From the moment he entered the Montana governor’s office in 2005, Brian Schweitzer made it clear he was going to be a very different kind of politician. In place of a tailored suit and repp tie, he wore jeans and a bolo tie. One of his frequent companions in his inner sanctum was Jag, his border collie. When he vetoed bills sent to him by the Republican legislature, he used a branding iron. Whether it was his branding iron or his brand of Democratic politics—he’s a tax-cutting, pro-gun social liberal—Schweitzer was reelected in 2008 by a two-to-one landslide and remained one of the most polarizing governors in the nation throughout his eight years in office. That same year he all but tore the roof off the Democratic National Convention with a speech that had political experts asking, “Could this be where a Schweitzer presidential journey begins?” It was the most improbable of journeys for the descendant of German and Irish immigrants, whose parents never finished high school and who had worked as an agronomist, a soil scientist and a rancher before his first run for political office at the age of 45.
Barred by term limits from running again, and passing on a Senate bid he was more than likely to win, Schweitzer returned to private life. He has kept his public profile high, signing on with MSNBC as a contributor and pledging to visit all 99 counties in Iowa—site of the nation’s first presidential caucuses.
But in typical Schweitzer fashion, the 59-year-old has been highly critical of the Democrat now in the White House, on issues ranging from health care to privacy to foreign policy. When asked to name Obama’s successes, he said, “My mother told me, if you can’t think of something nice to say about something, change the subject.”
That sentiment hasn’t stopped Schweitzer from offering off-the-cuff comments that have landed him in hot water. He compared California Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein’s recent complaints about NSA spying to those of a streetwalker “with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees” now shouting, “I’m a nun!” After House majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss, Schweitzer said, “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 to 70 percent. But he’s not, I think, so I don’t know. Again, I couldn’t care less. I’m accepting.” (He now claims he was trying to mock the homophobic attitudes of right-wing Republicans and adds, “On or off the record, I will never joke with a reporter again.”)
We asked veteran network-TV political analyst and best-selling author Jeff Greenfield to check in with the potential presidential candidate. Greenfield reports: “The hours I spent with Schweitzer—in between blizzards—confirmed his standing as a unique political figure. Whether at the Seven Gables café, his spacious home on Georgetown Lake or kicking back with a beer in a Philipsburg tavern, Schweitzer seemed to know pretty much every customer, waiter, store owner and passerby he saw. But as our conversations revealed, behind the folksy ‘regular guy’ persona is a passionate policy wonk. He rises at 4:30 every morning to vacuum up the news; he will talk in sometimes numbing detail about his ideas on health care and education. He is a fiercely populist politician who combines a skeptical view of orthodox big-government liberalism with an old-fashioned belief that government can level the playing field for people who grew up the way he did.”
PLAYBOY: What makes a Democrat from Montana different from a Democrat from New York, Chicago or California?
SCHWEITZER: A Democrat in a place like Montana is one who can sit down at a table with a bunch of miners and fit in. He buys a hunting license. Fifty percent of Montana residents buy hunting and fishing licenses, so that means—well, you know what that means. That doesn’t look like a California or New York Democrat. But here’s what I believe—this country consists of 20 percent hardcore Democrats and 20 percent hardcore Republicans, the kind of loyalists who always vote one way or the other and will defend their side, wrong or right, all the way to the end. And then there’s the 60 percent of Americans of varying stripes. They’re distrustful of both sides. On the one side, Republicans are corporatists. They’re in bed with insurance and pharmaceutical companies. They’re jingoists; they’re always prepared to get into the next war. Democrats believe there ought to be a safety net for elderly people and disabled people; 60 percent of America believes that. Sixty percent of Americans believe that for us to continue to be the country of opportunity, that opportunity has to be available not only to children of someone like you, a guy who was educated in a big-shot university, but children of a grandma who lives on the Cheyenne Indian Reservation and is raising four kids because her daughter died at an early age. They believe in public education to the core. They believe in a lot of things Democrats believe in, but they don’t want their taxes to go up. And Democrats admit, “Yeah, we’re not very good with money. You know, what’s a few percent more? If you really want these things, you’re going to have to pay for them.” In Montana, a Democrat like me says, “You know what? We’re going to have these same programs. In fact, we’re going to improve those programs, but no fees or taxes will go up, because we’re going to cut the cost of delivering the programs.” That’s what we did in Montana. I didn’t raise taxes or fees for eight consecutive years. I had eight years in a row with the largest budget surplus in history, and I went after every single part of our government with a fine-tooth comb. I’m the only person in the history of Montana not to have held any elected office before becoming governor, and I was outside the whole Democratic establishment. But I was committed to running it like a small business—like a ranch, not a corporation. Honest to God, look at these corporate types who say we ought to run government the way they run it. Really? We ought to screw the shareholders-taxpayers and pay ourselves and our pals big salaries? And if we’re successful, we take even more money, and if we’re failures, we take a lot on our way out the door when we get fired? No, no, no. The way a small business runs is you challenge every expense, and you make sure before you put one penny down that that penny’s getting at least a penny back.
PLAYBOY: Your background is also very different. In fact, it seems right out of American political mythology, where the kid grows up in a tiny town.
SCHWEITZER: Not even in a tiny town, not even in a town. Havre is where I was born, but I grew up in Geyser and Raynesford. Geyser was a town of 200, and Raynesford was a town of 30. There were about six to nine kids in a class. We were all farm kids. People rode a bus 20 to 30 miles to get to that little town.
PLAYBOY: Did you dream of something bigger?
SCHWEITZER: I wanted to see the world. I didn’t even know what it was. I’ll tell you when it happened, and I’ll tell you who made it happen. We had a teacher, I think it was fourth or fifth grade. She came in one day and said, “Now, class, we’re going to write a term paper.” She had a bowl, and in it she had nine separate topics, and everybody pulled a name out. I pulled Argentina. Remember, I was driving a tractor by the time I was six years old. I was making hay, plowing fields, milking cows, working cows, breaking colts. That was my world. I read about Argentina, and it had mountains higher than any mountain in Montana. And the rivers? Well, the rivers were even bigger than the Missouri River. And the native grass of Argentina grew as high as the saddle horn of a horse. Suddenly I wanted to see Argentina. I wanted to see the world, I guess, but I really wanted to see Argentina. And so I went off to study, and when I went to college I studied agronomy.
PLAYBOY: That was the late 1960s—a tumultuous time in our culture.
SCHWEITZER: Without my even knowing it.
PLAYBOY: Sex, drugs and rock and roll. If you think broadly about the cultural revolution, were you a foot soldier, a conscientious objector, an onlooker or an eager participant?
SCHWEITZER: I was an ag student [laughs], so I wasn’t leading the charge. But I lived in a dorm room. I listened to a range of music—I still do. I listen to everything from country to Western. I was probably more of an observer than anything.
PLAYBOY: We know Bill Clinton didn’t inhale. We know Barack Obama did inhale. We kind of know George W. Bush was somewhere between the two. On that spectrum, where were you?
SCHWEITZER: I’m right there with the three of them. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: But you weren’t passive. You followed through on your desire to see something other than Montana.
SCHWEITZER: Yes, I got my bachelor’s degree in international agronomy. During my senior year, I started looking around, and people said, “Well, if you’re going to get an international position, you’re probably going to need a master’s degree.” So I got a master’s degree in soil science. The day after I defended my thesis, I got on a plane for a job in Libya. Libya wasn’t exactly Argentina, but it was international; it was Africa.
PLAYBOY: After Libya, you moved to Saudi Arabia, working to make that country self-sufficient in food.
SCHWEITZER: This industrial farm I had been active in building became the model for the whole world. In the middle of the Saudi desert we were feeding 25,000 head of cattle with crops we were producing from drilling deep wells and irrigating. Now the king gets an idea. He announces they’re going to be self-sufficient in food in the next five years, and it’s going to start by subsidizing wheat at $32 a bushel, which was 10 times the world price. So I started a company. I said, “You don’t pay me anything. I’ll take 15 percent of the crop, and I’ll write a three-year contract with you. I’ll find the land. I’ll buy all the equipment. I’ll hire the staff. I’ll plant the wheat. I’ll harvest the wheat and deliver it to the silo, and when you get your check, you pay me 15 percent.” That was my model. I built farms from the Iraqi and Jordanian border to the Yemeni border, all the way through central Saudi Arabia. I did business directly with the Saudis, so I had to rapidly learn conversational Arabic.
PLAYBOY: All of which left you with a perspective on the region that’s made you highly critical of decades’ worth of U.S. policy—including George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Obama’s post-invasion policies. How do you view the current situation, especially the rise of ISIS and the threat this ultraviolent group poses?
SCHWEITZER: What we have is the result of the Keystone Cops who’ve been running our Middle East policy. Until we invaded Iraq the first time, Saddam Hussein had been our ally, maintaining a balance of power and serving as our protection against Iranian incursions into the region. Once we overthrew Hussein, we spent all our time training and equipping Iraqi forces. What happened? Those characters from ISIS spilled over from Syria, and in most cases those “elite” forces ran away and gave ISIS all those American arms.
Now you have people clamoring for us to send more military, more forces. But the people at the most risk from ISIS are the rulers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt. That threat is a Middle Eastern threat to Middle Eastern countries. We can say to them, “We’ll be happy to sell you equipment and arms,” but for our leadership to go back into Iraq is ludicrous. It’s not in our strategic long-term interests, because within years, maybe months, the U.S. and its North American neighbors will be net exporters of energy—not just traditional sources of energy but new sources like electric cars and fuel cells for automobiles. Why should we spend trillions of dollars to maintain the status quo in the Middle East when the dynamics are changing so completely?
PLAYBOY: Do you think the previous wars were about oil?
SCHWEITZER: No question about it. It was 100 percent completely about oil. At the end of World War II the deal was cut. We got Saudi Arabia, the French got Iraq, and BP got Iran. Then, not long after that, the elected government in Iran said, “Well, we don’t understand why British Petroleum and Shell get to have all our oil. We’re pretty sophisticated; we’re Persian. We were a society 3,000 years ago when these people were living in caves in Europe. We don’t see how England gets to have us just because they cut that deal.” So they started nationalizing. BP first came to President Harry Truman in his waning days and said, “Hey, we need you to overthrow this government. They’re trying to nationalize their oil.” And Truman wouldn’t do it. Dwight Eisenhower turned out to be a pretty good president for a lot of reasons, but he rolled in with BP and the CIA and overthrew an elected government in Iran. We installed a playboy, the shah, and then we helped him torture his own people until he was overthrown. Americans can’t understand why Iranians are a little distrustful of us. They see us as distasteful.
PLAYBOY: In 2008 the Democrats nominated the one candidate who had, at least rhetorically, opposed the Iraq war. It’s fair to say that’s one of the big reasons Obama won. When you look at the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq today, what’s your reaction?
SCHWEITZER: W…T…F. In 2008 we couldn’t remember why we were there. The generals say we have to stay there until we can stabilize Afghanistan, until it can defend itself. If you ask a barber if you need a haircut, what’s the answer? If you ask a general whether you need to stay in a war, what’s the answer? There is no compelling interest for us to have been there or to be there. Our ally in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, is one of the biggest crooks, and his brother is the largest drug smuggler. That’s our partnership there? When we leave, we will have battled it to a draw, because there was nothing to win to begin with. Karzai will be on one of the first helicopters out of there, because otherwise he will most assuredly have a bullet in the back of his head within an hour of the last American helicopter leaving. What is the compelling reason we’re there? We don’t know. And this president now owns half this war. He’s been there almost as long as George Bush.
PLAYBOY: Supposedly Bill Clinton said to Hillary, “You have to vote to invade Iraq if you want to be president because it’s the only way people will believe you’re tough enough.” Do you think there’s something about Democrats that is perceived as weak?
SCHWEITZER: Democrats are scared of the military-industrial complex. The military-industrial complex says they’re weak. They say, “Democrats aren’t good with money, and they’re soft. All they’re doing is talking about taking care of disabled people; they don’t understand how important it is to be strong to the world.”
PLAYBOY: Do you think that scares Democrats?
SCHWEITZER: Sure. Well, there’s another thing that freezes Democrats—and Eisenhower warned us about this. There are 435 congressional districts, and when you build an aircraft carrier—the one the admirals said they didn’t need, but you build it anyway—components from at least 430 congressional districts go into it. Every one of these representatives has somebody in the military business in their congressional district. Do you think that’s by accident?
PLAYBOY: We’re assuming that’s a rhetorical question.
SCHWEITZER: It’s by design. I don’t know that it makes you weak when you stand up to the powerful and say, “Hell no, we won’t go!”
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about your approach to politics. You weren’t running for student body president at the age of 16; you weren’t dreaming of a staff job in Washington. To what extent does the instinct to talk in ways other politicians don’t—in simple, clear, understandable language—account for how you do politics? Did it help that you came into politics as a greenhorn?
SCHWEITZER: It was probably an advantage and a disadvantage. A lot of successful politicians have figured out that it’s not that good to take a strong position for or against things, because every time you take a position, you lose a certain percentage of the population. So you want to talk in language that at the end of the day, people say, “Gee, wasn’t that a great presentation? Wasn’t that a great speech? I really like him.” So you say, “Well, what’d he say he was for or against?” [pauses] “I don’t know. Uh.…” And you can make a career out of that. But I came from the private sector. I didn’t study political science in college or go to law school. I didn’t hang around people who were involved in politics, so I just carved my own way. People say I have a different style, but this style wasn’t created by anybody; it’s just who I am.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t sit in an office and think, Bolo ties—that’ll tell people something.
SCHWEITZER: No. I didn’t even know it might be taboo. [laughs] I just know I don’t like buttoning the top button. It works for me.
PLAYBOY: Some of your political adversaries have suggested that it is quite conscious on your part to be Brian Schweitzer, the plainspoken rancher guy, and that it’s all politics. Any truth to that?
SCHWEITZER: No. You know, I don’t have an image creator around me. I am who I am. They spent the first year and a half I was governor complaining about me being disrespectful of the office, bringing my dog to the office and wearing jeans—“How dare he do such a thing!” The problem is they started finding out that almost everybody in Montana wears jeans to the office, and they all wish they could bring their dog, and if it was a little better behaved, they would.
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about a different office you might be thinking about: president. You supported John McCain in 2000. Did you vote for him?
SCHWEITZER: No, I didn’t. I said I liked his style, and I said I might support John McCain.
PLAYBOY: You said in 2006 that you might support Mitt Romney, that you thought he was a good guy.
SCHWEITZER: Yeah, he is, and let me tell you about that. Mitt Romney and I went to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan together. When you spend a week with somebody in a war zone, you talk about a lot of things. The Mitt Romney I know agrees there ought to be one year of national service required of every high school graduate. They all ought to learn emergency medical procedures, then they can be in the Peace Corps, VISTA, AmeriCorps or the military, but one year of public service would be a good idea for everybody. His notions about public education are pretty close to mine. We agree on a lot of things. Of course, the Mitt Romney who had to win a Republican primary ultimately became somebody else. I don’t want to be disrespectful about that; I don’t mean it that way.
PLAYBOY: Nice words about John McCain, nice words about Mitt Romney. You’re an environmentalist who believes we ought to be using our coal resources. You received an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and Wayne LaPierre of the NRA campaigned for you. Perhaps most astonishingly, when you were asked fairly recently to say something nice about Barack Obama, you said, “My mother, God rest her soul, told me, ‘Brian, if you can’t think of something nice to say….’ ” It’s reasonable to ask, what the hell kind of Democrat are you?
SCHWEITZER: I’ll start with the Obama administration. Guantánamo Bay is still open. I can’t say that they’re still torturing, but when you incarcerate somebody and don’t give them a trial, I’d say that’s torture enough. We’re still in Afghanistan, in a war that, when the Democrats took control of the White House, we didn’t know why we were there—and we haven’t left yet. We passed health care reform that was written by the Heritage Foundation for the Republicans, and it empowered the insurance companies, so we’ve just transferred your tax dollars to the insurance companies. We continue to pay the pharmaceutical companies two and three times as much for our prescription drugs because we didn’t challenge that in this health care bill. We’ve cozied up to the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies. You know, ask somebody who was hopeful, like I was when I watched Clinton and Obama, thinking, My God, either way we win. I’ve watched some of the other things they’ve done that have not been helpful to things we tried to accomplish here in Montana in terms of the environment, in terms of saving the wild bison herd, in terms of saving the North Fork of the Flathead River, protecting that from mining pollution. We had an Obama administration that was working against us.
I give this administration credit for something else, and it’s so complicated that I’ll be criticized, I’m sure. But remember I talked about Iran and how we installed a dictator there so we could protect British Petroleum’s profits. We’re now very close to being energy independent, and even more important, within five or six years we’ll be net hydrocarbon exporters, so why do we have to protect the Persian Gulf anymore? Why do we have to protect the Saudis versus the Iranians? Why wouldn’t we try to have a more balanced relationship with the Iranians?
Why wouldn’t we sit down with the Iranians and say, “You know, our future isn’t necessarily joined at the hip with the Saudi royal family”? We could be as equal in our treatment of Iran as we are with the Sunni sheiks and kings and princes. We tell Iran, “You’re going to have to quit the nuke business, because that destabilizes the whole Middle East. If you’re willing to do that, we think we could find a balance. Because actually our future is going to be less military in the Middle East anyway, and if the Europeans and the Asians need this oil and want to maintain these shipping lines, they’re going to have to do it. Because now we’re going to be your competitors in the oil business.” This is an area Obama has right, trying to shift that balance in the Middle East and trying to engage the Iranians. I’ll give him credit for that.
PLAYBOY: Let me ask about 2016 in a different way. The general theory is that Democrats in the presidential years benefit from what is called the coalition of the ascendant—more blacks, more Hispanics, more college-educated young people, more single people, more secular people—whereas rural, older white folks are a diminishing part. That’s how Obama won twice, and that’s why 2016 looks good. Were you to decide to run, it’s not obvious that you speak to the coalition of the ascendant. There are virtually no blacks in your state, virtually no Hispanics. It’s an older, rural population.
SCHWEITZER: Montana is about 90 percent white and nine percent Indian, and that leaves one percent. But if you go to any Indian reservation, any Indian leader, anybody who is associated with the Indian leaders in Montana or the rest of the country, and ask who has been the best governor in the history of this country for Indian causes, they’d all say Brian Schweitzer. I had more Indian people working for me in my administration than all 22 governors before me combined. I supported the Indian Education for All program so that every child in every school in Montana—from kindergarten through high school—will take classes in the rich cultural history of the people who have lived here for 10,000 years. I allocated money to all the tribal colleges to write their own story. When Cesar Chavez led those marches with the United Farm Workers, we didn’t march in Montana because we didn’t have Hispanic people living here. And when they integrated that school in Little Rock, we didn’t sit in front of that school with them, because we didn’t have many black people here. And when the Freedom Marchers walked from Selma to Montgomery, there weren’t Montanans among them. But in Montana, we’ve co-existed, white and red, for 150 years now, and it’s been a difficult relationship. Those towns that are on reservations or next to reservations where white and red are looking at each other, working with each other, the relationships are tougher and tougher all the time. So our walk from Selma to Montgomery will be in every one of those classrooms.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that argument will resonate with African American and Hispanic voters, who make up a significant part of the Democratic Party?
SCHWEITZER: I suspect so, because this is the kind of leadership—again, we’re 90 percent white and nine percent Indian, and I stood with the one out of 10—that is the kind of leadership they’re looking for. I was heavily criticized every step along the way. I had Republican leadership calling me every name—including Indian lover—along the way. But right is right, and wrong is wrong. I had people come to me and say, “Why all this Indian stuff? It’s not helping you politically.” My mother was the only white person in her class. Indian people worked on our farm. I grew up not only curious about Indian culture but very respectful. To have people decide they don’t like somebody just because of where they come from or who their parents were or the color of their skin—even though I grew up in a completely white community, I never liked it, and this was a way I could display it in Montana.
PLAYBOY: Let’s turn to some social issues. Washington and Colorado voters legalized recreational marijuana. There are people who say maybe this isn’t the healthiest thing to do and other people who say, “If people want to get stoned, people are going to get stoned.”
SCHWEITZER: I’m more to that side. I watched while we reformed the corrections department here. We were filling our jails with people who were smoking pot, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. We had Prohibition for alcohol, and it didn’t work. Pot’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; neither is alcohol. The most abused drugs in Montana right now are made by pharmaceutical companies, the OxyContins and all those. Those are the drugs that are really dangerous and killing people. Pot slows people down. I basically lean toward being a libertarian.
PLAYBOY: When you were talking about Mitt Romney, you said you agree with him on compulsory national service. That’s hardly libertarian.
SCHWEITZER: Here’s the way I would enforce it. I would just say, “Once you graduate from high school, we’re not going to have you as a college freshman for one year, and we want you to do national service.” Compulsory, I’m not exactly sure, but something like that. We want to heavily encourage it, maybe through offering scholarships for college. I think it’s a good idea. I’ll add that if we’re going to go to war, we ought to have a draft. That way the elected, the powerful and the rich would be sending their children at the same rate as those of us who drive tractors and trucks for a living. We need to have this discussion and debate at every coffee shop before we go to war, during the war and when we decide to get out of a war.
PLAYBOY: When you ran for election, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre came to endorse you. Democrats will argue that he’s taken that organization and turned it not just into a gun-rights organization but into an extremist and far-right organization.
SCHWEITZER: And a tool for the gun manufacturers. Let’s be frank here.
PLAYBOY: But you were comfortable having Wayne LaPierre endorse you? He’s accused Obama of wanting to confiscate every gun.
SCHWEITZER: The NRA has gone well beyond what it claimed its initial mission was, and its mission is twofold now. One is to sell more guns and ammo for the gun manufacturers, and two is to elect Republicans. I believe in the Second Amendment. I’m a gun owner. But the NRA? Not so much. In fact, the NRA itself a dozen years ago believed that we shouldn’t have loopholes for the mentally ill. It didn’t believe a dozen years ago that we ought to be able to buy guns online. The guns I own I bought at gun shows. You go to a gun show, and there’s a guy—I haven’t any idea who he is, and he hasn’t any idea who I am—and he’s got a gun I’m interested in buying.
PLAYBOY: Is that okay with you?
SCHWEITZER: Well, I bought a shotgun with a Montana reporter next to me.
PLAYBOY: We’ll repeat our question. Is it okay with you?
SCHWEITZER: No! We ought to close that loophole. We ought to close the loophole of buying online, and we ought to close the loophole of the mentally ill being able to buy. If we decide we’re going to have background checks, it needs to be fair and equitable. Gun dealers have to do that, but in most states all they have to do is go to a gun show and they don’t have to do any checking.
PLAYBOY: How do you defend your position on gun control to your party?
SCHWEITZER: I’ll tell you what I said on Current TV with Jennifer Granholm. She’d finished being governor of Michigan, and she said, “Now, Brian, you’re a Montana guy, and you’ve got guns. But surely now you have a different opinion, right?” And I said, “Well, Jennifer, let’s just talk about the two of us for a moment. Remember when you were governor, and you had a security detail that knew about people who might want to harm you? And remember you had some level of security around, taking care of your children and your spouse, so that you never had to think about it while you were in the governor’s mansion? And remember that day you packed up the last of your stuff, left the governor’s mansion and drove over to your private residence? You’re unpacking your things to sleep in your own bed, and there’s no longer any security; it’s cold turkey. And remember sleeping in your own bed and thinking, Wow, if one of those guys shows up and starts beating our door down, I’m going to call 911, and in about six to eight minutes there will be somebody here, law enforcement, to solve this problem?” Now, in my case, when I moved out of the governor’s mansion I moved to a mountaintop. If I called 911 and my phone was working, it would be 40 minutes—if they could find my place. So by the time law enforcement arrives at my place in Montana, somebody’s body’s going to be at room temperature. Now, I’ve never pointed a gun at a human being in my life, and I pray to God I never do. But in that circumstance, I’d be happy I had a gun. Not every state is the same. In big urban places, do you need people to have lots of guns in their houses? Probably not. But I may actually have to shoot a bear who’s digging into my garbage. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: Many people have been amazed by the speed with which the gay marriage issue has changed. As far as you’re concerned, are we going in the right direction?
SCHWEITZER: Yes. If two people in America love each other and want to commit to each other that they will support each other for the rest of their lives, I would say two things. God bless you, because it’s a wonderful thing to have a lifetime mate. And secondly, good luck, because only about half the heterosexuals have managed to get it done. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: What about the relevance of a politician’s private life to his or her public performance? Do you think a voter can say, “He might vote right, but his behavior in private renders him unfit for leadership”?
SCHWEITZER: It’s easy for those of us who are in office to tell voters what they can and cannot consider. I do know that when voters decide who they’re going to vote for, unbeknownst to them or others, they consider a lot of things. Values are among them. Because issues are so complicated—and politicians and third parties make them even more complicated—it’s difficult for them to figure out. So they’re looking for somebody who will take the time to decide the issues, who also shares their values. The way they determine whether they share their values is they look at the person’s words, actions, family, background and a few other things, probably including the way they dress. If they’re a woman, they care about how she does her hair, which is completely unfair. I walk in the room and they say, “Oh my God, his jeans—it looks like it’s the second day on those jeans.” My shirt is wrinkled, and my hair is all wrong. But even in Montana, if a woman did that, women would look at her, more than even men, and they’d say, “You know, I really agree with her a lot. I think she has a wonderful family. But did you see the dress?” Let’s get beyond not agreeing with the dress and the hair.
PLAYBOY: Let’s return to a more fundamental question: If you’re thinking of running for president, how do you explain to the Democratic Party why it needs a president who is a clear break from the last Democratic president?
SCHWEITZER: Well, if I decide to run for president, my message has to be very crisp and clear—one, two, three. There’s no four, five and six; it’s one, two, three. And that message has to be what I say each time I’m asked a question. If the question is “Is the window dirty?” then I say, “Yup, and that’s why we have to create jobs for the next generation.”
PLAYBOY: And yet you relish the complexity of issues. You’re a genuine policy wonk.
SCHWEITZER: Sure, and that would be a discussion in the long form. But if I’m in a debate with four other people, well, you can’t possibly discuss all the things I’ve thought about and all the ways we can reform. But you can say, “Look, these are the three things we’re going to get done during the first year, and this is why.”
PLAYBOY: Should you be on that stage with two or three or four other people and somebody asks, “Do we really want a Democratic president who can’t find a single good thing to say about the eight years of Barack Obama?”
SCHWEITZER: I can think of some good things.
PLAYBOY: Those are?
SCHWEITZER: We have mostly left Iraq. Unfortunately, Guantánamo is still open, and we’re still in Afghanistan.
PLAYBOY: Well, there you go again. [laughs]
SCHWEITZER: There we go. You know what? Which of the Democrats in that room are going to disagree with me? There’s getting to be fewer and fewer people in America who are going to disagree with me. I’m going to say, “I’m not sure we’ve had much change at the NSA between administrations. What the Bush administration put in place, this administration continued. We are an extraordinary country with extraordinary rights, personal rights, personal liberties, and I’m not so sure our NSA respects that.” Now, does that sound too much like Rand Paul, or does he sound like me? I don’t know. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: It sounds as if you think privacy is one of those issues that may cut much deeper than other politicians realize.
SCHWEITZER: I think it resonates more in some states than others. I think maybe in states with large urban populations, they figure, well, there are 14 houses on their block already, and there are certain privacies you just give up to be part of society. In a more rural place, part of the reason you live there is because you get to live your own life and you’re not living on top of or next to a lot of other people who are prying into your business
PLAYBOY: Two of the past three Democratic presidents have been small-town folks—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Obama’s the first from a big city. When you look at where the base of the Democratic Party is, which is different from Montana, do you have confidence that what you have to say resonates with those folks?
SCHWEITZER: I know what it means to give a generation an opportunity. I grew up in a family that was poor but didn’t know it because everybody else around was poor. On our little farm we would have qualified for every kind of social assistance you could imagine right now. But I don’t know that it even existed then. We raised our own food, and I don’t think I was ever in a restaurant until I was in fifth or sixth grade. I didn’t have the liberty of sleeping in my own room, not even my own bed, as I was growing up. That’s a story like a lot of other families that are praying for upward mobility for the next generation. It doesn’t matter whether you’re brown or black or white or yellow or red. The dream is for your children to have an opportunity to be able to get places you weren’t able to in your life—and that comes with education and by kicking open some of those doors. I’ve lived that, and I want other people to be able to live that. The rich, the powerful, the highfalutin, they’ll find their own way. We don’t need a government for them. [laughs] The rich need a strong national currency. They need a defense system that keeps a third-world country from coming and stealing their house. They need a road they can get to work on. The rest of that stuff, they probably don’t need. Government should make sure the rest of the population gets a fair shake.
PLAYBOY: And yet, when pollsters ask the question “Do you think the government should provide health care for all?” the number who answer yes is declining. Are conservatives getting the better part of the argument?
SCHWEITZER: It’s easy to say government doesn’t work, because everywhere you look you can find an example of government not working. But then where are those people who said, “It certainly does work, because what about Brian Schweitzer and all his siblings, who came from the most humble of family farms? They managed to make it through the system and get advanced degrees. Who could’ve imagined that?” I didn’t get there by myself. It was public education systems. And you’re a farmer and you say, “I don’t need any damn government.” So how are you going to get your grain to market? “Well, I need a road.” That’s the damn government! How do you think you’re going to get a fair deal from Monsanto if there isn’t somebody regulating the quality of what they’re selling you so you know you’re going to get a seed or an herbicide that actually works? You’re a proud owner of a small industrial plant someplace in the Midwest and you need rail service in and out, and that rail service was given that concession by the government, and you need roads in and out, and you need certain services to protect you from your competitors who unfairly dump toxins in the water or the air and are able to manufacture for less money than you. Some regulatory agencies level the playing field and say, “No, we’re all going to have to produce under the same rules.” That’s called government. I ran a government by challenging every expense. I was able to put money aside because I was able to go in and make it more efficient. We didn’t grow government here. Do I think government is efficient? No. Some of it’s inherently inefficient, and you’ll never fix that. But take our military—I don’t think there’s anybody even asking them to be efficient. If you want to start comparing the levels of inefficiency and fraud between our food stamp program and our military, there’s no comparison.
PLAYBOY: When you look at the field of other potential Democratic presidential candidates, what do you think?
SCHWEITZER: I think the better question in 2014 is, would someone who is thinking of running for president look at the other potential members of the field and ask, “Where would I fit in?”
SCHWEITZER: Well, that would be a fool’s mission, because you don’t even know who’s in that race. It’s like a doggone horse race. When you come out of the gate, there’s a five-to-one posted there, a six-to-one posted there, a three-to-one posted there; there’s a 15-to-one, a 30-to-one and a 50-to-one. The only advice I can give you about horse racing is never pick the three-to-one, because they have overestimated the likelihood of that animal making it around the racetrack without slipping or breaking a leg. Bet the 30-to-one or the 40-to-one, because people have underestimated their potential of having something happen in front of them and them running right on by.
PLAYBOY: If we were cynical, we’d say you’re making an analogy that might apply to the potential Democratic field. A candidate such as Hillary Clinton might be the three-to-one, versus the 30-to-one, which might be you.
SCHWEITZER: You know, I’m just a guy who knows a thing or two about horses.