitzer is a one-man challenge to the scripted nature of modern politics. But just how much can you run your mouth while running for president?

By

Brian Schweitzer puts his hands on his hips and looks up at the rough-hewn crossbeam that towers over the foot of his driveway. The former governor squints to keep from blinding himself in the midday sun. A large, white satellite TV truck idles in front of him. It has driven 250 miles to his home on Georgetown Lake in Montana, so he can make an MSNBC appearance, but now there's a problem. The driver, Mack—a big bear of a man with a little gap between his front teeth—doesn't think his vehicle will make it under the crossbeam. Schweitzer tries to guide him through, but no dice. It won't fit.

Schweitzer tells Mack to hang on a minute, and he walks down the long curve of the driveway, disappearing into the garage. He emerges a moment later wielding a chain saw.

 

He hauls the chain saw back up the sloping driveway and yanks the starter rope. The chain saw is low on gas. It sputters, unable to chew through the wood.

A cameraman—an intense man named Geoff—pulls up in a car behind them. It's an hour until Schweitzer's on the air. The cameraman takes in the scene, trying to make sense of it. "Um, I understand what's going on here," he says, "but it's really important that I set up." He wants them to back the truck up and let him go through so he can get to work.

That's not going to happen. "It's important that I set up, too," Mack says. There's a note of tension in his voice. Schweitzer marches back down the hill for his gasoline can. "Why don't we back up and use a hammer?" Geoff asks. No reply. Geoff asks the question again, louder now. Patience is wearing thin. They're running out of time.

(Jason Lindsey)Schweitzer grins and says, "Cameraman thinks he knows something about chain saws." He grabs the can of gasoline and heads back up the hill. He fills the chamber and saws off one of the fence posts.

Mack is standing on top of his truck now, holding the heavy crossbeam over it. There are at least a hundred thousand dollars of precious equipment under him—equipment they need to get Schweitzer on TV in less than an hour. Geoff is behind Schweitzer, ducking sawdust and making gestures in his direction that roughly translate to: What the hell? If the beam falls on the truck, everything is done for—the TV appearance, the equipment, possibly Mack's job. Schweitzer moves to the other side of the truck. The other fence post comes clean off. Mack is now the only thing holding the three-beam structure over the truck. He literally cannot afford to drop this.

Schweitzer and Geoff grab one side of the fence and try to carry it over to the other side of the truck. Geoff almost slips. He shouts an understatement: "This is kind of crazy!" Mack is still hanging on. If he lets go too soon, the weight of the thing could fall backward and onto the truck. If he pushes out too forcefully, he risks knocking himself off the roof. "You've gotta let it go!" Geoff shouts.

Finally Mack pushes the beam as far away from himself as he can. It lands, noiselessly, in the snow. "Perfect!" Schweitzer says, and walks back down the hill.

Schweitzer wants to do the segment from his back deck, to show off the magnificent view—the pristine white sweep of the 3,700-acre Georgetown Lake, the snow-capped Pintler Mountain peaks looming behind—but the cameraman has very little time, and the chain-saw episode has frayed nerves, so they agree on a more prosaic locale: the basement. Schweitzer builds a fire and his wife, Nancy, lays out one of their Native American blankets in the background. He puts on his TV clothes—a striped shirt, a bald-eagle bolo tie, a blazer—and holds a baggie of ice cubes to his face to reduce puffiness. His wife applies his face powder. Then he waits.

 

In his earbud, MSNBC host Ed Schultz begins a segment on the Keystone pipeline. Schultz is framing the issue as a fight between crazy, climate-change-denying Republicans and concerned Democrats, environmentalists, and scientists—which is a little awkward, because Schweitzer, a Democrat, has long supported the pipeline's construction. Schultz goes on like this for 12 minutes. When he finally gets to Schweitzer, there are only six minutes left in the segment.

With the fire burning quietly behind him, and the blanket just visible in the corner of the shot, Schweitzer makes his case to an audience that is almost certainly beyond persuading. When the segment ends, he stands up and declares, "I have to get this monkey suit off!" even though the bottom half of his TV clothing consists of jeans and socks. He disappears up the stairs and reemerges five minutes later with my snow boots. Somehow he has found the time to bring his snowmobile to the back deck. The engine rumbles. He shoves a pair of oversized gloves and goggles into my hands and tells me to get on, instructing that I'd better go fast so I don't get stuck in the melting March snow. Before I have a chance to fully think through the ethics of a reporter riding a politician's snowmobile, I'm off and zipping around the frozen lake.

Republican Jeff Essmann, who served as state Senate president in 2013, recently told The Wall Street Journal that "the most dangerous place in Montana is between Brian and a camera"—but he probably didn't have in mind the kind of thing Schweitzer pulled with a chain saw. The former governor—who is currently weighing a White House bid—knows how to get attention. In January, Schweitzer gave a scathing interview to MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin about his disappointments with the Obama presidency; a little more than a month later, he signed on as a regular contributor with the network. A week before I watched him chop down the fence, The Journal was documenting Schweitzer's distaste for Hillary Clinton's Iraq War vote at his local dive bar. Before that, he was hanging out with Playboy. Then he rode horses with Time. If current coverage trends continue, by the end of the year, he will have gone fly-fishing with The Washington Post, skeet shooting with Rolling Stone, and moose hunting with The New Yorker.

Here comes a cowboy-politician who has wildly heterodox policy positions—hard-left on some issues, to the right on others—and a wild personality to match.

It's easy to see why reporters are eating this up. Mark Leibovich of The New York Times Magazine described the 2012 presidential campaign as the most joyless election of our lifetime—two blow-dried, poll-tested candidates running two sterile, hyper-professionalized campaigns—and 2016 is shaping up to be more of the same. Clinton has long been at war with the press, and, once her current flurry of book-tour interviews ends, she will undoubtedly do her best to keep journalists at a distance. Now here comes a cowboy-politician who has wildly heterodox policy positions—hard-left on some issues, to the right on others—and a wild personality to match. Is it any wonder that the press is flocking to this man, who offers blunt criticisms and pony rides? Who fires up a snowmobile and tells you to get on?

Schweitzer, in short, is a great story. But does that make him a viable candidate? Put another way: In our age of political hypercaution, is it possible to mount a plausible presidential campaign as an ideologically nonconforming whirlwind of antic, blunt energy?

GETTING TO SCHWEITZER from D.C. takes effort: an 1,850-mile flight across the country to Salt Lake City, then another 350-mile flight to Butte, followed by an hour-long drive to Georgetown Lake, before another 17-minute drive to his lake house, which sits at the end of a mile-long dirt road.

Schweitzer isn't originally from here. He was born about 250 miles away in Judith Basin, near a tiny town called Geyser, in a central Montana county of only about 2,000 people. His parents, descendants of German homesteaders, never graduated from high school and brought him home to a one-bedroom farmhouse they would later need to expand. He was the fourth of six kids. From an early age, Schweitzer was blessed with the gift of gab: Family lore has little baby Brian, from the time he was 5 years old, wandering away from his mother at the grocery store only to be found later, surrounded by a group of people, holding forth—the center of attention, as always.

Montana is a big, beautiful state, but it's also desolate, cold, and difficult to inhabit; perhaps as a result, a fierce libertarianism runs through Schweitzer's family tree. One of his cousins, LeRoy, was leader of the Montana Freemen, a right-wing separatist group that didn't recognize the authority of the federal government. His arrest in 1996 sparked an 81-day standoff between the Freemen and the feds. When LeRoy was brought into his sentencing a year later, he called the proceedings illegitimate and declared himself a citizen of "the country of Montana." He died in federal prison three years ago, serving sentences for bank fraud, threatening a federal judge, conspiracy, illegal possession of firearms, and robbing a news crew that came to cover the militia. "I knew him. We talked now and again," Schweitzer says of his cousin. But he has something like 69 first cousins, and Schweitzer and LeRoy just happened to have a difference of opinion on a kind of big matter: LeRoy didn't believe in the authority of the federal government. Schweitzer does.

Brian Schweitzer

Looking back on it—the prodigious talent for talking, the 4-H speech ribbons—Schweitzer probably would have become a lawyer, if he'd known any growing up. But most of the educated people he knew were engineers and soil scientists, so that's what Schweitzer became. At Colorado State University, he got a bachelor's degree in international agronomy; later at Montana State University, he received a master's in soil science. There, he met his future wife, Nancy; and they would go on to have three kids, Ben, Khai, and Katrina.

After finishing graduate school, Schweitzer took a job with the Food Development Corp., which had secured a contract from Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. As Qaddafi's relationship with the West was growing increasingly hostile, and his nation more isolated, he set out to develop agriculture within the country by building massive farms in the desert. Schweitzer went to Libya in 1980 and worked in a lab there, testing soil and training farmers in soil and pesticide management. He remembers meeting Qaddafi once and shaking his hand.

Schweitzer stayed in Libya for less than a year. While home on leave, he made contact with Alfa Laval AB, a Swedish engineering firm building the world's largest dairy farm in Saudi Arabia. After finishing his work on the dairy farm, Schweitzer struck out on his own, contracting with Saudi businessmen to build farms in the desert and taking a share of the crop profits.

He often cites his experience living in the Middle East as the basis for his deep skepticism about American foreign policy in the region since September 11: "I saw the world. You don't even know anybody else who lived in the Middle East for seven years. You don't know anybody else who went there without speaking a single word of Arabic and learned it and started his own business and did business in Arabic in the most closed society in the Middle East," he says. "I did business directly with princes, sheiks, royal family, and built huge, huge projects there." What that taught him, basically, was that the United States should not act as the world's police force. He is not conflicted about what happens when the United States leaves Afghanistan. "If it all goes to hell in a handbasket, that's fine," he told Slate's Dave Weigel earlier this year. "That happened after Alexander the Great left; that happened after the Russians left. Who cares? They live in the Stone Age."

After his time overseas, Schweitzer came back to Montana and bought and sold ranches. In 1993, he was appointed to the state's USDA Farm Services Agency Committee under the Clinton administration, the kind of appointment that attracted little in the way of headlines but offered a crash course in the nuts and bolts of policy work. Then, about 15 years ago, he started looking at the knuckleheads who were running the country and thinking, "I could do better." He'd drink a few beers, yell at the TV, and tell Nancy he was going to run for office. "She'd be like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' " he remembers.

 

But Schweitzer actually did it. He had minimal name recognition, so when he made his first run against GOP Sen. Conrad Burns in 2000, he needed a clever way to establish himself. He found one: busing senior citizens across the border to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs. It not only established his populist profile; it also brought him within 3 percentage points of the incumbent.

Four years later, he was elected governor. Over his eight years in office, Schweitzer broke ground on a free health clinic for state employees, passed funding for full-time kindergarten, and pushed curricula for public-school students about Native American history, which the state's constitution had called for since 1972. Montana passed a renewable-energy standard for large utilities in 2005, and Schweitzer swapped state-owned cars for hybrids. He started the Yellow Ribbon Program to provide counseling to military service members and their families—which was later adopted on the national level. He held monthly contests where anyone in the state could submit ideas about how to save money, and gave away palladium coins to winners. In 2009, Montana was one of only two states to come out of the recession with a surplus. In his two terms, the state cut taxes and repeatedly froze college tuition.

All of this made him very popular. In 2008, John McCain carried Montana by 2 percentage points. On the same day, Schweitzer won reelection by 33 points. If it weren't for term limits, "he'd probably still be governor," says Carol Williams, a former state senator.

"I think I could change the world, and I think I could change it in a way that other people out there aren't willing to do."

Ask Schweitzer how he did it, and he can sound a bit like a Republican. "I challenged every expense, ran it like a business," he says. "I went to every single division of government and looked at every place they were spending their money."

Legislators who did business with Schweitzer have a somewhat different explanation for his success: They say that he imposed his singular, unyielding will on the Legislature. That he could be imperious, temperamental, and impossible to deal with. And that he could shout—one time so loudly that his dog Jag got up and walked out of the room.

"It didn't take much to push him over and get him excited and hollering and yelling," says Bob Story, a Republican who served as president of the Montana Senate while Schweitzer was governor. "In two minutes he'd calm down and be back to whatever was going on. A lot of it, I think, was a methodology that he used that was probably successful for him." (Schweitzer denies ever screaming at anyone. "I never yelled at anybody, that's not my style," he says. "When I get pissed, I don't say anything. I just get real quiet.")

It wasn't just Republicans. Montana's Legislature is made up of part-time lawmakers; they meet every other year, and for just 90 days. Schweitzer portrayed them as a bunch of corrupt lackeys—"drinking that whiskey and eating the thick steaks provided by lobbyists." It prompted one Democrat, Jesse Laslovich, to complain that term limits had weakened the Legislature's ability to take on the governor. "We're intimidated by a bully," he said at the time, urging his fellow lawmakers to stand up to Schweitzer.

"We are farmers, teachers, citizen legislators—we're not professionals. Our pay is modest. He chose to ridicule us," says Essmann, the 2013 Republican state Senate president. "From the standpoint of maintaining a working relationship, he had none with Republicans, and even Democrats had a tough time."

(Jason Lindsey)The governor of Montana has a lot of power under the state constitution to begin with, and Schweitzer had unique talents when it came to using the bully pulpit—which he took full advantage of. In 2011, Schweitzer called a press conference to denounce the "bat-crap crazy" bills the GOP Legislature had passed. He brandished two big "VETO" irons. On a wooden board he pinned a number of bills passed by the Legislature and plunged the hot irons into the legislation. "It was more theater," says Mike Milburn, a Republican lawmaker who served as speaker of the House. "I always thought that was where he belonged, on Broadway."

Even as they slam him, there's a hint of grudging admiration to the criticism. "The guy's very bright—don't misunderstand what I'm saying," says Jim Peterson, another Republican who served as Senate president. "He's supersmart. The guy is a showman and a campaigner, by all means. He's probably one of the smoothest politicians I think I've ever been around. He can be hard-nosed, tough as nails, and turn around and sell the horns off a billy goat and make people like it."

But there's a limit to the admiration. "The guy is talented," Peterson says, "but I have a hard time seeing him as president of the United States. I don't think the guy has a lot of respect for other branches of government."

SCHWEITZER AND HIS WIFE moved to Georgetown Lake about a year and a half ago, after he left office. He also keeps a cabin 100 miles from here that is completely off the grid, often accessible only by snowmobile. (Except when it's avalanche season—then it's too dangerous to reach at all.) Even though he left office, he didn't retire: A week after his term ended, he teamed up with a New York hedge fund and initiated a hostile takeover of the largest publicly traded mining corporation in the state, Stillwater Mining. Stillwater is the only significant platinum and palladium mine in the United States (the metals are used to make catalytic converters). Schweitzer contended that the company's expansions into South America had put Montana jobs at risk, and he thought, "If not you, who?" In 2011, Schweitzer was praising Stillwater CEO Frank McAllister as one of Montana's great job creators; three years later, Schweitzer, the newly elected chairman of Stillwater's board, was showing him the door.

Now, he's up every day by 4:30, checking the price of metals and reading the news. "I've already read newspapers from all over the world by the time the sun gets up," he says. He keeps CNBC on mute in the background, watching the European and Asian markets. He conferences with other members of the Stillwater board. And then he chats with his political friends.

Until last summer, everyone was trying to get Schweitzer to run for retiring Sen. Max Baucus's seat. Schweitzer was widely seen as Democrats' best chance of holding it—and maybe by extension the Senate. But Schweitzer wouldn't do it. When it looked increasingly like he would be the candidate, Fox Business ran a story accusing him of starting a nonprofit expressly for political purposes (tax-exempt groups can spend only 40 percent or less of their time on political activities). Republicans insinuated that he decided against running because of the opposition-research file they were compiling on him.

"You're gonna find out that—not on very many issues—but on these issues, I sound more like Rand Paul than I do Harry Reid."

That peeved Schweitzer: "Really? Why didn't they dump that on my head when I was running the last two times?" The real reason he didn't run? "Congress is a miserable place," he says. "If a bus ran over a senator or a congressman tomorrow, we wouldn't even miss them. Because all they have is a vote"—just one vote out of 100 or 435. "They don't get to run anything. They sit around and wait until the train starts leaving the station, and if it looks like the wheels are moving a little bit fast, they start moving quickly to get on the train and issue a press release." He bellows in his most officious, mock-senator voice: "I am now a cosponsor of the train that was heading east!"

But the presidency? That might interest him. "I think I could change the world, and I think I could change it in a way that other people out there aren't willing to do," he says. "There are some tough things that need to be done."

WE'RE DRIVING INTO Big Sky Country—the sun casting blinding reflections on everything—when Schweitzer starts talking about the service members from Montana who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I went to all the funerals," he says. "And I didn't agree with any of these wars, and I said so publicly."

"I couldn't do that thing that politicians do," he continues, "which is to stand and speak eloquently about how your son died making our country freer, protecting our values, making sure that the flag will fly high on the horizon—I couldn't speak at all, and I wouldn't." He said he would meet with the families, hug moms and dads, cry with them. He'd give them his cell-phone number and tell them to call anytime—any moment of the day or night—if there was anything he could do.

He tells me about one guy, Trevor, who was meant to take over the family ranch. Schweitzer lets out a shaky sigh. "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves." He tells me about another guy, Kyle, whose nickname was "Big Country." Big Country was from around these parts. He was 6 feet 3 inches and 250 pounds, and he loved hunting and fishing. Big Country went to Iraq to serve his country, and he didn't come back. "Now, there wasn't a heck of a lot I could do for Kyle other than hug his grandma and grandpa, and his mother and dad, little sister, tell them I'd do anything I could in the future." He starts to slow the car down, just as the road comes to a wide, sparkling stream. "One of the things I did do"—he slows the car to a stop—"is, I dedicated this bridge, on Rock Creek, because his ranch is just 2 miles up." He pauses to wipe an eye under his sunglasses. This, he says, "is one of the most spectacular trout streams on the planet, where he grew up. It's not much for a family. But as governor, I guess I could do that."

We're silent for a few moments. It's an incredible story, and it's obvious he really cares. Yet it's impossible not to notice that the mechanics of his storytelling are also weirdly perfect: He reached the climax of his tale right as he was pulling up to the creek. It is either a coincidence or a masterful bit of political theater.

"YOU'RE GONNA FIND out that—not on very many issues—but on these issues, I sound more like Rand Paul than I do Harry Reid," Schweitzer says. We are sitting in the living room of his light-filled house. Behind him in a giant antique display cabinet are moccasins and headdresses—one of which he will place on my head before I can protest—given to him by one of Montana's Native American tribes. CNBC plays silently in the background. In front of him are the kitchen, a set of couches, and a bannister decorated with saddles.

On Dianne Feinstein: "She was the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees, and now she says, 'I'm a nun,' when it comes to this spying!"

Here's what he offers on the NSA's mass metadata-collection practices: "If you believe that a politician wouldn't use information gained on citizens to their political benefit, then you are extremely naive. Because they always have, and they will now." He has little respect for the NSA leaders who engaged in mass surveillance in the first place. "Simply stated, we have liberties in this country that no other people on the planet have, individual liberties." The issue of whether Edward Snowden should be granted clemency is really not the point. "What about the generals in the NSA that knew that they were violating our civil rights?" he says. "What are we doing about that?"

This was the week that Sen. Dianne Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of spying on congressional staffers investigating the agency's treatment of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration. Schweitzer is incredulous that Feinstein—considered by her critics to be too close to the intelligence community—was now criticizing the agency. "She was the woman who was standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees, and now she says, 'I'm a nun,' when it comes to this spying!" he says. Then, he adds, quickly, "I mean, maybe that's the wrong metaphor—but she was all in!"

(It wasn't the only time Schweitzer was unable to hold his tongue. Last week, I called him on the night Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his GOP primary. "Don't hold this against me, but I'm going to blurt it out. How do I say this ... men in the South, they are a little effeminate," he offered when I mentioned the stunning news. When I asked him what he meant, he added, "They just have effeminate mannerisms. If you were just a regular person, you turned on the TV, and you saw Eric Cantor talking, I would say—and I'm fine with gay people, that's all right—but my gaydar is 60-70 percent. But he's not, I think, so I don't know. Again, I couldn't care less. I'm accepting.")

On Eric Cantor: "If you were just a regular person, you turned on the TV, and you saw Eric Cantor talking, I would say—and I'm fine with gay people, that's all right—but my gaydar is 60-70 percent. But he's not, I think, so I don't know. Again, I couldn't care less. I'm accepting."

Schweitzer ruminates on how professor Obama, a constitutional law expert, ever got himself into the NSA mess. "It's kind of interesting isn't it?" he says. "I'd be a little embarrassed. I'm a scientist and an engineer. If on my watch the thing we didn't get right the most was the science part of it, I'd be a little embarrassed. I could say, oh, I'm not a lawyer, maybe we relied on someone else a little bit for that, but how about if we got the engineering part wrong? That's what you're talking about."

When President Obama was first elected, Schweitzer says, his expectations were "sky high." And now? He thinks a minute. "We have a health care bill that needs to be fixed," he says. Obama's biggest mistake, he argues, was failing to negotiate with drug companies to lower the cost of prescription medicine. The result was a law that pleased insurance companies but confused and angered people—in other words, a wasted opportunity. "That's sort of his Achilles' heel," Schweitzer says. "The organization of running things. Getting a result."

"WHAT'S THE BIGGEST gun you ever shot?" Schweitzer asks, handing me .30-06 and .270 hunting rifles with the chambers open so I can see the size of the barrels close up.

Schweitzer is a gun guy. Back in the George W. Bush era, when Democrats were fretting that their candidates were too easy to caricature as elites, his A-rating from the National Rifle Association and his campaign ads where he shot clay pigeons seemed edgy and distinctive. But times have changed. Schweitzer says he's come around on bills closing loopholes for background checks as a result of the debate over gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. But he's always going to be a Second Amendment supporter.

(Jason Lindsey)Holding the barrel of the gun, I start wondering how Schweitzer translates his unorthodox worldview into a viable campaign. One recent Fox poll shows just how hard it will be for any Democrat to beat Hillary Clinton. In the survey, only 10 percent of Democrats thought she was too liberal, while just 5 percent thought she was too conservative—meaning there's going to be very little room for a candidate to get to her right or left in the primaries. And sooner or later, Schweitzer is going to have to contend with the party's liberal base. It's difficult to imagine them taking him on as their populist hero. They might love his criticisms of Obama's foreign policy. But will they still love him when they realize he had an endorsement from the NRA? Or supported the Keystone pipeline? Will they accept him as a critic of Wall Street knowing he paired with a hedge fund to take over a mining company?

It doesn't totally add up. I look at the gun and ask whether his party can tolerate it. He looks at his hands for a moment, and shrugs. "You know I can only be who I am," he says. "I grew up with guns, and I'm a Democrat ... a different kind of Democrat."

SO MAYBE WHAT Schweitzer offers Democrats in 2016 isn't a pure, ideological alternative that progressives can get behind, but a different approach to practicing politics. Maybe voters will appreciate that he provides a change from the abysmally stage-managed affair the rest of American politics has become. Or maybe they will conclude that a stage-managed presidential candidate is preferable to one who has no filter.

He now has about six months to figure out whether he could mount a plausible challenge to Clinton. "Elections are about the future," he says, hopefully, because it needs to be true if what he's attempting is going to work. It's a Wednesday afternoon. He's drinking a Moose Drool at a nearly empty bar. "Can the election be about the future, if it's a Clinton that's running? Or is it about the past?"

He looks up toward the door. The county commissioner has just walked in. He and Schweitzer trade local political gossip. Schweitzer turns the gossiping on the county commissioner. "I hear you've been with a goat!" he says.

The county commissioner bursts out laughing. Schweitzer continues. "You see how these politicians are? You confront them with the evidence and they just deny, deny, deny. What you shoulda done is taken all your money and put it into Stillwater," he says. "What happened? Didn't you think I could get it done?"

The county commissioner is quick on his feet. "My ex-goat took it all!" he says. They're both screaming in laughter. Schweitzer's hand is slapping the bar. It's not a very presidential moment, but it's undeniably the posture of a different kind of Democrat.

This article appears in the June 21, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Gonzo Option.

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