I've spent a great deal of time up in Montana the past couple of years. First, I went up with Jerome Armstrong to do research for our book Crashing the Gate. We met with Schweitzer, with then-candidate Jon Tester, and lots of cool local activists then working to turn Montana blue. We even experience a moment of a lifetime when -- having to get from Big Sandy in eastern Montana to Whitefish in western Montana -- we flew a chartered single-prop plane, through Glacier National Park.
We loved it so much, we went back again to work on the book (catching Pearl Jam's fundraiser concert for Tester while we were there).
I got to spend a fair amount of time with the governor as part of our research. There are two stories that stand out.
The Montana State House is a relic from a bygone era -- it sports little security. Really, nothing more than two bored looking cops at a desk in the center of the main floor rotunda. They didn't even look up as we walked in. We followed someone's instructions to the governor's office, where you could just walk in. Schweitzer tells the story of the tourists he once caught in his office eating lunch at his conference table. They had a great conversation until the tourists asked Schweitzer what he did for a living. A funny story, but not one of the ones I'm telling today.
In any case, the receptionist checked with Schweitzer and announced we could go into the office. I walked in, and on his computer monitor on his desk, was Daily Kos. Smiling, I pointed to the monitor and laughed, "nice touch". He laughed right back, "Yeah, I thought so." It was at that point that I realized that here was a guy who loved political showmanship, but also didn't take himself too seriously. Yeah, putting up my site was a bit of bullshit theater, but he didn't pretend otherwise. I found that quite charming and we both got a good laugh out of it.
The second is a story he tells about his dog Jag (which he seems to pronounce "Jake") -- once determined to be the most popular "politician" in Montana by a polling outfit. Jag has the run of the state house, and has become the official state mascot. He is beloved. At a Republican fundraiser, a "stuffed jag" was auctioned off, leading to days of outrage when the news leaked.
In any case, Schweitzer tells of being on the campaign trail, when looking for food after a long day, they entered a bar with neon signs at the windows. Schweitzer ordered his eats, while the waitstaff played with Jag. Finally, a waitress asked if they could give Jag something to eat, and getting a "yes", brought him out some filet mignon. Jag obviously lapped it up -- and Schweitzer tells this part of the story by enthusiastically licking his chops. From that day on, they couldn't pass any food establishment with neon signs on the window without Jag sitting hopefully by the door. That behavior was eventually cured when, finally entering one such establishment one day, Jag was served hamburger meat. Poor Jag, suddenly a prima dona, sniffed dejectedly at what was offered and refused to eat it.
Now in real life, I'm sure Jag (being a dog) lapped up whatever crap meat was given to him, but then that story wouldn't be as fun, and if there's an overriding principle to Schweitzer's personality, it's the desire to have fun, politics included. If that means mythifying his wildly popular dog for a good story, then so be it.
One more story. This was back in 2005, as the governor and Republicans in the legislature wrangled over the budget. One day, Schweiter called in some Republicans to his office, and they arrived thinking negotiations were in order. But when they got there, Schweitzer launched into a tirade and threatened the Republicans with a vigorous Democratic effort to capture the seats. Then, as a coup de grace, he slammed his fist on the table and opened it up, leaving several bullets on the table.
The Republicans rushed out to the steps of the capitol and held a press conference about how deranged and unhinged Schweitzer was. This, being Montana, that whining led to this reaction from the local press:
GOP legislators mewled like girlie-men this week over the arm-twisting some of them have gotten from Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. They say the governor is threatening and harassing freshman Republican legislators to get them to support some of his legislative proposals.
They make it sound like Montana's brawny new governor is serving up knuckle sandwiches in the foyer. That might qualify as harassment, even here in the Wild West. But, as it turns out, all they're whining about is that the Democrat threatens to campaign against Republicans when they run for re-election if they don't support his proposals.
They call that harassment? They're pathetic!
Oh, no! It's worse: He's inviting them into his office to harp at them. What's next? Maybe he'll wave a press release at them! [...]
We don't like one of Schweitzer's legislative proposals any better than some Republicans do [...] But we certainly have more respect for Schweitzer and his willingness to push for something he believes in than we do for Republican legislators who whimper about intimidation rather than standing up for what they believe in.
I've never found a press account confirming the "bullets" part, and for all I know it's more myth-making. Stories in Montana are so crazy, sometimes I think it's the land of the tall tale. But I've had people swear they saw it happen, so perhaps I'm just being cynical. But for me, it doesn't really matter, because that last sentence quoted above made me swoon. Remember, we've built this site in large part bitching about whimpering Democrats afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Yet in Montana we had, thanks to Schweitzer, the exact opposite happening. It's no accident that Democrats are suddenly winning in Montana, and that Obama is neck and neck with McCain in the state.
One last thing: How many politicians speak Arabic (not quite fluent, admits Schweitzer, but conversational-level) or are trained scientists (soil science)? He comes off as folksy, but there's substance behind the showmanship.
And how many politicians feature a campaign ad with the candidate scraping shit off his shoe?