Friday, September 23, 2011

Is This the Sanest Man Running for President?

by Lisa DePaulo November 2011
source:  GQ Magazine, online Edition via “Facebook

If you're seeking the presidency but no one notices, are you still seeking the presidency? Gary Johnson was governor of New Mexico for eight years, balanced the hell out of his budgets, and climbed Mount Everest with a broken leg. You'd think that would at least give him a shot at the GOP nomination. Nope. Lisa DePaulo hits the surreal non-campaign trail with the most compulsively honest Republican in the race—and returns with some disturbing truths about the Kabuki shit show we like to call modern presidential politics.

With Gary, and it's okay to call him Gary, it's not so much the things he says and does that are spectacularly unusual (or spectacularly misguided, depending on your point of view) for a presidential candidate. It's the things he doesn't say and do.
Like now. He's in a bike shop in Hooksett, New Hampshire. Elsewhere in this fine state, Mitt Romney has been back and forth, back and forth, being his robotic self. Shaking hands, slapping backs, lifting babies, smiling. Sarah came through on her bus tour. Even Ron Paul has been doing the hustle at donor house parties.

Gary? He's talking about bikes. Weight and tire pressure. He's telling the guys at the store that he needs to rent one for some race he's in. His two aides, Brinck and Matt—who constitute his entire paid New Hampshire staff—give him the look. The one that says: Maybe you should mention you're running for frickin president. But Gary's on to pedals now. He brought his own pedals with him from New Mexico. Would have taken the whole damn bike, but it would've cost too much to fly it here.

The bike-store guys slip him a form to fill out and ask him for his driver's license. Gary forks it over. They eyeball it. Not a glimmer of recognition. ("Nobody recognizes me," he later explains, nonchalantly. "Ever.") Now they need to put a charge on his credit card, in case he doesn't bring the bike back.

That does it.
"Uh, you don't have to worry about me jilting you on your bike here," he tells them. "I'll be screwed if I steal your bike. 'Cause, see..." Brinck and Matt lean in. Is it coming? You can do it, Gary! " 'Cause, see...for what it's worth, I'm, uh...if you want to make a note..." This is painful. "Uh, I'm running for president of the United States."

"Huh," says one of the bike guys. It's New Hampshire! What's another dude running for president? "I'll need you to read all the fine print and sign it here," the bike guy continues. And they still they need to charge his credit card.

"Of course," says Gary. He's very big on fairness.

The guys send Gary downstairs to have his seat adjusted. Five minutes later, they follow him down the steps.

"You climbed Mount Everest?" Turns out they've been doing a little Googling.

"I did." He's very Zen about this. "Cool. And you smoked pot?"

"I did," says Gary.

"I heard you used it from 2005 to 2008."

"You did," says Gary. It's more of a statement than a question. In fact, he wants to legalize marijuana, but not because he still smokes the stuff.

He's fiddling with the bike. But they want to know more about Mount Everest. And how he plans to fix the economy. And handle the deficit. "This is what I love about New Hampshire," says Gary, and happily outlines his main—and most radical—position: to slash the federal budget by 43 percent. That's the number it would take to erase the deficit right now. This can be done, he says. Ya think? And he'd do it by, among other things, eliminating the Department of Education (he says he'd give all those billions to the states, minus 43 percent, and let them decide what's best, because "this whole idea that Washington knows best? That's why we're bankrupt"); bringing our troops home, particularly from all peaceful countries (he thinks it's absurd that we have tens of thousands of troops in Europe); and "rebooting" the federal tax code with a "fair tax" that would abolish the entire IRS ("Imagine that!") and would tax consumption, not income, "because it's, well, fair."

Now the bike-store guys want to know whether he thinks he can beat Obama. "My contest is in the primary," he tells them.

"That sucks," says one of the guys.

"Yes, it does. But life's a journey."

He squeezes the tires. "Looks good." Then he lifts the bike and carries it up the steps. He is halfway out the door to the parking lot when suddenly he stops and turns around. "Listen," he says, "I only mentioned that president thing so you wouldn't think I'd steal your bike." Brinck and Matt simultaneously roll their eyes. He's apologizing for mentioning "that president thing"?!

"It's okay, man. You got our vote."

"I do?"  He seems genuinely surprised.

A few things you need to know up front about Gary Johnson. There is nothing he will not answer, nothing he will not share. For six straight days, we spent virtually every waking hour together, which might have had something to do with the fact that there wasn't another reporter within ten miles of the guy. Or that when you're polling in the low digits and your campaign fund is less than Mitt Romney's breakfast tab and your entourage is Brinck and Matt, you tend to be more forthcoming. But in fact, Johnson is fundamentally incapable of bullshitting, which is one of the many, many things that make him so unusual for a presidential candidate. (When a reporter asks him, after he gushes about how great New Hampshire voters are, if he says the same thing in Michigan, he replies, "No, Michigan's the worst.") He finds presidential politicking of the sort we've grown accustomed to—slick, scripted, focus-grouped, how-does-the-hair-look—to be "absolutely phony."

Another thing you need to know: He was never supposed to be the fringe candidate, and his campaign is no lark. Before he officially declared, he visited thirty-eight states—on his own nickel—to get a sense of whether he'd be a viable candidate. He was the first GOP candidate to announce, in early April, and for about twenty seconds seemed like a contender. The wildly popular (still) two-term Republican governor from a state that is two-to-one Democrat. A guy who's confident that he knows how to manage the purse strings and balance a budget because he did it—eight years in a row—in New Mexico. His fiscal conservatism is unmatched by anyone in the race. And his socially liberal cred—the only pro-gay and pro-choice Republican candidate—is unmatched even by some Democrats. (Of course, while this could be an asset in the general election, it's a bitch of a liability in the GOP primary.) Even the backstory had a self-made charm: Born fifty-eight years ago in Minot, North Dakota, the son of a tire salesman turned teacher and a mom who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Johnson started a one-man handyman operation when he was 21, grew it into a construction company with a thousand employees, and sold it in 1999 for about $5 million. Oh, and he named it Big J (for Big Johnson). "It didn't have the same connotation at the time," he swears.

But still. Do not confuse his Zen-like quality for a lack of cojones. The guy has brass ones. He's a five-time Ironman triathlete. He paraglides and hot-gas balloons. (Not hot air, hot gas.) He biked across the Alps. And from the right angle, he looks like Harrison Ford. So what on earth is so radioactive about Gary Johnson? And how did he become “Nowhere Man” in a field as chaotic and uninspired as this one?

The desk clerk at the Econo-Lodge in Lincoln, New Hampshire, wants to know how to spell Johnson. Gary is beyond cordial. He spells it out. Doesn't even mention that he is Gary Johnson, presidential candidate. Just politely forks over two credit cards—one that belongs to the campaign (to pay for Matt and Brinck's accommodations) and one that is his own (since he is paying for as much as possible with his own money).  "Sorry, sir," says the clerk. The campaign credit card has been declined.  "Aw, shit," says Gary. And tells him to put everything on his own Visa. Then the clerk gives him a coupon for a free Econo-Lodge breakfast in the morning. "Well, that's very nice of you. I appreciate that."

The man is frugal beyond belief. "But I am not cheap." As his fiancée, Kate Prusack, a real-estate agent in Santa Fe, points out, "Yes, he shops at Costco, but he drives a Porsche." He built his own house in Taos but paid premium to put a hot tub in. And he tips well, a telltale difference between men who are careful with money and cheap bastards. He likes to think he spends his own money (he says he's worth about $6 million) the way he'd spend the country's money: Pay only for quality and don't waste a cent. Like, for instance, stop pissing away money on border patrols and erecting fences and walls across the Mexican border, and let immigrants earn work visas "and actually contribute to our economy." And while he's on the topic of wasteful spending, he says there'll be no pleasure trips to the Vineyard on Air Force One.

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