When Montanans vote in the May 25 special election to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, they will choose between two candidates who have never held public office. The Republican, former gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte, is a businessman who sold his Bozeman-based company RightNow Technologies to Oracle for a billion dollars. The Democrat is Rob Quist.
Quist served 11 years on the Montana Arts Council and was an ambassador to Montana's sister state of Kumamoto, Japan. He has developed anti-bullying programs for Montana schools and advocated for the Montana Food Bank. But he is best known as a member of the Mission Mountain Wood Band, a roots-rock act that toured nationally during the 1970s. As Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold put it when he addressed the UM School of Journalism last month, Quist is a "cowboy folk singer."
It sounds like a Terry Southern plot: multimillionaire versus cowboy folk singer for control of Montana's sole seat in the U.S. House. A reader arriving late to this story might be forgiven for thinking it reflects the general public's dissatisfaction with career politicians. But a funny thing about Quist, as an outsider candidate from the world of popular entertainment, is that he was not selected by the general public.
The voters of Montana did not get sick of politics as usual and nominate a cowboy folk singer in a groundswell of disgust with the status quo. He was chosen by delegates from the Democratic Party in a special nominating convention. In early March, just months after a reality television star who had never held public office or served in the military became the U.S. president, 160 party operatives—the insiders' insiders, the ones so deep in the system that they vote to direct the party itself—got together at Helena's Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel and agreed that political experience is less a feature than a bug.
This decision does not necessarily reflect what most voters in Montana think. It may not even tell us what the delegates think. All it tells us is what those delegates think voters think. The purpose of the Helena convention was to select the candidate with the best chance of winning May's election, and the politicians of the Democratic Party determined that we like entertainers better than we like the politicians of the Democratic Party. They're not wrong.
The original entertainer-turned-politician was George Lloyd Murphy, a song and dance man who became the U.S. senator from California in 1964. Before joining the world's greatest deliberative body, Murphy had worked as a nightclub dancer. During the Depression, he appeared in a series of Hollywood musicals, including the descriptively titled Broadway Melody of 1938 and Broadway Melody of 1940. He went on to become president of the Screen Actors Guild, then won his Senate bid by defeating John F. Kennedy's former press secretary. Murphy served only one term before he was unseated by Rep. John Tunney, son of heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney.
Readers may be familiar with another past president of the Screen Actors Guild who dabbled in politics. Before he became the leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan announced Chicago Cubs games for WHO radio in Des Moines, offering play-by-play accounts by embellishing short descriptions he got by wire. He also starred opposite a chimpanzee in the 1951 comedy Bedtime For Bonzo.
Shortly after Reagan left office to enter talk-radio sainthood, a number of his fellow entertainers followed his path to Washington. His presidency overlapped 12 days with the congressional tenure of Ben Jones, who played Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. Around the same time, Iowa's 6th District was represented by Fred Grandy, who played Gopher on The Love Boat. Grandy left office on the same day that Sonny Bono was sworn in as Representative of California's 44th District. Bono, who never graduated high school, was a former songwriter and television personality best known for marrying Cher.
Fred Thompson, U.S. Senator from Tennessee between 1994 and 2003, was a rare instance of an entertainer who was in politics first. Thompson served as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate Committee before he went on to play himself in the 1985 film Marie, titled after his client in a corruption trial against the governor of Tennessee. He played stern authority figures in Die Hard 2, The Hunt for Red October and a number of less-successful productions. In 1994, he won a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Al Gore, returning to the body he had first served 20 years earlier.
Former professional wrestler and Predator actor Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1999, becoming the first Reform Party candidate to win a significant office. Then, in 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy for governor of California during an appearance on The Tonight Show.
The media treated it as a joke. Headlines were generally split between "the governator" and "the running man," a reference to the 1987 film in which Schwarzenegger played a contestant on a murder-themed game show. The action hero and former bodybuilder had never campaigned for public office before. He was running in a recall election against Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Republican state Senator Tom McClintock, Green Party activist Peter Camejo, and 132 other candidates—including Arianna Huffington, former MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth and Gary Coleman. It was a circus, and Schwarzenegger looked like another circus candidate.