The cell phone rang at 11 p.m. a week or so ago. It was Viggo Mortensen, the actor made famous by the role of Aragorn, one of the heroes in The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. He had traveled to northern New York to campaign for Dr. Bob Johnson, a Democrat who is a heavy underdog against Republican incumbent John McHugh in the race for New York's 23rd Congressional District seat.
Mortensen said he had "time to talk" as he drove toward the Watertown area to spend the night at his mom's. I figured that meant five minutes. Instead, he pulled his car to the side of the road and talked past midnight about why he admires and supports Johnson.
Then he called back twice to make some final points.
In short, Mortensen can't stand the Bush administration. He said the bloodshed from the war in Iraq is a result of the deception of the American people, and that Bush and his top advisers "should all be in jail, as far as I'm concerned."
And he said the most onerous tactic of the White House is contending that anyone, liberal or conservative, who disagrees with its policies fails to remember what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
"To imply that if you have any criticism of the way this country is being governed or the way it is being represented overseas, (to imply that) if you do anything except for saying, 'Yes, sir, I want some more,' that you are being disloyal...that is insulting to the memory of 9/11 and those who died on that day," Mortensen said.
Johnson, a surgeon from Sackets Harbor who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps, does not join in the call for impeaching Bush. But he remains opposed to the war in Iraq, calling "for an orderly withdrawal...in the near future."
On the war, Johnson is equally impatient with his own party. He said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential Democratic presidential candidate, reminds him of Hubert Humphrey in 1968 - when Humphrey's political tightrope walk on Vietnam hurt him in the presidential race against Richard Nixon.
McHugh, who has visited Iraq six times, recently told The Post-Standard the U.S. "is still making progress" in that nation. "We can't come home and hide under the bed," he said.
As for Mortensen and his support for Johnson, McHugh spokesman Christopher Mathey responded with this statement: "For the past 22 years in elective office, Congressman McHugh has worked hard to earn the faith, trust and support of the hard-working men and women who call New York's 23rd District home," Mathey said.
Mathey mentioned McHugh's many local endorsements, before concluding: "At the end of the day, the voters of this region will decide whose opinion matters: Those who live and work here in Upstate New York, or those who don't."
Mortensen rejected the notion that he has no business in this race. He went to high school and college in the North Country, he said, and he often returns to see his family. "It's not only a beautiful part of the world, but I spent a significant number of years here and I like the environment and the seasons and the landscape, and I also like the people," Mortensen said. "I think I'll always come back here."
He met Johnson after Mortensen delivered a commencement address in May at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater, in which he questioned why millions of Americans struggle to afford a health care plan. Johnson was intrigued because he said similar questions are what first compelled him to run for Congress.
The two men sat down and found they agreed on many things, including a shared belief that the American focus after Sept. 11 should have been on tracking down Osama bin Laden, not invading Iraq. Mortensen promised to do what he could to help, even though he knew the uphill nature of the race.
As of last week, Johnson - with no traditional political background except for running and losing two years ago against McHugh - had raised about one-fortieth of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign fundraising done by his opponent. If McHugh can receive big donations "from wealthy interest groups," Mortensen asked, why is it improper for one artist to say his piece?
And say his piece he did. Mortensen's final phone call dealt with why he first went public with his politics. He had grown weary, he said, of media commentators who made forced comparisons between U.S. policy in the Middle East and the "free peoples" of Middle Earth created by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mortensen has read collections of Tolkien's letters. He knows the author was uneasy about the tactics that led to Allied victory in World War II, especially the use of atomic weapons. To emphasize that point, Mortensen underlined this passage from a letter Tolkien sent during World War II to his son Christopher, one of the rare times that Tolkien equated the real world to the heroes and villains of Middle Earth:
"For we are attempting to conquer Sauron with the ring. And we shall it (seems) succeed. But the penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and to slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs."
In these harsh times, Mortensen sees his country in that quote.