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The Zen Of Gary Johnson

April 22, 2011Posted in Blog, News

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

“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).

…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?

…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?”

- Conor Friedersdorf on The Atlantic.

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