• Marc Johnson

The Big Man In The Big Sky


While most of the nation’s governors have been serving up heaping helpings of bad news in the form of reductions in education spending, layoffs, furloughs and such, Montana’s Brian Schweitzer continues to blaze his own popular, political trail. While it may be too much to call the Big Man in the Big Sky a political original, the Treasure State Democrat continues to be one of the most talented political actors anywhere.

Schweitzer understands intuitively that effective politics often involves effective theater, particularly when the show involves the ability to pick the right fight. At the presidential level, Ronald Reagan and his advisers understood this basic reality. Remember Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone Mr. Green!” moment during the 1980 New Hampshire GOP primary?

The Great Communicator understood that politics is performance, even as Democrats derided the one-time B-movie actor as nothing more than, well, an actor.

Elsewhere in the Northwest, Cecil Andrus in Idaho and Tom McCall in Oregon were masters of the art of picking an issue that kept them defined as “outsiders” while appealing broadly to their voters. Andrus took on the federal government over nuclear waste storage and McCall opposed storing deadly nerve gas at the Umatilla depot. Wildly popular stands that defined each governor as a crusader and populist. Andrus has joked during his long political career about being able to “throw an instant fit” to make a bigger political point, grab public attention and earn support.

Schweitzer’s most recent “political fit” generated headlines when the governor showed up at a Bozeman City Commission meeting – when is the last time a governor did that – and gave the city’s leading lights a drubbing before the public and the press. The issue was a decision by Bozeman city fathers to spend 50 grand in stimulus money on reconditioning tennis courts. Schweitzer told them spending the money on water treatment facilities made more sense. Wonder where the voters are on that one?

For students of political theater, the Associated Press account of the meeting is all the proof one needs that the bolo tie, cowboy boot wearing governor is in his element when he’s at center stage orchestrating a good ol’ political fight. Part of Schweitzer’s public appeal is that he appears to enjoy the battle so much.

In a perfect world, all our politicians would be brilliant policy wonks and the best ideas would always win out, but that is most definitely not the real world. Democrats, in particular, often seem to ignore or undervalued the fact that politics is fundamentally about the ability to communicate in a compelling, real way. It also helps to be able to see a good fight that is worth the picking.

Like him or not, you have to agree Montana’s Brian Schweitzer is a Democratic exception. He gets it.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson