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?

Jason Lindsey
Marin Cogan
June 18, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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