The Zen of Gary Johnson

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The former New Mexico governor is unlike any other presidential candidate in memory

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"In basketball - as in life - true joy comes from being present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way. Of course, it's no accident that things are more likely to go your way when you stop worrying about whether you're going to win or lose and focus your full attention on what's happening right this moment... Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable. It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it. The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart. When you do that the game - and life - will take care of itself."  ~ Phil Jackson, writing in his book Sacred Hoops

Think of Gary Johnson as the Phil Jackson of politics. "I really think that life is about being in a state of zen," the newly minted contender for the GOP nomination says. "If I might describe zen for you, it's being in the moment. The thing that gets someone there might be music, art, golf, reading, writing. It might be a job that you have. For me, I've found it in athletics. And I've also found it in politics."

His answer was unlike any I'd heard to the question, "What appeals to you about running for president?" People seeking high-powered jobs tend to be all about ego, power, intensity, and ambition. To value the destination more than the journey. Yet here was a man in a suit, prepping for a presidential bid, musing on the zen of sports and politics. The former made sense. Every high school athlete knows that feeling of being in the zone, performing in the moment. Mere sports fans grasp that Phil Jackson was able to coax that quality from his players.

But politics? How could anyone get a zen fix from that?

Before I can explain, a bit of background is necessary. Gary Johnson, 58, served as governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, ousting an incumbent by a 10 point margin, and handily winning reelection four years later. In his first months in office, he vetoed outright almost half of all bills brought to his desk in order to cut spending. He announced his support for legalizing marijuana in his second term, becoming the highest ranking politician in the US government to take that controversial position. I've argued elsewhere that Johnson's rhetoric and policy stances make him an ideal champion for the tea party. Dave Weigel, Chris Good and Michael W. Lynch have adeptly sketched his political history and the place he occupies in the 2012 Republican field.

Johnson's dearth of name recognition and unproven track record as a fundraiser make him a long-shot candidate, especially in a nation obsessed with political celebrity. Let us not, however, be prisoners to opinion polls. Early in primary season, the press and the public ought to focus on better knowing candidates rather than handicapping their chances in Iowa and New Hampshire. In that spirit, I sought out Johnson when he passed through Los Angeles in late January, hoping that I'd be impressed by a candidate I liked on paper. We've got differences, but he's a successful two-term governor, a fiscal hawk, and almost alone in advocating an end to America's unaffordable wars (drugs, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya). He seemed like a younger Ron Paul with executive experience and without the gold obsession or racist newsletter baggage.

The notion of liking a politician made me wary. It's folly to fall for any of them. (If you don't believe me, survey their wives!) Plus, writers charmed by a candidate are prone to awful judgments. The quintessential cautionary tale is the profile of John McCain that David Foster Wallace wrote in 2000. If the Arizona senator did the right thing in a POW camp when no one was watching, wasn't he more likely to do so in public life? The argument was put as persuasively as everything the late author published. But it turns out that McCain behaved dishonorably long before the 2000 campaign, and has behaved badly many times since. The lesson is to put more stock in a politician's record than anything else, and to be wary of all romantic narratives, however compelling.

Other right-leaning journalists warned me that Johnson is unable to answer policy questions with the specificity required to successfully win a major party nomination -- a point he partly conceded when I asked him if that was a fair criticism. "If you go back a year ago, when I started giving interviews, that was really a soft opening relative to today," he said. "I'm a lot sharper now -- and a year from now it's going to be much different. It's the same process I used when I successfully ran for governor. And I know I won't be viable unless I can provide that  level of specificity." Reporters who speak with Johnson should test his mettle now that he's officially running.

What I can shed light on is his attitude toward governing. Let's begin with the small stuff. When his term in New Mexico began, his staff told him, "All the highway signs in the state say, 'Welcome To New Mexico From Governor Bruce King.' How do you want them to read when your name is on there?"

"Don't put my name on those signs," Johnson said. "If we change them it should be, 'Welcome to New Mexico from the citizens of New Mexico'."

The aides had another question.

"We've got 25,000 maps with Bruce King's name and message on them. What should we do with them?" they said.

"I want you to hand them out!" Johnson replied.

Asked about his leadership style, Johnson answered in a way that I couldn't help but contrast with our last Republican president, George W. Bush. He assured me that he has an excellent track record hiring good people -- but that his success hinged as much on the folks he decided to fire. "If you don't have the ability to do the firing part of it, making changes when things don't work out -- in the private sector those people walk out the door with your money everyday," he said. "On the public side, they can be ineffective and you don't have to do a thing. And there's really no consequence other than what they're doing is ineffective -- you can avoid that interpersonal moment, because it's really hard to fire people. It's really hard. But if you can't do it, you won't be successful."

Listening to some of what Johnson did as governor got my inner cynic and my inner idealist wrestling with one another. "I had an open door after four policy. I saw anybody in the state once a month starting at 4 o'clock in the afternoon," he told me. "It went to 10 pm, and I would see anybody in the state in 5 minute increments." Is it possible for a president to stay "in touch" with the American people, even if that is his sincere intention?

"What sort of people do you gravitate toward as advisers?" I asked.

"Certainly not yes people," he replied. "This is what I told everybody in my cabinet. I said, I want you to know that every single one of you can disagree with me every day of the week, and you can do it in front of the media, as long as you say, 'Here is the governor's position, and here is my position. And here is why I disagree with the governor.' The idea was that we always want to tell the truth."

"Always?"

"If I'm out running, I don't want my staff telling somebody that I'm in some sort of meeting. Tell them that I'm out running!" he said with exasperation. "You'll never go wrong by telling the truth. Never. I told my cabinet, it's going to be the truth. If any of you get yourselves in a situation, that we've made a mistake or whatever, I don't want us to ever make the statement that we can't comment because of legal restraint. We all need to comment. We all need to tell the truth all the time. And we'll let the lawyers catch up with the truth."

"Letting the lawyers catch up with the truth" may be the most radical anti-establishment position in contemporary American politics. Would a president who actually always told the truth be a fantastic success? A dangerous failure? Personally, it's a gamble I'd like to take. It is, however, an untested approach to running the US government, if he is in fact being earnest about it.

Let's be frank: On the one hand, he's a politician telling you he'll be honest. On the other hand, normal politicians don't volunteer stories like this one:

I appoint a new cabinet secretary -- she's not yet been confirmed. The Secretary of Corrections. She's been on the job for a week or ten days, and all of a sudden she calls to say, "There's a tunnel system beneath the state prisons! There's a tunnel system, and we're planning to tell the media about this!"

"Well yeah, sure," I said. "That's fine. Now what is it that's underneath the prison?"

"A tunnel system! An elaborate tunnel system!"

So they report this to the media. And it's a big, sensational story for a day, until somebody looks at it, and this is just the HVAC system underneath the structure -- it's just the duct system for the prison. So then she's calling me saying, "What are we going to do?" And I said, "Just tell the truth. I mean, as stupid as we look, just tell the truth."

So the next day the press reports that this whole thing was blown out of proportion by the Johnson Administration. Well, not really. I didn't personally look at it. If I had, I might have realized that's what it was.

But it is what it is.

Zen!

As a matter of politics, this approach sounds untenable, suicidal, even. But then again, the guy got re-elected. Being a Gary Johnson political advisor during one of these early episodes must have been a lot like serving as an assistant coach under Phil Jackson. It's late in the third quarter. The other team is on a 12 to 2 run. Your lead is cut to a single point. Any other coach in the NBA would call a time out. Jackson isn't even standing up. He's just sitting on the bench letting them play. Is he insane? Nobody runs things this way! But then, somehow, disaster doesn't strike. He finds success. Is he lucky or talented? Or some mix? Does his zen philosophy really work?

Hell if anyone knows for sure.

As noted earlier, Gary Johnson finds zen -- "living in the moment" -- in both sports and politics. His most impressive feat, as a sportsman, is climbing Mount Everest. If that doesn't awe you, read this.

Seriously.

Okay, are you back?

"In my twenties I would put so much emphasis on winning an athletic event itself," Johnson told me. "But I came to a reckoning many years ago. Life became a process. I thought, I really enjoy being fit. I really enjoy the moments it takes to stay fit. I try to always enjoy the moment - I am enjoying this conversation. I don't want to be anyplace else."

ME: So now you're more about the journey than the destination?

JOHNSON: "Yes. If you can live your life that way, what more can you ask? You'd like to win. But more important is that you've established yourself as someone who is capable of winning. It's not that I went to Mount Everest and summitted. That was terrific. But I got to go to Everest in the first place. I was fit enough. I had enough resources. I had enough moxie, if you will, to be there and attempt this thing. So that's life. For me, athletics is in the moment. For me, governing is in the moment too."

ME: I've played enough sports to understand its appeal to someone like you. But how is politics similar?

JOHNSON: When I first enjoyed a level of financial success like I had never dreamed of, it was very destructive. Because the reality was, guess what, bells and whistles don't go off all day long. They don't. I still have to get up every morning, I still have to put my shoes on, I still have to eat. And so it's not a bells and whistles kind of experience all the time. I could then say with certainty that financial success wasn't the key to life. The key to life, what it's all about, is enjoying what you do everyday.

ME: And you enjoyed being governor?

JOHNSON: It was a blood boiling job. It was 24/7. On hundreds of issues, I got to be in the middle of understanding them. What I liked was the process. The learning, the deliberation, the decision-making - putting it all together, and asking, 'Given these options, what is in the public's interest? How can we get that done?' It was an 'in the moment' experience for me. It was really in the moment.

What motivates people to seek the American presidency is difficult to ascertain. I'd never attempt to articulate what caused President Obama to run, or why George W. Bush sought the White House, or the x factor for Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, or their respective challengers. I will observe that Gary Johnson seems driven by something equally indescribable, but different. I don't think we've ever seen a nominee for either party quite like him.

If elected, how would he govern? What would it look like to have a zen personality leading the executive branch? As yet, I'm unsure whether I'll cast my ballot for him or not. But I'd I'd love to see what happened if an honest man with executive experience, an aversion to wars of choice, and a soft spot for civil liberties took the White House.

Is anyone else going to offer me that chance?

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Drop-down image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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