Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High County News. He recently moved from Montana to Bend, Ore.
For Montana governor every day is “take your dog to work” day
April 30 2012
Author, special canine assistant and “First Dog of Montana,” Jag pricked up his ears at the sound of two sharp whistles from his owner, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, and stood to attention. Moments before, the three-year-old Border Collie and near-constant companion of the first-term governor had been at his appointed post, napping under the governor’s desk. In what was surely a dream about herding squirrels on the state capitol’s lawn, Jag’s legs twitched and the corner of his mouth rose. Now, recalled from such fantasies, it was time to put his paws to Senate Bill 22, an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program sponsored by Senator Dan Weinberg (D), of Whitefish, Mont. As members of both parties looked on, Jag draped his just slightly grass-stained paws over the bipartisan legislation and smiled.
Born April 7, 2004, on a remote ranch in Whitefish, Jag is a rising star in the Democratic Party. The last pup in a litter of eight, he moved to the state capital of Helena when the newly elected Schweitzer took office. Since then, Jag has gained the hearts and minds of liberals and conservatives alike, charming the historically red state with his one blue eye and one brown eye. Politically neutral (his main concern is preserving squirrel habitat) and socially liberal (he’s fixed), Jag stands high with the citizenry; a recent poll shows Jag’s approval rating at 80 percent—a howling ten points higher than Schweitzer’s—and he has name recognition that exceeds Montana’s lone congressman, Republican Dennis Rehberg.
With a Border Collie’s quick intelligence and a sharp nose for lobbyists, Jag has become a permanent fixture in the capitol building. He’s also “author” of the briskly selling book First Dog: Unleashed in the Montana Capital, a children’s book that explains the workings of government to future voters (ages seven to nine). Written by Jessica Solberg and illustrated by Robert Rath, the hardcover sold 1,000 copies in five days. “What I like most about the book,” says Schweitzer, “is the vision of all across Montana, in all the Republican homes, they’re tucking their nine-year-olds into bed, and the kids are saying, ‘Please, please, read me the story about Jag again.’”
The Political Rodeo
When Schweitzer showed up for his first day of work at the capital wearing jeans, with Jag trailing along behind, the Republicans tried to spin it as “disrespecting the office.” The strategy, predictably, backfired. In a lot of ways, Montana is a dog culture, a kind of exaggerated kennel—147,000 square miles where cattle outnumber people three to one and everyone has a dog. “To criticize a guy who wears jeans and brings his dog to work, I mean, in Montana? Not so smart,” Schweitzer quips.
Since the inaugural celebration, Jag has accompanied the governor nearly everywhere he goes, posing for photos with a cow dog’s exceptional dignity and calm. Jag’s only faux pa[w]s so far has been to leave a quick scent mark in a camera woman’s bag, “But that was just to show the other girls who was his favorite,” Schweitzer volunteers.
“He’s the one with the brains and good looks,” Schweitzer likes to say. “People ask for him. If I go places without him, people are disappointed. If I show up with him, he gets all the attention. I think he gets more Christmas presents than the entire staff put together, and I don’t even know if he’s a Christian. I mean, I think he is, but we haven’t had that conversation.”
More importantly, is Jag a Democrat? “Oh, he’s a Democrat,” Schweitzer says. “He’s a Democrat because (a) he’s very smart and (b) he’s a working dog.”
From his place on the floor at the governor’s feet, Jag looks up. He raises an eyebrow, sniffs once and puts his chin back on his forelegs. A few feet from Jag’s head, on the governor’s desk, is an array of samples of biofuel technology. Schweitzer, a big proponent of alternative energy, also pushes the idea of coal-to-liquid gasification to help bridge the gap to energy independence and give Montana an economic boost. On the far right of the desk, however, is a statue of something even more important to his idea of governing.
In 1936, a sheep rancher near Fort Benton, Mont., died, and his remains were shipped off by train. His dog, whom locals would eventually name Shep, accompanied the casket to the train station. Then, for the next five-and-a-half years—no matter what the weather, no matter what time of day or night—Shep waited for his owner’s return, greeting every train that arrived while shunning the advances of strangers who tried to befriend him. The story, a touching one that every Montana school child knows, is important to Schweitzer, who says, “I keep that statue there because I honor loyalty. Because there will never be anyone in your life more loyal to you than a good dog. So I honor Shep on my desk.”
Working Like a Dog
The next day, the pair is in Missoula. They arrive on the governor’s jet, a double prop King Air 90. The ride over from Anaconda, where the governor spoke in the morning, is a little bumpy, but Jag trots across the runway unfazed. Jag is no stranger to Missoula, where, early in his career, he was the beneficiary of a “full pardon” from the mayor, John Egan, after complaints came in that Jag wasn’t on a leash. Now, on the campus of the University of Montana and legally off leash, Jag gets down to business.
The first squirrel is spotted 20 yards away; his back is turned and he’s dissecting a nut. Without a woof, Jag drops into a low crouch, chin inches off the ground. He stalks the squirrel from behind, tail brushing the autumn leaves. At ten paces, Jag sinks even lower as he begins his final creep, but now the squirrel turns to face him, and the two lock eyes.
A small crowd has gathered, the bloodlustful and the horrified standing side by side. To everyone’s surprise, Jag doesn’t advance but waits, watching the squirrel as if transfixed. “It’s his version of a strip club,” Schweitzer offers. The squirrel, a brave one, stares down Jag, then finally, is overcome by common sense and takes refuge in a nearby tree. Later, there are more chances for Jag to herd squirrels (he will tree five in all) but by then, it’s time for Schweitzer to have his fun and herd his favorite food group.
The Stockman’s is the quintessential Montana bar: pool table, jukebox, peanut shells strewn on the floor. The sign behind the bar reads, “Liquor up front—Poker in the rear.” It’s all here.
As the governor quaffs a Kokanee, Jag makes the rounds, possibly remembering the last time he was here, when he was the happy recipient of a half-raw cheeseburger with all the fixing. Such friendliness, as Schweitzer tells the elbow-bending crowd, isn’t the case everywhere they go.
Last year, at the Western Governor’s Conference in Deadwood, S.D., Schweitzer and two of the other governors decided to go out after work. Deadwood is the home of The Old Style Saloon No. 10, the infamous bar where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head while holding aces and eights. When the three governors arrived and entered with Jag, the bartender informed Schweitzer he couldn’t allow Jag in. “You’re telling me,” Schweitzer said to the bartender, “that this is the place they shoot people in the back of the head, where people ride their horses in and out, and you won’t serve me because I brought my dog?” The bartender’s only defense was to hide behind the rules. “So I told Jag, ‘We’re outta here.’ Then I turned to that bartender and I said to him, ‘Heck, we’ve been thrown out of better bars than this in Montana.’”
This evening, Schweitzer is speaking at the Holiday Inn. As the night draws to a close, he calls Jag to the podium.
“I learn every day from him,” Schweitzer says, placing a beefy hand on Jag’s head and warming up into what is a sure crowd-pleaser. “His manner is much different than mine. Jag comes to all these meetings and never says a word. If he likes someone, he’ll rub his nose up against them and they’ll scratch him. And if he doesn’t like them—like, say, with the lobbyists—he’ll kind of growl and slip away and go back under the desk. But in all these meetings and in all these speeches, he never says a word. All he does is if he likes you and likes what’s going on, he’ll wag his tail. So I think that after reelection I’m going to be wagging my tail a lot more and my tongue a lot less.”
White House Bound?
Well, we’ll just have to wait and see, because both are quick on their feet, and at least one of them is a political dog.
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