Gary Johnson, the darkest horse in the 2012 Republican presidential field, has spent most of his adult life setting outrageously ambitious goals and then systematically plodding away until he attains them. After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1975, he grew his one-man fix-it business into a 1,000-employee commercial construction company, Big J Enterprises. In 1993, with no political experience, he launched a campaign for governor of New Mexico—a state then dominated by Democrats—and won. Back-to-back terms. Before assuming his gubernatorial duties, he trained for and finished the 1993 Ironman Hawaii, his first of five such races. In 2003, shortly after he was term-limited and left office, he summited Mount Everest.
Last April, Johnson, 58, announced the latest item on his bucket list: becoming the 45th president of the United States. Johnson reentered the fray from so far outside the Republican establishment that even many elected officials didn’t know who he was. If people recognized him at all, it was likely because Johnson had made national headlines in 1999 for publicly supporting marijuana legalization, one of the highest-ranking officials ever to do so. At the time, many insiders, including Johnson himself, believed this marked the end of his future in politics. Big J jokes ensued. His top law-enforcement officer quit. Within days Johnson’s approval rating plummeted from the high fifties to less than 30 percent. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton’s drug czar, jumped on a plane, flew to New Mexico, and called a press conference to denounce the governor’s position, referring to him as “Puff Daddy Johnson.”
Did Puffy care? Not so much. What motivated that political risk was the same calculated pragmatism that drove him back into politics nearly ten years later. He considers himself “an entrepreneur and a problem solver,” not a career politician. As governor, he often says, he had “looked at everything through a cost-benefit basis”—and the war on drugs had come up woefully short.
Fast-forward to the end of 2008 and the onset of the Great Recession. Johnson couldn’t stomach sitting on the sideline as America’s economic predicament worsened by orders of magnitude. In the fall of 2009 he helped found a nonprofit, the Our America Initiative, and spent the next 18 months protostumping his libertarian platform (“The best government is the one that governs least”) to Rotary clubs, Tea Partiers, and free-market businessmen. “I felt like everything Obama and his administration did was wrong,” Johnson told me. “And no one on the Republican side was doing anything different. I’m not running against Obama; I’m running against the status quo.”
On April 21, mindful to avoid the druggy overtones of 4/20, Johnson stood in front of the New Hampshire State House in Concord on a breezy morning and announced his candidacy. His first priority, he told the crowd of 50 or so folks, many of them bored-looking camera techs, was fixing the economy. He promised to balance the budget his first year in office, committing to drastic cuts in defense spending and reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. His second priority was to stop elected officials from mucking with our private lives. “Let’s get government out of the bedroom,” he said. At one point, a stiff wind nearly knocked over the large banner behind him, which read “The People’s President: When Gary Johnson Goes to Washington, Everybody Goes.”
A few days later, I joined Johnson and a handful of supporters and donors (dubbed Gary Johnson’s Mountaineers) for a ski expedition to Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine. The outing was billed as a media event; what better way to showcase the “Johnson narrative” than by inviting reporters to watch him tackle one of the toughest backcountry slopes in New England? But the weather was unseasonably cold, with heavy snow and high winds, and perhaps because Mount Washington is notorious for killing people—usually by hypothermia but also from avalanches or the occasional skier pinwheeling over an ice cliff—I turned out to be the only media present. (To be fair, one guy from New Hampshire Public Radio showed up, but he bailed about a third of the way up the trail.)
By the time we were climbing Tucks’s intimidating 800-foot headwall, our party had dwindled to four: Johnson and me, plus supporters Ryan Hunter, who is a competitive freeskier from Utah, and Mike Babcock, a lawyer who’d driven up from Brooklyn, New York, the day before and slept in his car at the trailhead. We ascended single file, ice axes in hand, in a frozen gully that was so steep I could look up and see Johnson’s boot soles.
The descent was worse. We made our way over to a vertiginous 50-degree run called the Lip, which one guidebook describes as “the classic test piece at Tucks.” The wind had scoured the snow off the face, revealing the unsettling linoleum glint of ice below. A slip here would send us hurtling into Lunch Rocks, a boulder field 500 feet down that looked like a shark’s open mouth. I probably would have backed off right then were it not for the voice in my head reminding me that if, by some miracle, Johnson made it to the White House, I’d never live it down.