In the late 1960s, Stephen Gaskin made a name for himself teaching a weekly class on the meaning of the psychedelic experience in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. At the start of the 70s, he led a hippie exodus to Tennessee, where he created "The Farm," just about the only successful hippie commune still standing. He's written several books about pot and psychedelia, including the "Amazing Dope Tales."
He says he also had a friendly and mutually supportive relationship with a fellow Tennesseean named Al Gore. (Gore could not be reached for comment on the extent of his friendship with Gaskin.)
Now, Gaskin is seeking the Green Party's nomination as its presidential candidate. So far, he's entered that party's primaries in New York and New Mexico and has formed Georgians for Gaskin. He claims that while "a lot of Greens are just going to go for [Ralph Nader] automatically, there is also a bunch who are ready for me to challenge." Given the recent claims of former friend John Warnecke that Gore was an epic stoner in the early 1970s (which Gore denies), could Gaskin's candidacy provoke a media critical mass, forcing Gore to confront his past as a countercultural dilettante?
Gaskin laughs at the suggestion, but then Gaskin laughs every few minutes anyway over our breakfast at the Fairmount Hotel, during his recent visit to San Francisco. It's the deep laugh of a man who has made his peace with the marijuana gods pretty much on a daily basis for more than three decades running. But Gaskin's turning on isn't about self-indulgence. He brings an impressive record of public service to the table that includes his work as founder of Plenty International, an overseas relief and development company that helped rebuild 1,200 houses in Guatemala and clinics in Lesotho and southern Mexico. His Jefferson Award-winning South Bronx Ambulance project in New York City adapted the police slogan, "If you're in trouble, try calling a hippie," and stripped it of its ironic intent.
The man even did his time in the military. He's folksy, plain-spoken and fearless -- the kind of guy who can sit down with his redneck neighbors and tell 'em just why he's against guns, and for gays and feminists, and walk away unscarred. "I get along with my gun-loving neighbors. At first, they thought we didn't have guns 'cause we were cowards. And then they found out that we didn't have guns 'cause we was courageous and they respected that."
Given half a chance, these qualities could allow him to find a constituency out there in the Heartland. Still, Gaskin recognizes that it's the Gore connection, and not his down-home honesty or his seven-point program that's likely to get the media attention needed to launch his campaign. He's willing to play along, but only to a degree.
It's an article of hippie faith that Al Gore used to hang out at "The Farm" and smoke pot. Will you comment on that?
Well, he came around a bit, first as a reporter for the Tennessean. He did a story on us in '72. It was very fair and positive. And we stayed friends. He was supportive of my wife, Ina May's work as a midwife. Tipper read all our books. As far as dope, I can honestly say I never toked up with Al. I don't know if that was his fault or mine. I'm glad though. I'd rather rag on him for being a Republicrat who can't say "non-profit health insurance" to save his life.
Have you been following the John Warnecke claims about Gore's prodigious dope smoking in the '70s? Is it your impression that it's accurate?
I am not in a position to give evidence and I will not do hearsay, but I believe Warnecke's story.
When you first met Gore, did you think he was really straight and stiff, like his current public image?
No, not that straight. I mean, he was a reporter. He wasn't a hippie. But from the first time I met him, I was really impressed. Without any prompting from me, he said, "What you people are trying to do here is get to the clear state." So he was hip on that level. And Tipper was about halfway into the local rock 'n' roll community. She was fond of the Farm Band.
Would you say that you were close friends?
We'd see them once in awhile. We'd go to some of his speaking gigs. We really liked him. And when he was going to run for Congress, our attitude was "Hey, cool. We'll have a friend in Congress." We liked him as a congressman and we liked him as a senator. I watched him closely in the Senate. He's a really good student. He studied arms control and helped write the SALT treaty. Paul Nitze said, "Al knows that stuff better than Sam Nunn does.
And then once the treaty was done, he dropped all that stuff like a hot rocket and turned right to the environment. Our lawyer on the Farm, Albert Bates, had written a book on the environment called Climate In Crisis. And he got Al Gore to write an introduction to his book. Al's smart, and he was right there with us on a lot of issues.
That's all his good stuff. The other stuff is watching him make the compromises he had to make to stay in the game. If someone getting into politics wants to be president, they can't put any barriers between them and that thing they want. So if you want to be governor, you can't really say that you're against capital punishment if the state has that law already. People will get worried because you take an oath to uphold the laws. He got where he started making the compromises to stay in the game. And I held those compromises as IOU's that I could cash in later. (He laughs.) But he put himself over his credit limit with me when he cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the Gulf War. One of the consequences from that gesture, as far as I am concerned, is the 50,000 babies who died from bombing the Baghdad water supply, which I believe is a war crime, by the Geneva Convention. And all we did was make Kuwait safe for feudalism.
Are you able to talk to him still?
Not since the inauguration in '92.
Do you consider Gore a hypocrite on marijuana policy? Is that motivating your candidacy?
I am angry with him for being a hypocrite about pot, but breaking the tie to get us in the Gulf War was worse. I understood that he couldn't start off saying, "I'm gonna legalize it" before he starts to run. Although, that's what I'm going to try to do. But he called it a "false experience." What does that mean? Obviously, he's afraid of the religious right. He's even refused to comment on Kansas or evolution. "Senator Science" didn't rise up to defend evolution.
So he talks up the "War on Drugs." He acts like he's completely against getting high. And he knows, and Bill knows, and Susan Molinari knows, and all those guys know just as well as you and I do that it doesn't make you unfit for public office. And in the context of drugs, it's not a very big deal. Right? You're lucky if you find anything that is a big deal. You search to find something.
But he's running from the religious right. He's not gonna cross them. He's running as a Christian. But he's a little vulnerable in the sense that he's pretty serious about Buddhism. He's read all the books. I've had a couple of deep conversations with him. He really knows that stuff. Now he likes to say, "I'm a man of family and faith." It's a way of saying it so that nobody knows that any of his faith is anything different than what theirs might be.