In January of 2013, the fates seated me next to a heavyset, bearded man on a chairlift. I started up small talk . . .
— Where are you from?
— Washington, DC.
I never would have imagined that this conversation, which began so innocuously, would transform into a fixation of an erstwhile neoconservative operative, capture the imagination of many in the national media, launch a local witch hunt, and damage the reputation of a place I call home—Whitefish, Montana.
Everything or Nothing
So what happened?
The answer is nothing . . . and everything.
I got into an argument with a man named Randy Scheunemann on a chairlift. At the time, we were both members of the Big Mountain Club, a small social organization for skiers.
It was nothing, in that nothing of significance occurred. There was no “fight,” in the sense of a physical confrontation. No voices were raised; no threats were issued; no laws were broken. My only crime was sarcasm and snark. And after spending some 10 minutes seated next to Scheunemann, I was eager never to see him again.
So it was nothing . . . and then it became everything. The event catalyzed an unpredictable chain reaction. Many around the world have seen the salacious reports of this incident—from Rachel Maddow, The Daily Beast, Raw Story, and others—and, equally distressing, stories of the proposed enactment of “anti-hate” legislation by Whitefish locals. These onlookers must be asking themselves—What in the Hell is going on in Montana!?
The sole reason why the event became public knowledge is that the person I argued with while dangling 50-feet above a ski run was Randy Scheunemann, and he has obsessed about the encounter for a year and half. He’s whined to the management of the ski resort. He’s whined to journalists. He’s made himself into a princess, who mustn’t be subjected to opinions she doesn’t want to hear.
Perhaps Scheunemann’s feelings were terribly hurt by my criticism of him . . . perhaps he knows, deep down, that everything I said is true. What’s indisputable is that he won’t let it go.
I refused to write about this situation for months. At first, it was not worth discussing publicly. After Scheunemann got a friendly journalist to write about his supposed trauma, I still hoped that the matter would go away on its own. Finally, I refrained from commenting at the direct request of Daniel Graves, the CEO of Whitefish Mountain Resort, who also hoped that it all might blow over.
It’s time to break the silence. It’s time that I write clearly and explicitly about this now infamous non-event.
So where to begin?
Who Is Randy Scheunemann?
Perhaps the place to start is with Randy Scheunemann himself.
Euphemistically, Scheunemann is a “foreign policy expert,” though at the age of 54, he’s produced no published writings or research. He is, or was, one of those invisible people in Washington, DC.
Scheunemann is a man of many loyalties. He’s been a registered agent for foreign governments; he’s advocated for wars around the globe, from the Middle East to the Caucasus; he’s received grants from George Soros and been employed by Sarah Palin.
These seemingly disparate threads come together in the George W. Bush presidency and, in particular, the “neoconservative” moment, both of which defined Scheunemann’s career.
From 2002 to 2003, Scheunemann was Director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (a name that is difficult to write with a straight face). He was also in charge of the Project for A New American Century, which, in 2001, called for regime change in Iraq, “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack.” When it comes to Scheunemann’s involvement in that disastrous war, these are only the first few bread crumbs. . .
The accusation that has dogged Scheunemann for his career is that he, ostensibly, operates under a conflict of interest in matters of war and peace. This came to the fore in 2008 when the Republic of Georgia started a war with Russia. Scheunemann had long been a lobbyist in Washington on behalf of European states that sought NATO security guarantees. In other words, his job was to increase America’s exposure to foreign wars. His firm, Orion Strategies, had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Georgia—then governed by Mikheil Saakashvili—to lobby for the nation’s entrance into NATO.
That summer, under the cover of the Beijing Olympics, Saakashvili ordered a bombardment of Tskhinval, the capital of the autonomous, disputed, and troubled region of South Ossetia, to Georgia’s north. The targets included Russian citizens and Russian peace-keeping troops. Moscow’s retaliation was swift and decisive, and within five days, Georgia had been soundly defeated.
Not surprisingly, the western European and American media ran with the false narrative of a “Russian invasion.” Senator John McCain, then-Republican candidate for President, topped them all. He declared,
I know I speak for every American when I say . . . today, we are all Georgians.
Perhaps this line was mere posturing, but coming from a presidential candidate, it sounded a lot like a NATO security guarantee.
Right in the middle of this debacle was Randy Scheunemann—Saakashvili’s agent in Washington, one of John McCain’s advisors, and the man tasked with coaching VP candidate Sarah Palin on foreign policy. As Pat Buchanan wrote at the time, had Scheunemann succeeded in his efforts,
U.S. soldiers and Marines from Idaho and West Virginia would be killing Russians in the Caucasus, and dying to protect Scheunemann’s client, who launched this idiotic war the night of Aug. 7.
Whatever you thinks of Barack Obama, we can only shudder at what might have happened if John McCain had become President in 2008, and people like Schuenemann had gotten closer to power.1
I’ve gone into length about this history because these events defined me, too. I began my writing and publishing career in 2007, as an Assistant Editor at The American Conservative, expressly for the purpose of opposing everything Scheunemann was involved with and represented.
So my encounter with him was fateful. But by 2013, it felt more like a blast from the past. The neocons and their allies had been ousted from power and influence. And Scheunemann seems to have fared worse than others. Scheunemann’s final days on the McCain campaign were reportedly a mess. Sarah Palin got rid of him in 2011. He now appears to be unemployed, and has been so for a couple of years.2
So you could say I pissed off a man with a lot of time on his hands.
Let’s return to January 2013. After learning that I was seated next to an ideological foe, though now a toothless one, I let loose a few sarcastic one-liners, such as “The silver lining of Barack Obama’s election is that people like you will never be in power again.”
A cleverer and wiser man would have simply played dumb. There is truly nothing to be gained by talking to people like Randy Scheunemann, who have a remarkable capacity for not learning from their failures.
Scheunemann, by his own account, was disturbed. And the event apparently became something he just couldn’t get over psychologically. He’s admitted to fantasizing about assaulting me. He also began discussing the event with the management of the Big Mountain Club, which was not nearly as appalled as he that someone would dare disagree with him. The Club never disciplined me, nor even spoke to me about the matter.
I’ve often wondered how anyone who worked a day in Washington, DC, could have such thin skin. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to think about it. Washington is, in its way, a deeply insulated place, where an operative can work for years in a bubble of ideologically aligned, interchangeable think-tankers, journos, politicos, and hustlers. That someone around him actually thought differently might have actually shocked Scheunemann. Or perhaps I had become for him a new member of the “Axis of Evil”?
Scheunemann’s and my paths crossed again at a New Year’s Eve party held at the Big Mountain Club. If Scheunemann had been steaming for 10 months, that night he came to a boil. When I happened to pass by him, I incited an outburst of profane and unintelligible invectives. I can remember him greeting me with, “Hey, fuck you! and then screaming, “You’re a white supremacist asshole!”3
Scheunemann appeared very intoxicated and eager to make a spectacle of himself. I resolved to stand my ground. But I also refrained from using harsh language or doing anything that might make this already embarrassing matter worse. Randy cursed and flailed, and was eventually dragged out of the room and sent home. I remained at the party for the rest of the evening.
Any neutral observer could attest that the altercation revealed two very different characters. (A couple of people came and shook my hand.)
And the facts—many of which Whitefish Mountain resort confirmed—speak volumes:
- Scheunemann was removed from the party; I remained.
- The Club management never disciplined me for any rule infraction; in person, I was praised for keeping my cool.
- Scheunemann cleaned out his locker days after the second incident and then was never seen at the Club again.
Was Scheunemann politely asked to resign? Did he leave on his own? Did he actually give the Club the “ultimatum”—It’s either Spencer or me!—he described to The Daily Beast? Or did something else precipitate his absence? I don’t know. Whatever the case, I remained a full and active member for the next year.
The Big Mountain Club is not like a fraternity or social order; its membership is based solely on paying a fee and maintaining good behavior. That Scheunemann would be offended that a member held views he didn’t like reveals his infantile state of mind. Might not more members be offended by the prospect of sharing a clubroom with a man whose foreign-policy advice resulted in pointless wars and the deaths of some million people?
On November 22, Whitefish Mountain Resort, which owns The Big Mountain Club, broke its silence and issued a statement:
Any suggestion that the Big Mountain Club has sided with a white supremacist in this matter is false, defamatory and contrary to what the Big Mountain Club and Whitefish Mountain Resort stand for.
Of course, the Club never “sided with a white supremacist.” For one thing, I’m not a “white supremacist.” The Club sided with the truth. Should anyone really expect such an organization to expel a member on the basis of . . . thoughts?
The Mountain also recently asserted, “we won’t tolerate hate.” But what does that mean exactly? The Club knew quite well who I was and what I published for the entirety of my association with it. It apparently did not consider what I do to be “hate” nor did it conclude that I harmed the atmosphere of the clubhouse.
On October 27, shortly after a piece in the Daily Beast appeared, Daniel Graves, the Mountain’s CEO, and its Public Relations Director invited me to a meeting. They assured me then that the Mountain would be neutral in this matter: I could, of course, remain a Club member, and the resort would express no opinion on this personal dispute. They told me that the Mountain hoped, quite understandably, to avoid the kind of publicity that Scheunemann had just foisted on it. I promised both men that I would not discuss the event beyond the kind of non-specific statements4 I had already given journalists. I also promised I would try my best to put out the flames. I kept my word.
I find it rather depressing that two days after Rachel Maddow crafted a political “morality play” based on a grossly inaccurate account of the incident, Graves and the Mountain changed their tune. According to The Whitefish Pilot:
The resort says it stands behind the local group Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley, which organized a rally Nov. 17 to ask Whitefish City Council to pass a “no hate” ordinance.
Good luck with that! A ordinance against “hate” would be viewed by any reasonable person as a violation of the First Amendment. Moreover, it’s absurd to even speculate on how such a law could be enforced: should “Love Lives Here” be tasked with policing our minds? (My guess is that the proposed “speech code” is more smoke than fire.)
This Is The End
In writing this, my sincere hope is that this episode will, at last, come to an end.
There has been some poetic justice. Much like everything Scheunemann has been involved with in his career, his best-laid plans went totally awry. For a year and a half, he strove to make something out of nothing . . . he wanted to drop a media bomb . . . and it blew up in his face.
That is hardly a consolation. This episode has been needlessly unpleasant and wasteful. Many have played the game, everyone lost something.
For the record, I don’t think that Scheunemann cynically tried to manipulate Washington into going to war on behalf of his paymaster. In Scheunemann’s mind, and in the minds of so many neoconservatives, America, Israel, and plucky little Georgia are almost undifferentiated in representing Truth, Democracy, and the American Way. They are united against the “Axis of Evil”—a rotating collection of villains who oppose Washington hegemony, from Kim Jong Il to Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin. The “We’re all Georgians” line was an expression of this kind of comic-book geopolitics.
A more interesting question is why Saakashvili was so bold as to start a war with Russia in the first place, a war Georgia could not win or afford. Did he, in fact, believe that an implicit security guarantee was in place, that George W. Bush, too, would declare “Today, we’re all Georgians?” Was Saakashvili operating under the wishful logic of Randy Scheunemann? ↩
- Scheunemann’s name will pop up now and then. For instance, in 2012, he was among the usual suspects who co-signed a memo urging President Obama to invade Syria. It’s hard not to see the parallels to similar memos addressed to Presidents Clinton and Bush that Scheunemann’s Project For a New American Century issued a decade or more ago. ↩
- Scheunemann remembers saying, “You’re a fucking racist pussy.” He also told The Daily Beast that I “scurried off,” as if I were afraid of him. Scheunemann’s memories are not only inconsistent with mine but also those of the Big Mountain Club, as reported this past weekend. ↩
- In an email to Jamie Kirchick in October, I wrote, “Randy Scheunemann has given you a gross mischaracterization of events. However, I will not elaborate for the simple reason that this is a private matter involving a private organization. I refuse to bring private matters into a public discussion.” ↩