Beltway Cover Boys

By Beacon Staff

The backdrop is a Montana farm, in Big Sandy this time, and the story is familiar: A politician on recess from his voting duties has returned home. His jeans are dirty. He’s working on a tractor. Antelope prance nearby. And I think I’m about to get sick.

You could fill a Herman Melville-length book with the stories written about politicians still farming or ranching, still hunting and fishing, and still in touch with the land. In Washington D.C.’s beltway bubble, politicians with a background in agriculture are treated like novelties, obscure snow globes discovered at backcountry gift shops.

I’m glad Democratic Sen. Jon Tester works on his farm during his legislative break. Great. Good for him. It’s what he told voters he was going to do. I don’t, however, understand why that’s such a big deal that it’s covered ad nauseam by media. And who knows, maybe this paper will eventually do it too.

This story has already been told once, about Gov. Brian Schweitzer. I get it. Schweitzer likes guns, ranching and talking tough. Oh, and he’s a Democrat. Crazy.

It now matters more, or at least as much, what a politician does when he or she is not working than when politicking on the taxpayer dime. I’m not sure how this happened, but it’s an annoyance politicians peddle and we buy.

Take Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. He is trying to appeal to conservative voters by portraying himself as a gun-lover and ardent defender of the Second Amendment. So he tossed out a gushy anecdote to make his point involving Romney as a spry-eyed 15-year-old hunting rabbits in Idaho. A cute and quintessentially American image, like a Norman Rockwell painting.

He went on to tell the Associated Press last month, “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life.”

First, who cares?

Second, he hasn’t been hunting his whole life. News soon surfaced that he has been hunting exactly twice in his whole life. And Romney, flaunting the NRA membership card he purchased less than a year ago, can’t hide that fact.

In the last presidential race, candidate John Edwards always mentioned that he was the son of a mill worker, like that somehow validated his existence as a high-profile lawyer. And, though he didn’t win, his personal story helped him connect to more than just lawyer-lovers.

The expectation that our politicians must be, at once, blue-collar laborers and cutthroat masters of international diplomacy and finance forces them into an untenable position. It’s inevitable that one of those personas feels phony.

As a voter, it’s reassuring that these powerful people can still relate to the common man and woman. But each additional reference to Schweitzer’s ranching background, his bolo tie, the shotgun shell that mysteriously turns up in his pocket when a national reporter’s around, and his folksy demeanor make my stomach turn one additional time.

I shouldn’t have to dig for opinions and voting records that matter. They’re there, just buried under a layer of anecdotal fat.

Don’t blame Tester for the recent stories. He is, in fact, a farmer.

Yet the fawning magazine spreads accompanying any newly elected politician who has ever clutched a pitchfork or shot a gopher, continue to encourage those with political aspirations to buy a John Deere and a Remington – right away.