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Personality trumps politics in new Schweitzer biography

Bitterroot journalist Greg Lemon cuts right to the chase in the opening pages of his new biography on Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

“Is this persona—the dog, the blue jeans, the bolo tie, the boots—all an act?” writes Lemon. “Does he really believe in himself this much? Is there a key, a Rosetta stone, to explain the bravado, the ego? Has he set his sights on the national arena, or is he content, as he has often implied, with state office?”

Throughout the 160-page Blue Man in a Red State, released last week from Helena-based TwoDot Books, Lemon tries to answer these questions. But he does so by consciously avoiding Schweitzer’s specific political decisions and policy debates and focusing almost exclusively on the governor’s strong personality.

“Political news coverage gets to be dry and lacking personality when it jumps into the depths of policy,” explains Lemon. “It was a book about politics, but it wasn’t a political story.”

Drinking coffee at a small table in the River Rising bistro in downtown Hamilton, Lemon is as about as far from Helena or Washington, D.C., as could be, and he likes it that way. The former environmental and outdoor reporter for the Ravalli Republic and current politics editor at NewWest.net, describes himself as an “a-political” writer. He seems more content keeping up with sports scores and fly-fishing the Bitterroot than tapping into the nation’s political pulse.

“I had to become a political junkie,” Lemon says. “By the end of writing the book, I had to follow politics like I follow sports. Every morning instead of clicking on ESPN, I clicked on Real Clear Politics or the Huffington Post, going through all the daily headlines.”

TwoDot Executive Editor Erin Tuner approached Lemon about writing the book based on his experience covering Schweitzer for NewWest. Lemon signed on—Blue Man in a Red State is his first book—and quickly sought Schweitzer’s cooperation. The governor’s only request was that his parents and children not be interviewed. Schweitzer will not receive any royalties.

“He never even asked to see a copy” of the finished manuscript, Lemon says.

While not necessarily an overly complimentary treatment, Lemon’s focus on Schweitzer’s personality and personal interactions allows the book to walk a fine line between criticism and praise. As told through Lemon’s first-hand observations, extended interviews with Schweitzer and anecdotal glimpses from long-time Montana politicians like former Republican candidate for governor Bob Brown and Congressman Pat Williams, Blue Man in a Red State sidesteps most political controversy. Lemon mentions Schweitzer’s energy policies, but there’s little discussion, for instance, of how the governor has navigated heated debate over his controversial clean coal initiative, which remains the centerpiece of his policy platform.

“That was the author’s decision,” Turner says. “He wanted to remove a lot of the information about the coal-to-liquids controversy. I think it had to do with him choosing to be focused on the personality and not on specific policies…We didn’t want to come down as either a cheerleader for the administration, or being his detractors.”

If anything in the book proved challenging for Lemon to cover, it was discussing potentially controversial items during an election year.

“I do think that was on the front of—if not his mind, his staff’s minds. I think there was some trepidation,” says Lemon. “… But Schweitzer never said, ‘We get to read it or we’re not going to give you access.’”

One of the book’s more compelling chapters covers Schweitzer’s time in the Middle East. Schweitzer extensively details his work as a soil agronomist for the Food Development Corporation in Libya and Saudi Arabia, and describes courting Bedouins, sheiks, princes and farmers who wanted to invest in large-scale agriculture projects that Schweitzer would manage like his own company. The governor recalls elaborate meetings in remote locations that sometimes went on for days. Whereas western business is frank and to the point, Bedouin culture reinforces the belief that the first person to lay their cards out loses.

“You learn, culturally, it’s a standoff,” Schweitzer says in the book. “The first one to bring up actual business was going to lose…[So] you’d talk about the old days, what it was like to live in the desert, camel racing, their favorite camels. They’d talk about their wives…everything but business, and remember you were there to negotiate a deal.”

Lemon positions those formative experiences as part of the governor’s leadership style today. He also spends considerable time discussing how Schweitzer’s upbringing as a middle-child on the family farm near Geyser helped cultivate such a forceful personality.

“You are squeezed between the big and the little. From day one you’re in a constant negotiation,” Schweitzer says in the book. “You don’t personally have the power, the juice to do anything. You’re in the middle and you’re a deal maker.”

Now set to start an in-state book tour with Schweitzer, Lemon is still mulling the questions he raises at the beginning of the book. He’s never met someone as confident as Schweitzer, but openly wonders if “he’s hiding something else.” He also doesn’t believe Schweitzer is an act, despite the constant presence of his dog, Jag.

“The dog can be sort of an act sometimes…but you can’t very well get rid of it now. It’s not a gimmick.”

And does he think Schweitzer is content with state office?

“No,” Lemon says quickly. “He’s never been at ease with what he’s accomplished. There’s always something else.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer and author Greg Lemon will read from and sign copies of Blue Man in a Red State at Fact & Fiction on the UM campus Wednesday, July 9, at 7 PM.
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