Viggo Mortensen has heard old tales of his maternal grandfather, Dr Walter S Atkinson, accepting rabbits and chicken from poor north country residents bartering for an ophthalmologist's services.
'There are a lot of good doctors in the north country who will help people in need,' the film actor and former Watertown resident said during a telephone interview Tuesday from Madrid, Spain. 'But the good-heartedness of a few doctors once in a while doesn't cut it as far as a health-care system that really isn't serving people.'
Mr Mortensen, a graduate of both Watertown High School and St Lawrence University, Canton, will campaign next month for Dr Robert Johnson, a Sackets Harbor thoracic surgeon running for the 23rd Congressional District seat.
'I know that Bob Johnson is running because he really cares about the issues that really affect people in the area, like making sure that people have reasonably priced, sensible health-care coverage,' said Mr Mortensen. 'Being a doctor and seeing how bad the situation is, particularly in the north country, has driven him to try and represent the north country. He has no vested interests outside the north country.'
The actor said the same can't be said for Dr Johnson's opponent, Rep. John M McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, who he said accepts campaign contributions from major pharmaceutical businesses.
'He's a spokesman for big drug companies, essentially,' said Mr Mortensen. 'Once you've started doing a little research, I'm certainly backing the right man for the district in which I was raised and in which I still have a lot of family still living.'
Mr Mortensen said Dr Johnson contacted him after reading a speech he delivered to the St Lawrence University graduating class in May. The actor scheduled a face-to-face meeting during a summer visit to see his mother, Grace A 'Gay' Wright, Clayton.
Dr Johnson said Wednesday that the two men discussed a number of issues, including health care and foreign policy.
'In actuality, he agrees very closely with me,' the congressional candidate said. 'And the overarching idea is that every single American should be covered with health care.'
Mr Mortensen added: 'All Americans should be covered, one way or another. It should be a citizen's right to be covered, as it is in other countries.'
Dr Johnson said he advocates a government-run, national health insurance program to which every person and corporation contributes and under which everyone is covered.
'The principle of an insurance system is to spread the risk over the entire population,' said Dr Johnson, noting that a similar measure in Massachusetts failed because it caved in to big-business demands. 'In that way, we can get rid of the insurance companies that are retaining 15 to 20 percent of our premiums.'
Mr Mortensen said the companies most affected by such a change - the pharmaceutical companies and the insurers - 'demonize that idea. 'That's communism. That's socialism. That's going to ruin the country,' which is absolutely not true.'
Dr Johnson added: 'I have to make it clear - and Viggo and I both agree on the same thing - that this is not socialized medicine. I have no intention of making hospitals and health-care providers government employees. I've worked in those systems, and those systems do not work.'
The congressional candidate said he would work to eliminate 'all the organizations that prevent care instead of provide care,' including the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and preferred provider organizations (PPOs).
'I am convinced that health-care reform is going to come in the next five years,' said Dr Johnson, who said electing him would be part of the first step towards real reform.
'These are national issues that have local effects,' he added. 'What could be more local than our property taxes going off the wall because we have to pay Medicaid? Or money being diverted to a war we should not be involved in?'
Mr Mortensen said he favoured the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent search for Osama bin Laden, but he said special forces were diverted to a new war in Iraq before the mission could be completed.
'I don't think we should have ever gone there,' he said, comparing the war in Iraq to Vietnam and summarizing it as 'probably the biggest policy disaster in the history of the country.'
Dr Johnson, a former lieutenant colonel in an Army Reserve medical corps, said: 'Those of us in the military who have a visceral feel for what the military does feel that the president, along with his rubber-stamp Congress, ignored all of the advice they got from their military commanders and all the people who knew Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. We're tired of the spin.'
Mr Mortensen said the government's decision to proceed with invading Iraq after it did not receive the support of the United Nations 'has cost us our treasure. And by that I mean our money, our funds we have as a country, but also in life and limbs and hearts and minds. The people we have lost in this ridiculous misadventure in Iraq has hurt not only the soldiers, but the families of soldiers.'
The actor said he strongly supports the soldiers, adding: 'I think we should get out of there right away and do it in an orderly fashion. Those people don't want us there.'
Dr Johnson said the United States must leave Iraq in the 'very, very palpable future. This doesn't wait for the next president. I don't want to see another black wall in Washington D.C., with another 55,000 names on it. This is not a war. This is an occupation.'
The congressional candidate said he didn't favour setting a date for withdrawal, but agreed with Mr Mortensen that it needed to be done in an orderly fashion.
'At the end of the day, it will be the Iraqis that will determine the destiny of their country, and we need to let them do that themselves,' said Dr Johnson.
Mr Mortensen said this will be the first time he will campaign for any political candidate. It will be an uphill battle; Mr McHugh, a 15-year incumbent, garnered 71 percent of the vote in 2004 against Dr Johnson.
'Most people probably consider Bob Johnson a long shot to unseat McHugh, but I think Johnson's campaign is definitely gaining momentum,' Mr Mortensen said. 'I think it's time for John McHugh to go. As nice as a man as he may be and as solid a north country person as he might be. I definitely think he's out of touch.'