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Actor Mike Farrell talks about why he ‘sticks his neck out’ as a political activist

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: There’s a lot of comparison between Obama and Lincoln. Particularly, they talked about having a cabinet of rivals. And also, being at such a critical moment, of course he’s also compared with FDR. One of the things Obama’s talked a lot about is my dream doesn’t have to negate your dream, we’re all Americans—the unity of everyone towards a common goal. Lincoln fought a civil war. And there are forces, certainly, you know, we’ve seen over the last eight years who certainly believe their dreams can negate other dreams.


JAY: There’s a fight to be had here, and not everyone’s going to be on the same side.

FARRELL: No, that’s right. And it’s—I think you have to sort of pick your opportunities. I thought it was fabulous in his speech in Grant Park that he said two things. He talked about gay and straight people. He used those words and mentioned that they were all part of this collective that he’s embracing. He also said, “I’m going to do some things you’re not going to like,” which I think is important for us to understand, that he sees the road to be one that’s going to involve some compromise and it’s going to involve some choices that are not going to make me happy. Then, after saying the gays and the straights are a part of this coalition that we’re pulling together, he appoints Rick Warren to do the invocation and potentially elevates him—.

JAY: And just for anyone that knows, Rick Warren is an evangelical, I believe, who’s—.

FARRELL: Yeah, a fundamentalist evangelical, but—.

JAY: Yeah, very actively against gay marriage and gay rights and things like that.

FARRELL: Anti-gay, sure, and has also said some pretty horrific things about other things, like taking out leaders of nations that we oppose—a sort of un-Christian position, it seems to me. So, you know, you have to kind of see all these things and figure out how they fit into the—.

JAY: Well, this is where I’m getting at, this issue of there’s a point where having everyone united, showing that you’re so ecumenical.


JAY: Lincoln wasn’t so ecumenical. Lincoln, you know, identified enemies, and he fought those enemies, and he didn’t invite them all into his party.

FARRELL: You have to be willing, I think—to be a true leader, you have to be willing to offend some people, you have to be willing to stand up and say, “I’m sorry. I know you’re not going to like this, but this is the way we’re going, because this is [inaudible]

JAY: And then the question’s going to be: is he going to do what the traditional Democratic leadership do, which is it’s okay to offend the left ’cause you’ve got them anyway?

FARRELL: That’s right. Yes.

JAY: So if you’re going to offend somebody, you might as well defend [sic] your core constituency.

FARRELL: And a troubling hint in that direction is the selection of Rick Warren, because the same gay community that he reached out to and that he counts on has been deeply offended by that. So, you know, the truth, I suppose, lies somewhere in the future. We’ll figure it out.

JAY: What will be a litmus test for you? If you had to, say, pick three things that you will judge this first four years of Obama, and you’ll say, “Okay, this was a presidency that, you know, took us forward into a direction I like and on these three issues,” or if he doesn’t, what are the tests?

FARRELL: Close Guantanamo. He’s effectively done it by absolutely decrying torture and determining the United States will never again in any way support the use of torture. I just heard—whether it’s true or not remains to be seen—I just heard that he is open to speaking to Hamas with regard to the current horror in Gaza, with regard to the whole horror of the Israeli-Palestinian tensions over time. That to me would be an extraordinary step, Jimmy Carter-esque. And Jimmy Carter, as we all know, has been excoriated for having the courage to do what he’s done, which I think is long overdue and urgently necessary. So in those areas, I think those would be important tests.

JAY: Domestically?

FARRELL: Domestically, supporting the—I’ve forgotten—the EFCL.

JAY: The Employee Free Choice Act.

FARRELL: Employee Free Choice Act. Demonstrate support for the working person in this country, demonstrating serious support for raising the level of the minimum wage and moving it into a living-wage category, and putting people in a position where they can actually have a hope to be able to survive and raise a family and have a meaningful life as working people. Elevate the status of working people again, and do away with all this cushiness for the corporations and for Wall Street and for these—. Now, I say “do away”; it would take a revolution to do away with it. But to actually make some serious steps in the direction of fairness in the economic world.

JAY: Mike, one of the issues that you’ve been most associated with and dear to your heart is the whole issue of capital punishment. And Barack Obama, his position on capital punishment is not close to yours. So how do you resolve these two issues?

FARRELL: Well, I think “for capital punishment” is the default position for most politicians today, whether they are actually for it or not. The few really courageous ones, like Russ Feingold and Tom Harkin and Pat Leahy and a few others who have come out in opposition to it, are the rare examples. But when President-elect Obama was in the state legislature in Illinois, he was helpful in moving Governor Ryan’s attempt to constrain the use of the death penalty. He has recently appointed Eric Holder as his attorney general designate, and Eric Holder is an outspoken opponent of the use of the death penalty. So I think what we’re talking about is moving away from the kind of kill ’em quick and kill ’em regardless of guilt, innocence, or what have you that the Bush administration was promoting. And I think all of that, connected with the work that we in the abolition community are doing, plus the things—for example, the abolition in New Jersey and the work that’s being done in Maryland and New Mexico and some other states now, I think it’s moving us in the right direction, and I think Obama’s presidency can facilitate that move in ways that don’t require him to come out and say, “I oppose the death penalty.”

JAY: So, just as a final question, you’ve been in media your whole life, mostly on the fiction side.


JAY: But what do you make of television news today? We’ve witnessed some of its most abysmal days during the Bush era.

FARRELL: We did indeed.

JAY: Has anything changed? What are your expectations?

FARRELL: Well, you know, it’s changing. It’s changing thanks to you. It’s changing because of the pressure that’s being put on it by people on the Web and people that are willing to stand up and say there’s an alternative, there is the possibility of telling the truth if you’re not constrained by commercial requirements. So I’m hopeful not for television news, per se, but for the alternative voices that are coming up. I think that the American people are going to, more and more, move toward looking—as we did during the time of the terrible work of the mainstream press, we go to the alternative press and we find a more likely analysis of what’s going on. Earlier I mentioned my frustration at the lack of ethics on the part of the media in general at critical times in our history, giving us conclusions rather than giving us facts and allowing us to draw our own conclusions. I’m finding a great hope that as a result of the work you’re doing and the work that other people are trying, that we have the opportunity for more access to the truth.

JAY: Thank you very much. And thank you very much for joining us. And on the heels of such a completely unabashed plug for The Real News, don’t forget the “donate” button. And, quid pro quo, Mike Farrell’s new book. If you donate, this book will be available to you as a premium, and it’s also available through Amazon. Thank you very much for joining us.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Mike Farrell (born February 6, 1939) is an American actor, best known for his role as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the popular television series M*A*S*H (1975-83). More recently, Farrell has starred on the television series Providence (1999-2002) and appeared as Milton Lang, Victor's father, on Desperate Housewives (2007-2008). He was recently seen in the tenth season episode "Persona" of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Even before he was well-known, Farrell was an activist for many political and social causes. He has worked with Human Rights Watch, was on the Board of Advisors of the original Cult Awareness Network, and has been president of Death Penalty Focus for more than ten years.

In 1985, Farrell was in Central America, helping refugees from the civil war in El Salvador. A guerrilla commander, Nidia Diaz, had been taken prisoner. She needed surgery, but no Salavadoran doctor dared to help her. Amnesty International recruited a foreign doctor. Farrell was present as an observer but was, in his words, "shanghaied into assisting with the surgery" when the doctor said his help was needed. The in-prison surgery was successful. Diaz went on to be one of the signatories of the Chapultepec Peace Accords (the peace treaty ending the war), and she served in the Constituent Assembly of El Salvador and in the Central American Parliament.

Farrell has also been active in the Screen Actors Guild. In 2002 he was elected First Vice President of the Guild in Los Angeles. He served in the post for three years.

In 2006 Farrell appeared with Jello Biafra and Keith Gordon in the documentary Whose War?, examining the U.S. role in the Iraq War.