The 99 percenters who have been occupying (sorry, Occupying) Washington, D.C. for the past month are as insistently “horizontal” in their approach to democracy—no hierarchies, no leaders—as their comrades in other cities across the country. But there was also a brief and instructive moment when the protesters here seemed willing to shelve their anarchism for the sake of a (sort-of) celebrity. Head-to-toe in bright orange, except for a black stethoscope necktie and a miniature fork dangling from his ear, the doctor, clown, and activist Patch Adams (yes, from the Robin Williams movie) spent one recent afternoon playing Pied Piper to the protesters.
Of course, if the protesters seemed to find Adams an acceptable ringleader, it may be because his agenda was explicitly to reject a pointed agenda. Even the most impudent revolutionaries, it seems, are eager for a little direction, as long as it doesn’t get them anywhere too specific.
Patch Adams, which opened to bad reviews in 1998, tells the tale of a troubled young man whose epiphany in a mental hospital—“We need to start treating the patient as well as the disease!”—compels him to start the Gesundheit Institute, a holistic, free medical clinic in West Virginia where he can entertain his live-in patients. While the film hints at Adams’ political persuasions—“You can never go wrong if you’re a Marxist,” Robin Williams tells someone watching the Marx brothers—it doesn’t quite flesh out the communitarian instinct that fuels his real-life anti-capitalism.
A couple weeks ago, surveying the muddy Occupy D.C. encampment in McPherson Square, he remarked: “It’s the right reaction.” Taller and leaner than his on-screen likeness, the 66-year-old Adams sports blue-streaked white hair pulled back in a long ponytail and a white Dalí mustache turned up at the ends. “Market capitalism will be the reason we go extinct,” he continued excitedly, as we walked together through the park.
As it happens, Adams was in town not to occupy anything, but to lobby the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to let him bring a group of veterans “clowning” with him. After he closed the Gesundheit in the 1980s—a bigger, better one is in the works—Adams embarked on a second career, traveling to refugee camps and orphanages to cheer up sick kids. When his meeting at Walter Reed ended, Adams headed downtown to Occupy D.C. to see if he could be of any help.
As Adams inspected the grounds, occupiers began abandoning their posts—pitching tents, preparing food, yelling at lobbyists—to greet and hug him. (Later in the day, at another rally, he would fend fans off: “I’m a commie. As soon as I [hug] one, I have to do everybody.”) To some, Adams was a brother-in-arms; they’d met at a previous demonstration. To others, he was the stuff of legend. “The first time I saw [the movie] I was in a mental home,” said one awestruck fan. (Adams thinks the movie is shallow: “I’m about free medicine. I’m about peace and justice. They never mentioned peace and justice.”) The camp’s cook, a surly man who identified himself only as Mike, asked how to keep the occupiers properly fed. “Switch from white to brown rice,” Adams told him, before the two discussed plans to cultivate an Occupy D.C. organic garden.
Before long, a guy running a live video stream wrested Adams from the gaggle for an on-screen chat. “You said in the next century or so, we might go extinct. Do you know of any sustainable solutions?” Oh, thousands, Adams answered casually: free universal health care, the dissolution of the (carbon-footprint heavy) nuclear family, and a plan to get from the East to the West coast of the United States using a network of mountaintop slides. “As le Corbusier the architect said: ‘To change the world you don’t overthrow the power structure, you show alternatives,’” Adams told the interviewer. “We need alternative government, laws, police, health care. We need everything to be alternative.”
He concluded by singing the “Internationale,” then commenced his exit, regretfully declining offers to stick around. An old activist friend had asked him to speak at D.C.’s concurrent protest movement, Stop The Machine, and he was running late. Hopefully, they’d see him again, at this occupation or another, said the live-stream operator. “The earth is my occupation,” Adams assured him, walking off. “I haven’t taken a day off of revolution in 50 years!”
Simon van Zuylen Wood is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.