April 1, 2008
By TIMOTHY EGAN
The travel writer and public television host, Rick Steves, is a
certain kind of innocent abroad - benignly suburban to the core, with
a bit of a paunch and the ever-quizzical look of someone who would
try raw squid for breakfast and not complain about it.
At 52, he has spent a third of his adult life living out of a
suitcase, ever in search of that bargain room with a view,
encouraging his fellow Americans to become "temporary locals." His
influence is vast and one of the reasons our citizens aren't more
hated abroad in Bush's final days.
I was having lunch once in Vernazza, in the Italian Cinque Terre,
watching waves of people pour into the tiny village to look for their
serendipitous Stevesian encounter while clutching his guidebook. A
sudden outburst came from my 7-year-old son: "Rick Steves has got to
be stopped!" Steves, who lives just north of Seattle, is packing his wrinkle-free
clothes for his latest expedition to Europe. One can only hope
customs will let him back in, for Steves has become a most unlikely
voice on behalf of ending the tragedy of the drug war.
He looks at the 800,000 Americans arrested every year on marijuana
charges and wonders why the waste of time, money and lives. Year
after year, nothing changes, except the faces of those in jail. He
thinks marijuana should be decriminalized, and that drug use in
general should be treated primarily as a health issue - as the
Canadians, the British, the Swiss and others do.
His views are not novel. But it's been fascinating to watch the
reaction since Steves started speaking out on this. Sponsors of his
television shows have hardly blinked. Cops and conservatives have
told him how much they agree with him. And, less than a month ago,
the Luther Institute gave Steves its annual Wittenberg Award,
recognizing "outstanding service to church and society." Steves is an
active member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
If it takes a churchgoing guidebook writer who spent his college
years as a member of the marching band to call for an end to a tired
war, so be it. The cheerleaders and architects of harsh drug laws -
from Rush Limbaugh, who promised to take random drugs tests after
admitting his addiction to pain pills, to the former drug czar Bill
Bennett, who had a multimillion-dollar gambling habit - have been
exposed as moral frauds.
Two of the major presidential candidates are in a unique position to
pivot away from the status quo. It's been largely forgotten, but Cindy McCain, the wife of the
presumptive Republican nominee, was once so hooked on the opioid
painkillers Percocet and Vicodin that she resorted to stealing from a
medical charity she ran. And Barack Obama in his 1995 memoir, told of youthful alcohol and pot
use, "maybe even a little blow when I could afford it." He wrote this
cautionary note: "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the
final, fatal role of the young would-be black man."
He is lucky, a man told him on the campaign trail not long ago, that
he didn't end up in jail - a ruined life, one of the 2.3 million
Americans locked up in the world's largest prison system.
Thus far, John McCain has said little about changing the approach to
possession-only drug crimes. Obama, asked about it in January, said:
"I'm not interested in legalizing drugs. What I am interested in is
putting more of an emphasis on the public health approach to drugs
and less on incarceration." When a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton raised the issue of
Obama's experimentation as a potential Swift-boat issue, it drew more
criticism of the accuser than the candidate. That doesn't surprise me.
I was in Fresno, Calif., once with cops patrolling the mean streets of the city in armored personnel carriers
- the drug war in its ultimate manifestation. These officers were
almost uniformly against the folly of the battles they fought every
night. Every society has its drug addicts, dating to Babylon, if not
earlier. Every American knows someone, or has a family member, with a
problem. President Bush used to drink too much, and was cited for
driving under the influence. But instead of using his life experience
for change, he has done nothing but carry around the self-righteous
tedium of the reformed drunk.
We are left, then, with people like Rick Steves to renew the republic
with common sense brought home from other shores. He's taken to heart
these words: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and
narrow-mindedness." They come from an earlier innocent abroad, Mark
Timothy Egan, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes
Outposts, a column at nytimes.com. He is filling in for Bob Herbert,
who is off today.