He's not Grizzly Adams, nor Bear Grylls, but he has climbed Mount Everest.
At 59, Gary Johnson still projects the energetic aura of an athlete. But these days, the two-time Republican governor of New Mexico and imminent Libertarian Party Presidential candidate has the rumpled look of someone who spends too much time in Starbucks hunched over a laptop. At a sandwich shop near Rockefeller Center where we met for an interview last week, he talks with a quiet kind of energy: non-intimidating; a bit self-effacing, but sincere.
His voice is not mellifluous like Obama's; his style is nothing like Mitt's trying-too-hard; and his rhetoric is far from Santorum's coarse and unbalanced rambling. Johnson's speech lacks the "uhs," "y'knows" or similar pauses that usually indicate a bad case of public overthink.
No, Johnson speaks with the conviction of a true believer, one convinced that abandoning the Republican Party for a run as a Libertarian will sow seeds that will take root -- if not this year, then perhaps in 2016.
The preening and posturing of Romney and Santorum, looking to score at the socially conservative beauty contest, are anathema to Johnson. He wants to stick close to Libertarian core values, and if that means butting heads with former Libertarian Party presidential candidate (1988) Ron Paul, so be it.
Abortion? Where Ron Paul waffled, throwing that decision to the states, Johnson is clear: "A woman should be making that decision," he says.
Foreign Aid: especially to Israel? Paul says no. Johnson says yes.
"Israel has been a valuable ally," he insists.
While Paul reasserts Libertarianism's commitment to the "individual" as the paramount decision maker, Johnson clearly makes a concession to real-politick, where rewriting the narrative may be essential to drawing a wider range of potential supporters: disaffected Democrats, moderate Republicans and everything in-between.
Maybe it's something about his mountain climbing that makes him eager to ride that risky political third rail.
Drugs: they should be legal. In 1999 as Governor, he was the highest ranking elected official to call for legalizing weed, citing all the wasteful spending trying to enforce unenforceable laws. Anyway, he says, it's a matter of personal choice.
Illegal immigration? He's a former border state Governor calling for more work visas and less chain link. In his view, we should turn illegals into welcome guests who might reasonably be expected "to pay taxes, pay for health care and otherwise be contributors to society rather than burdens." It's the kind of common sense approach guaranteed to cause Lou Dobbs meltdown among mainstream Republicans.
He's all about common sense, at least the Libertarian version.
Do we really need expensive micro-managing bureaucracies like education and housing and development? No. They're unnecessary.
Get rid of that old bogeyman, the Fed? "Absolutely. "
Johnson owes his allegiance to Milton Friedman's theory of free market economics: if a bank is going to fail, okay, let it go -- bye-bye. His economic goal is to slash and burn till you get to that state of grace: a balanced budget.
As Governor, he'll tell you, the veto was his machete, which he used so consistently that he was dubbed -- yes -- 'Mr. Veto.' If a bill submitted to his cost/benefit analysis didn't make the grade, out it went. Under his tutelage, government growth was slowed to a crawl and citizens of the State didn't mind one bit; they lauded him. Cited as one of New Mexico's most popular Governors, even opponents, like Democratic Congressman Tom Udall, sang his praises. If not for term limits, Johnson may have had himself a job for life.
Hitting the refresh button, Johnson goes to great lengths to separate himself from any notion that he's an "extremism in defense of Liberty," candidate, a la Barry Goldwater. He'll spare a few Federal bureaucracies, with appropriate cost cutting. That means the Department of Justice will survive because, as he'll tell you, there's a role for the Feds in guaranteeing civil rights from sea to shining sea. This places him at odds with some in the Ron Paul camp who've called for a repeal of the 1964 Voting Rights act as antithetical to "free association." In Gary Johnson's world view, individual rights - civil rights - still need protection; noting, "If the federal government didn't pass the civil rights legislation, what would life be like in Alabama and Mississippi?"
While agreeing with Paul about scrapping Orwellian constructs -- namely, Homeland Security and TSA -- he goes easy on the Environmental Protection Agency, recalling his own experience as Governor dealing with some "really bad actors on the pollution front."
So the mountain climber now wants to climb this country's ultimate political Everest. And he wants the voting public to believe that, as a third party candidate, he can succeed, which brings us back to the mountain climbing thing. It's a pursuit that usually draws the likes of either inspired adventurers, like Sir Edmund Hillary; monks of the Taoist variety; or the truly, truly crazy, like British occultist Aleister Crowley.
"Why do you?" was the question.
"When you're mountaineering, all you have to worry about is shitting, pissing eating and keeping warm...it's so in the moment," he responded with relish. "When you're hanging off a cliff, suspended on a rope, there's just right now and how in the fuck am I going to get out of this?"
He punctuated his storytelling with: "It's so cool. "
Was he channeling early Jerry Brown?
"What we're all in search of in our lives is a state of Zen," he says, as if to affirm that likeness.
Being governor was "fun," he recalled, "because it was, [like mountain climbing] in the moment."
Will it still be fun when he takes the reins of that peculiar Libertarian beast; the pushmi-pullyu, of Dr. Doolittle fame; heads on opposite ends, trying and failing to get traction in either direction?
Campaigning, he notes, is not "fun," but if he can get the needed poll numbers, he vows to ice-pick his way onto the stage as a participant in the Grand Presidential Debate, where he believes that the force of his arguments - and the common sense notions of libertarianism - may turn a few million heads in his direction..
Mountain climbing may indeed be the ultimate fitness prerequisite for hopping on the campaign treadmill. Like climbing, you've got to be able to think clearly, act passionately, move decisively, and stay grounded, even when the forces of nature pepper you with the worst. Surviving politically in the 2012 Presidential triathlon may be the ultimate test of Gary Johnson's fitness.