Montanans Struggle With Reputation
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 28, 1998; Page A06
HELENA, Mont.Joe Lamson was driving to a restaurant Friday night when the bulletin came over his car radio: The suspect in the killings of two Capitol policemen was from Montana. "I went, 'Oh my God!' " said Lamson, a lobbyist for the state school superintendent. "What is it about the nut cases that attracts them to Montana?"
Variations on that theme have been playing out all across this vast state as Montanans, once again besieged by an armada of satellite trucks and platoons of reporters, grapple with the latest dose of notoriety to come their way.
In just a little over three years, Montana has been in the national spotlight for its bellicose militia movement, the Freemen standoff with the FBI, the arrest of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski -- and now the deadly rampage by Russell Eugene Weston Jr., the Capitol shooting suspect who lived intermittently in a cabin only 30 air miles from Kaczynski's hideout. And only a little further into the past, there was the Church Universal and Triumphant awaiting the end of the world in heavily fortified bunkers on a large ranch outside Yellowstone National Park.
To much of the country, Montanans complain, their state must seem like some sort of alien breeding ground for criminals, lunatics and fringe political movements with a taste for guns and violence. The jokes have already begun: Instead of building a fence around the Capitol, an early one suggests, authorities should build a fence around Montana.
Residents of a state with a less well-developed sense of self might be bothered by this kind of attention. But by and large, Montanans laugh the reputation off, secure in the knowledge they live in one of America's most spectacularly beautiful locales with few of the urban headaches that affect Los Angeles and Philadelphia. It is not referred to as "the last best place" for nothing, they maintain.
"I don't see anyone being terribly embarrassed about it," said Dave Walter, a research historian who lives in Helena. "We're just in the middle of a bad run right now. . . . I would guess on a per capita basis we are not any screwier than the populations of other states."
As is true in most places where nature is a harsh landlord, Montana encourages irony and humor. So it was not particularly surprising that the rodeo clowns at the Last Chance Stampede in Helena this weekend worked assault on Montana's reputation into their repertoire. Between bareback riding and calf roping, one clown performed an act in which he sticks his head in a box, the box explodes and he emerges as a different character. "A typical Montanan," the crowd was told. "When you don't like something, you just blow it up."
Ken Toole, a member of the state Democratic Party's executive board, playfully blamed Montana's popular Republican governor. "Let me be very plain about this," said Toole. "It's Marc Racicot, it's his fault."
Montanans also take considerable solace in the fact that neither Kaczynski nor Weston is a native. In fact, there is a bit of a movement to blame Illinois, where both men came from.
"Both of these guys moved here," said Bob Raney, who runs an art gallery in Livingston. "It's not like Montanans are coming apart. They are coming apart elsewhere and then coming here."
In that remark lies a nugget of truth. With only 900,000 people spread over 145,000 square miles -- one of the largest and most sparsely populated states in the country -- Montana allows misfits plenty of room. That vast space, combined with a live-and-let-live and mind-your-own-business ethic, makes it a magnet for the maladjusted who would be less comfortable in a more crowded environment.
"Our greatest asset in this case is our greatest detriment," said Raney. "The wide open spaces where you can be alone. It's what Montanans like about Montana. You can go hiking, camping, hunting and fishing and do it alone. The odd ducks who end up here come for the same reason -- they can be alone, they can do their crazy stuff and no one pays attention."
The view that outsiders cause the trouble fits into Montanans' increasing resentment that the state is being transformed into a recreation colony for the bond traders and Hollywood starlets who pay outrageous prices for real estate and vacation homes, driving up the cost of living beyond the means of the natives.
"You get more people, you get more trouble," said Ken Price, a 76-year-old rancher eating scrambled eggs in a roadside cafe outside Avon. "It ain't like it used to be. All these people moving in want to bring everything with them. They used to shoot one another around here a long time ago, but that was a different deal. The shootings were over gold or rustling cattle."
Even those residents who worry about the state's reputation being sullied remain philosophical.
"We take it as a black eye," said John Luft, the owner of the Broadwater Market outside Helena, whose customers included both Kaczynski and Weston, "but we wouldn't trade this state for any other."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company