FF22 - Clear and Present Danger

Intro by John Roderick

In a 1994 interview, John Erlichman, who was Nixon's chief domestic adviser and one of the architects of Watergate, described the thought process behind Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971. I quote: "The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: The antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying. We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did!"

Now: Erlichman isn't necessarily a trustworthy source here. At the time of this interview he was an embittered felon, hung out to dry by Nixon who spent the second half of his career smearing the former president in his memoirs and everywhere else besides. But this acid confession had the ring of truth. That misbegotten drug war was still with us at the time and is with us today, having consumed trillions upon trillions of dollars, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, blighted our inner cities, started actual wars, inspired coups, plunged Mexico and Colombia into decades of instability and violence, funded the Taliban in Afghanistan, institutionalized a war-like law enforcement culture at home, and entrenched intractable divisions into domestic life.

And for all of that expenditure of blood and treasure and collateral damage there is ever a new plague of addiction. The violence has only redoubled. But the war on drugs, like the wars on communism and now terror, are incredibly resilient and resistant to logic. They amount to nation state virtue signalling, unwinnable conflicts with unattainable goals, premised on dubious conclusions drawn from tainted data, inoculated from criticism and immune to audit. No one in political life wants to be for drugs, communism or terror, so any attempt at reform is a hot potato no one dares hold for long.

In 1994 the setting of both Erlichman revealing confession and today's film, after Nancy Reagan's ridiculous "Just Say No!"-program and George HW Bush's "Drugs are the greatest domestic threat facing our nation today" speech, along comes Bill Clinton, the first baby boomer president, the first one to have supposedly sucked pot smoke into his mouth and then blown it out like a nerd, the president who was widely described at the time as our first black president because of his empathetic identification with communities of color.

[He was] the first person who could arguably curtail the drug war madness because of his youthful mandate and because he sat atop a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Instead, [he] signed the tough on crime, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which despite many merits among other things reaffirmed the insane 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. The war on drugs got an extension.

And it is in that context that the second of two Jack Ryan films starring Harrison Ford was released. By this point the Russians are no longer a threat, nor is the IRA, so what does a senior CIA agent do with his time? The film opens on a grisly murder scene aboard a pleasure craft in the Gulf of Mexico and evidence points to Colombian drug cartels. One of the victims is a personal friend of the president of the USA.

Even though the president's friend is guilty, the president is mad. Killing his friend is personal and he wants some get back, so he colludes with his schemy national security bad guys to get some of that hot war on drugs action. What follows is a story of spycraft, of corruption in Washington, of American commandos deployed to a foreign country to wage an illegal operation and then left to twist in the wind by slimy bureaucrats of division and duplicitousness within the cartels themselves, and of the last good man, setting it all straight.

He's your Rambo in a button down, your James Bond who loves his wife and kids, your Jason Bourne in a Volvo, It's your Jack Ryan! In 1994 it was still possible for film audiences to believe that some old school dude was going to singlehandedly straighten this all out and restore order to the world. Those were the days! Adapted from the book by Tom Clancy, directed by Philip Noyce and with John Milius The Great among the writers. Get your porkchops out, because this is Friendly Fire and today's film is Clear and Present Danger.

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