Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Man Of The People


Back in 2008, I wrote a couple of blog posts about how impressed I was by then Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

He seemed like a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to create hope and deliver change, representing the true desires of his country because he was a Man of the People.

Not being American, I couldn’t vote for him. And not being American, I also haven’t been as invested in what he has or hasn’t been able to accomplish during his first term in office.

As a political junkie I knew he would never be as good or bad as his supporters and detractors made him out to be. He was just a guy doing what he felt was best for the people he was elected to serve.

But I don’t fully believe that anymore. And if I was an American, I wouldn’t cast a ballot in his favor this time around.

That has nothing to do with specific foreign or domestic policies, health care plans, gay rights, drones, Guantanamo Bay or whether or not the guy running against him is better suited to the job.

It’s based on a chapter of his autobiography and something that happened to a friend of mine 40 years ago.

Back in the 1970’s, Toronto was home to a lot of Viet Nam war draft dodgers. One weekend, some my actor pals and I, looking for a touch football game in High Park, met up with a half dozen of them looking for the same thing.

From then on we met every Sunday afternoon to play some football, shoot the shit and try to scrounge up a few beers in a town that was still mostly dry on the Sabbath.


One Sunday, they had a new guy with them named Justin. Justin was from Texas and had done a tour in Viet Nam and been honorably discharged. One of the Dodgers was his best friend and he’d come to visit because his buddy couldn’t cross the border anymore.

Justin was a great guy. Smart, funny, good-looking, the spitting image of the All American boy.

He also liked to get high.

My time ‘experimenting’ had ended long before I met Justin. But what he did was his business and I didn’t judge.

He was one of the first people to read the script that became my first produced screenplay, laughed in all the right places and told me how much he looked forward to seeing it on screen.

Justin went back home, and a year later the script got shot.

Around the same time, I learned he’d been busted with a couple of joints in his pocket. Since he lived in Texas that earned him a ten year prison term.

I wrote to offer support and let him know we’d made the film. He wrote back saying how much he wished he could see it –- but it might be a while.

He sounded broken and without hope. I felt I should do something to help.

I got the production company to lend me a 16mm print of my film and begged the Warden where Justin was doing his time to screen it for the men in his charge.

He wasn’t warm to the idea and it took a lot of cajoling, promises that nothing in the film would cause him a problem and a cheque to cover return shipping before he agreed.

I sent off the film and it came back a couple of weeks later with a curt note of thanks on State of Texas stationery. A few days later, Justin called –- collect.

He told me the film had screened twice to a packed auditorium, likely seen by more people on one hot, Texas Saturday night than its entire first week in Canada. Everybody had had a great time.

He was happy for me. Excited. I asked how he was doing and he trailed off, not offering much before quickly ending the call.

After that, he only wrote once or twice and a couple of years later let me know he’d been paroled for good behavior and was trying to restart his life. But with a criminal record it was hard.

A lot of doors had been closed to him.

That letter included a photo and he looked almost withered. Incarceration had taken its toll.

I never heard from him again.

Around the same time, there was another Texas resident who liked getting high. His name was George W. Bush. But because of wealth or privilege or maybe just dumb luck, he never got busted nor went to prison or had his life broken.

In fact, he got to be President of the United States.

I’ll let others judge whether or not he was a good President. But he never appealed to me because he didn’t seem like a man of the people. He may have led them, but he always felt above or apart, disconnected from those he was elected to serve.

Not far away in time and place, the man who would succeed him as President also liked to get high. 

In his 1995 autobiography “Memories of My Father”, Barack Obama detailed his own drug use. He recounted spending a lot of his time in high school smoking weed and doing cocaine when he could afford it.


Twenty years after I’d last heard from Justin, I did a couple of police ride-a-longs in Texas and saw kids the same age he and I would have been in the 70’s still being busted for barely smoke-able amounts of marijuana, many facing those same draconian sentences.

I also spent a few weeks on the South side of Chicago, embedded with a narcotics unit, probably on the very same streets where Barack Obama was then working as a community organizer.

It was pretty clear to anyone paying attention that America’s “War on Drugs” wasn’t succeeding and that far more people were being damaged by the workings of the Justice system than by the drugs that system was trying to eliminate.

Depending on where you stood it had the appearance of a Race War, a War on the Poor, or a method of punishing those who wouldn’t or couldn’t become productive members of the society.

The drug dealers still prospered. Their profits fuelled gangs and a myriad of criminal activities.

And those drug users blessed with wealth or privilege or dumb luck didn’t suffer the punishments doled out to everybody else doing exactly the same thing.

They didn’t have their lives broken.

I don’t know what Barack Obama’s time getting high taught him. I don’t know if it convinced him drugs were an evil that needed to be stamped out, or that nobody should have their lives broken over smoking a little reefer.

But I do know that he goes on talk shows and plays up the latter while enforcing laws based on the former.

And that tells me that he embraces what wealth and privilege and dumb luck can get you over doing the right thing –- whatever he believes that right thing to be.

For me that makes him less a visionary than a politician. Someone who feels he’s above and apart. And that tells me he is not a man of the people.


John McFetridge said...

So, what would you do then? Does America have a refuse the ballot option like we do in Canada? Or would you vote for some fringe candidate?

Just curious.

jimhenshaw said...

I honestly don't know, John. I tend to subscribe to a theory I've heard Penn Jillette espouse elsewhere that voting for the lesser of two evils always leads to greater evil.

I guess voting your conscience makes you feel better on some level, but I don't know that it accomplishes much else.

So I wouldn't go fringe. But I honestly don't know if I could support either one of these guys based on what I know of them at the moment.

rick mcginnis said...

Can't say I agree with you on Bush. After my initial misgivings, I tried to look past the cloud of hostility and discovered that I saw a pretty decent man there, one perfectly aware of how privilege had given him advantages and willing to admit it.

I've never trusted Obama.