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?

Brian Schweitzer
Jason Lindsey
Add to Briefcase
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) Jason Lindsey

(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.

{{third­PartyEmbed type:magazineAd source:magazine_mid}}

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5031) }}

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.

{{third­PartyEmbed type:magazineAd source:magazine_bot­tom}}

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) Jason Lindsey

(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) Jason Lindsey

(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.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.