Talking Politics With Actor/ Activist Peter Coyote

by Monica Drake

PETER COYOTE, as he approaches 60, is everything conservatives would like us to think a long-time, outspoken, political radical, artist, and former serious drug user can't be: financially well-off, personally successful, healthy, smart, sexy, a movie star, and a family man. And, despite years of actively opposing the status quo, he seems not at all embittered by politics.

I met him at a small party. We were standing around a long table piled with far too much food for the few of us there. As soon as Coyote realized I was in support of Nader but planned to give my vote to Gore, it was as though he stepped directly over the table, over the food, toward me. His limbs are long and he moves gracefully. His face came near me first, close to my face. Coyote's eyes are set a little too close together to be conventionally handsome.

He said, "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

I said, "Bush could win."

Then Coyote was at my side and he was talking politics. He said, "Your vote's not supposed to be a political averaging, strategizing the lesser of two evils and dedicating public life to an inevitable downward spiral. It's to register what you want, to vote for
what you want."

Peter Coyote has acted in over 60 movies. He's worked with, or partied with, everyone from Roman Polanski on Bitter Moon, to Dennis Hopper, Allen Ginsberg, Whoopi Goldberg and, most recently, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.

He's lived in communes, among hidden drugs and guns, in a world of casual sex, and he's worked on Wall Street. He was part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe - known for politically oriented street theater - and a founding member of The Diggers, a '60s anarchistic, anti-establishment experiment, and was an early associate of the original Hell's Angels.

Now, he said, "Even if Bush wins, I'd argue that it's better--more energizing - to have a committed enemy rather than be lulled to sleep by a false friend like Gore. Just ask the people at WTI, the toxic incinerator in Ohio. It's 1100 feet from a school. Gore promised, in a signed press release, to close the incinerator down if he won. It's still running."

When I brought up Bush's frightening stance on abortion issues, Coyote said, "Roe vs. Wade is a serious issue, but it's not necessarily the only one, or the most serious of the so-called women's issues. There are others."

The right to control one's body, to control reproduction, is an incredibly significant issue. I asked, "Such as?"

He said, "Fair wages. Women still make 60 cents on the dollar. And safe neighborhoods, safe schools, decent health care, mass transit." He said, "The Democrats will talk about Roe vs. Wade because it doesn't cost them anything. Abortion rights can be integrated into corporate agendas. These other issues are more pervasive, they affect more people, and they'd cost. They'd require real change. Besides, with Supreme Court appointments, you never can tell how they'll turn out. Kennedy and Souter are Reagan appointees, and at the moment, they're the most liberal on the bench."

He said, "If it makes you feel better, wait until almost all the votes are in. Watch the reports, see how Gore's doing. If it's close, if you think he needs your vote, go ahead."

Unlike Coyote's home state of California, where Gore is expected to win, Oregon is a swing state. The U.S. operates with a winner-take-all electoral college within each state. In Oregon, the race is too close to anticipate the results.

Peter Coyote's life is testimony that he's always been a gambler, and he's been lucky. There's no guaranteed success in making a life out of being a free-wheeling actor, musician, and writer. There's even less of a guarantee when you throw political activist in the mix. Coming from a pro-Gore state, he can run the risk of gambling with his vote for Nader.

The rest of us, caught between a compromised vote for Gore and a more daring - though possibly pointless, and even dangerous - vote for Nader, have to sort out individually if we care to take the gamble. A vote for Nader could contribute to establishing the Green Party. Or, it could be nothing more than a futile, idealized attempt to manage through politics while the political center continues to drift always further to the right.

[Published 11/2/00 in the Portland Mercury]

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[ The Peter Coyote Official Web Site ]