Watch Gary Johnson on The Daily Show
Is This the Sanest Man Running for President?
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
By Lisa DePaulo, Photos by Peter Yang
(GQ) 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 (a charity race for disabled children). 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 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.”
He seems genuinely surprised.
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?
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.
He has just enough time to check into his room and change into his evening attire—jeans and Nike Frees with bright orange shoelaces—before grabbing a quick bite (“I’ll have the Nasty Nachos,” he tells the waitress) and heading to the Porcupine Freedom Festival, an annual summit of over-the-top Libertarians who come by the thousands to camp out for a week and “exchange ideas.” Not to mention joints. And Gary is attending this “civilly disobedient” event…why, exactly? “You’ll see,” says Gary. “It’ll be an eye-opener.”
That’s one way of putting it. But what’s most bizarro-world about Porcfest is that there’s a presidential candidate in attendance and no one seems to know it. Gary doesn’t ask to take the stage (or make his aides get him up there). He doesn’t glad-hand. He just slips in and watches a Libertarian documentary (Matt’s in it) from the back of the mud-floored tent/makeshift auditorium. But then word spreads through the crowd—and the aromatic air—that Gary Johnson is here. And they come to him. “Are you Gary Johnson? Awesome, dude.” Some of them remember him from last year, when he also showed up without fanfare. “I think the last time we met, I didn’t have eyeliner on,” says one sexually ambiguous Libertarian. Another invites him to the Shabbat dinner tonight in someone’s tent. He has a long jag with several young guys in Ron Paul T-shirts, who tell him that they like him a lot but will probably vote for Paul, even though he has not appeared at Porcfest. Gary tells them they should do what they feel is right. One of them suggests he could be Ron Paul’s vice president. (Not likely. Gary flew to Houston to tell the Libertarian capo in person that he planned to run; the meeting ended when he announced his intentions.)
A local public-radio guy and a local blogger ask if he would mind being interviewed, and they retreat to a smelly back hallway near the men’s room, where he answers questions about his campaign for the presidency while various revelers walk by with bongs and guns.
“A lot of people would say it’s a courageous candidate,” says the radio guy, “who would come to an event where people are walking around openly carrying weapons, there’s gay disco, there’s people smoking marijuana…”
Gary chuckles. “I wouldn’t say I’m a brave candidate for those reasons.” Another chuckle. “Those things don’t bother me at all.”
In fact, though Paul ducks the entire week of Porcfest (but somehow manages to have piles of his T-shirts there), Gary returns for a second night and spends three hours wandering the campground. The only group he approaches directly is sitting under a tent at a picnic table with RON PAUL MEETUP signs. Then he moves south to the part of the campground dominated by the anarchists, who are separated from the Libertarians by a swing set—and who, by definition, aren’t even going to vote. But Gary doesn’t want to just blow them off. He ends up in a long conversation with a guy named “Puke” and another dude in a red hoodie who wants to tell the presidential candidate how he became “the sovereign king of myself.” Gary listens as the 20-year-old tells him how he doesn’t pay taxes and drives without a license. “I understand how you feel, but listen, son…” And gently but firmly points out that those things could get him arrested. “That wouldn’t be good for you.”
Matt and Brinck want to know if he’s ready to go.
“I thought we might go hear a little bit of rant first.” There is open-mike ranting under a tent tonight, and he really enjoyed that last year.
Okay, so maybe it’s fairly easy for the mainstream media, and even the weirdstream media, to write Gary Johnson off. He doesn’t fit the script. Not any script. But as Gary would ask, how successful has the script been? In fact, the Gary Johnson story is about a lot more than a highly unusual candidate. It’s also a window into the arbitrary, screwed-up way we pick our candidates. Or rather, the way a small number of major media outlets—rather than the voting public—decree who the “legitimate” candidates will be.
It’s hard to put too fine a point on the “unintended consequences” (one of Johnson’s favorite phrases) of CNN’s decision in June not to invite Gary Johnson to its debate, the second of the Republican primary campaign. He was just picking up some steam, having turned in a very respectable performance in the first debate in May, hosted by Fox. At least enough to make people say, Who is this guy? “Then I got hosed,” as Gary puts it.
It wasn’t just that CNN chose not to invite a widely respected two-term governor who’d officially declared his candidacy ahead of everyone else and had a PAC (Our America Initiative) and a serious campaign committee up and running. The network invited Sarah Palin (who has yet to announce and may never), as well as Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee, both of whom announced that they weren’t running in the weeks before the debate. CNN says the invitation list was based entirely on who was polling at least 2 percent in three polls they used as a basis—and that Huckabee and Trump were invited before they dropped out. (And Palin? That was just wishful thinking.)
Johnson insists that even by CNN’s criteria, he should have been on the stage. “We argued till we were blue in the face that in those polls they cited, I was actually at the 2 percent,” says the candidate. “It didn’t do any good.”
The reaction from the Johnson camp was fast and furious—and amusing. His supporters (yes, he has them) showed up outside the CNN debate with signs that read MORE JOHNSON, LESS WEINER. Gary himself took to YouTube to do a forty-three-minute video in which he answered every debate question, splicing in the actual video of John King’s questions. Johnson says he purposely did not watch the debate until after he made his video, so that his answers would be pure and honest.
In the short term, Johnson got a little bump from being dissed by CNN. There was an uptick in (small) donations for a few days. But the long-term consequences were dismal. As Joe Hunter, his communications director in Utah, puts it, “In terms of any momentum and the ability to motivate larger donors, it was a blow from which we are just now starting to recover.” (And yes, Gary’s national operation is based in Utah, because he refuses to stray from Ron Nielson, the Salt Lake City–based consultant who helped him win his two terms as governor, though Nielson has never run a presidential campaign before.) Almost immediately, says Hunter, the campaign had “fewer requests from the major outlets for reactions to national developments. There were exclusions from polls—which is obviously a vicious cycle—and generally less attention from the major networks than Gary’s credentials would merit.” Johnson admits he was “demoralized” by the decision. For the quarter ending June 30, a period during which Mitt Romney raised $18 million, Johnson netted $180,000 (not a typo).
And the vicious cycle continued. In August, he was not invited to the Republican debate in Iowa. Which might have had something to do with his response to the “Family Leader’s “Marriage Vow” pledge,” a social-conservatism manifesto that Michele Bachmann and several other of his rivals jumped to sign. “In one concise document,” Gary said in a YouTube video, “they manage to condemn gays, single parents, single individuals, divorcees, Muslims, gays in the military, unmarried couples, women who choose to have abortions, and everyone else who doesn’t fit into a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Um, maybe not the best way to appeal to the base.
Then, in early September, he got hosed again by CNN, deemed not even worthy to participate in the reality-show carnival that was the Tea Party debate. Two weeks before the debate, he was polling higher than Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum. They were onstage. He was not.
“I never, ever, when I entered this process of running for president of the United States, thought I would be excluded from the debate table. Ever.” He pauses, incredulous. “What does two terms as governor get you?”
Finally, in mid-September, he qualified for the Fox debate in Orlando. Over the two-hour debate, he was asked four questions and scored a total of four minutes airtime. “I’m not complaining,” he said afterwards. “That’s four minutes more than I had a week ago.” He seemed nervous (he was), his answers repetitive. But he pulled it out at the end by delivering the applause line of the night: “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.” Suddenly he was trending on Twitter and, for a day, was one of the hottest search terms on Google. He says he kinda wished his dogshit joke wasn’t what got him national attention. But he’ll take it.
The funny thing is, Johnson’s eight years in the governor’s mansion, from 1995 to 2003, once seemed as unlikely as his presidential aspirations do now. When he ran for the first term, he had almost zero name recognition. His campaign cost $1.8 million, and $550,000 of that was his own money. He won the Republican nomination by 1percent and ended up winning the general (with a third Green Party candidate) by 10 percent. Four years later, he was reelected with 55 percent of the vote.
Voters will tell you that the reason Johnson got reelected (and might still be in office if there hadn’t been term limits) was that he managed to improve the state while slashing the budget. He vetoed 750 spending bills, knew how to strong-arm the Democratic-controlled state house and senate, and reinvented the state agencies. He also signed a bill to let New Mexicans drive seventy-five miles per hour on highways, and another one to let them buy beer on Sundays. (“Why not? That’s a stupid rule. People can make their own decisions about what day of the week they want a beer.”) And when litter became a problem on the highways, he organized a bike race from one end of the state to the other in which, in his Pearl Izumi spandex, he led a flotilla of New Mexicans to collect the garbage.
One point that Johnson often makes—and that he argued passionately to CNN producers when they were wrangling over his exclusion from that critical debate in June, before Rick Perry joined the race—is “that there’s only one presidential candidate that’s viewed favorably in their own state. And that would be me. So what I said to CNN was, ‘You’re talking about a 2 percent threshold—which we can argue—but in the only place where I amknown, I have this favorability rating. So shouldn’t that mean something? Isn’t a debate supposed to be about presenting all the candidates to the rest of the United States and let the people determine who they like and dislike?” (He likes to point out that Bill Clinton was also polling at 2 percent in the nascent stages of his first presidential campaign.)
I get a chance to see Johnson soak up some of that home-state love when I go to Albuquerque with him in late June. There’s a sudden lightness to Gary as he strolls through the airport. For one thing, people know him here. “Hey, how ya doin’, Governor?” He drags his stuff to the economy parking garage where his silver Porsche Targa waits. “Targa is the hatchback,” he explains. “It’s the practical Porsche.”
He slips on his Nike sunglasses. “You can’t go anywhere in New Mexico without your shades.”
Now he is at the parking-cashier booth and wants to make sure the woman who takes his ticket notices that he has a coupon. “I got the seven-day free there.”
“You’re the governor, right?” says the woman. And she pulls out a box and hands it to him through the window. “They wanted me to give you this. That’s a transponder. You can park for free anytime you want.”
“Oh man!” says Gary. “That is so cool!” He looks like he’s about to jump out and kiss her. He asks her for her name, for the manager’s name, for the owner’s name. So he can send them thank-you notes. “This is just so cool. Thank you so much. Wow! Wow!”
We pull onto the highway, where, because of him, you can now drive seventy-five miles an hour. Or maybe much faster? “What do you think? It’s a Porsche.”
“I think that was an omen, huh?” he says, doing eighty-five. The transponder? “What they’re saying is, ‘Go get em!’ I feel good about this thing. I have a good feeling.”
He dials his fiancée. “Prusack, I LOVE YOU!”
He has to stop at Home Depot to buy a weed torch and at Costco for the grocery order. “I love Costco.” He runs as he pushes his cart. “Hello, Mr. Johnson!” “Hello, Governor!” “How’s the race going?” The only bummer is that they are out of the Starbucks cards where you can get $100 worth of coffee for $80. But otherwise, life is good. And will get better.
He meets Kate and his family at a restaurant. When he sees Kate in the parking lot, he embraces her like he just got out of prison.
The following morning, he is the guest speaker at a packed breakfast meeting at the Hotel Albuquerque (which he owns part of). During his twenty-seven-minute speech, he gets a rousing standing O and is interrupted with extended applause four times. (The home crowd doesn’t seem to mind his low-key speaking style, which once prompted a Wall Street Journal columnist to call him “the libertarian Michael Dukakis.”) He talks about how he will balance the federal budget by 2013, repeats his mantra about cutting federal spending by 43 percent. And how, at his core, he’s a free-market guy. Free markets for health care, for education, for energy. He talks about alternative energy (good) and ethanol subsidies (bad). Then he throws in the legalize-pot stuff at the end, and there is less applause. One businessman whispers to me, “That’s a tough issue to get elected on.”
Gary Johnson believes in his heart that Americans want the truth. But do they? Legalizing marijuana to significantly reduce the prison population and save the billions spent every year going after pot smokers in the “war on drugs” (a view that more and more Americans share, just not those who vote in Republican primaries) is hardly his main issue; eliminating the deficit is, and was even before the debt crisis this summer. But he’s been marginalized as the pot guy.”I believe at some point the media will move beyond this,” he says, “but I’m not laying on the couch theorizing about it.” Advisers have suggested he cut his speeches before that kicker—legalize pot—while he still has audiences vigorously nodding over his ideas to get rid of the deficit and the IRS. But that would be, well, phony. “I don’t want them to go home and say, ‘I saw this guy Gary Johnson, and he was really interesting.’ ‘Oh, the pot guy?’ ‘He didn’t mention that.’ ”
The Albuquerque breakfast is a very well-heeled gathering of the top businesspeople in New Mexico, and even those who go off the record—usually because they’re Dems—have nothing but praise for their former governor. “He was very effective from the start,” says one prominent Democrat who is also a developer. “Because of what he did for our economy. And lemme tell ya, he’s tough. You know that single-minded toughness that makes you a great triathlete?”
“This man is a genius!” says a businesswoman who runs over to kiss him. “You look fabulous!” she gushes. “Why don’t you age?”
The chairman of the group, who introduces him, tells a story about hiring the teenaged Gary to paint his house after watching the future governor fall in love with the girl next door (Johnson’s ex-wife, Dee, who died at 54, months after they divorced). “Gary has never not achieved something he set out to achieve, from governor to Ironman. And in typical Gary Johnson fashion, he’s at the back of the pack, where he loves to start out.”