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Katy Burns

Katy Burns: Farewell, Billy Jack; a primary player exits the scene

  • File-This Oct. 22. 1991, file photo shows actor Tom "Billy Jack" Laughlin talking with residents at Eastern Depot Restaurant in Berlln,  N.H. Laughlin, whose production and marketing of "Billy Jack" set a standard for breaking the rules on and off screen, has died. Laughlin's daughter told The Associated Press that he died Thursday Dec. 12, 2013, at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Laughlin was 82 and Teresa Laughlin, who acted in the Billy Jack movies, said the cause of death was complications from pneumonia. (AP Photo/Jon-Pierre Lasseigne, File)

    File-This Oct. 22. 1991, file photo shows actor Tom "Billy Jack" Laughlin talking with residents at Eastern Depot Restaurant in Berlln, N.H. Laughlin, whose production and marketing of "Billy Jack" set a standard for breaking the rules on and off screen, has died. Laughlin's daughter told The Associated Press that he died Thursday Dec. 12, 2013, at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Laughlin was 82 and Teresa Laughlin, who acted in the Billy Jack movies, said the cause of death was complications from pneumonia. (AP Photo/Jon-Pierre Lasseigne, File)

  •  Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart

    Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart

  •  Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart

    Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart

  • File-This Oct. 22. 1991, file photo shows actor Tom "Billy Jack" Laughlin talking with residents at Eastern Depot Restaurant in Berlln,  N.H. Laughlin, whose production and marketing of "Billy Jack" set a standard for breaking the rules on and off screen, has died. Laughlin's daughter told The Associated Press that he died Thursday Dec. 12, 2013, at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Laughlin was 82 and Teresa Laughlin, who acted in the Billy Jack movies, said the cause of death was complications from pneumonia. (AP Photo/Jon-Pierre Lasseigne, File)
  •  Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart
  •  Billy Jack is dead. Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created Billy Jack and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California. In his 82 years on eart

Billy Jack is dead.

Well, more formally Tom Laughlin – the actor, filmmaker, writer and political activist who most memorably created “Billy Jack” and starred in four films featuring the character – died last month in California.

In his 82 years on earth, the one-time college football star was featured in dozens of movies and television shows. He also dabbled in domestic abuse counseling, wrote books on Jungian psychology and started a Montessori school in Santa Monica, Calif., that eventually became the largest in the country.

From all accounts, he was consumed with ideas and exuded energy. And like many creative characters, he could be, uh, difficult. Or as director Robert Altman, a bit prickly himself, noted, Laughlin was “an unbelievable pain in the ass.”

But by the end of his life, the actor/activist had fallen back into obscurity. It took the august New York Times more than two weeks to acknowledge his death in its obituary pages.

Most readers today, I’ll wager, have never heard of Laughlin or of the character he created, Billy Jack, a half-Navajo ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran and martial arts expert who used his skills to fight for his version of the American dream.

It will no doubt not shock you that generally some violence was involved. All in a good cause, of course.

Certainly I’d not heard much about either Laughlin or his alter ego, Billy Jack, before meeting him at the then-Gristmill restaurant in Bow in January 1992. Laughlin – along with a few dozen other folks – was taking a break from his other interests to run for president in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.

And I was there because, as a relatively recent arrival in the Granite State and as a recovering political junkie from Cleveland, I’d been asked to do a series of pieces on the fabled New Hampshire primary for that city’s newspaper, the Plain Dealer. Like others who have not seen the primary up close, I was a skeptic. Why on earth should anyone pay attention to one little unrepresentative state tucked up in the northeast corner of the country?

Well, Laughlin – Billy Jack – helped me answer that.

Laughlin and his Billy Jack were well known, as one might imagine, to martial arts film buffs. But he had an equally fervent following among a then-relatively unheard from group: Vietnam War veterans.

As we all know now – or should know – that unpopular war was an unhappy time in American history. Many of those who fought in it – especially the reluctant draftees – felt used and abused by the country they’d served. Many felt they’d come back from the battlefield to a hostile home front where they were expected to be quiet and to blend back into civilian life. They were only beginning to deal with a lot of the health problems, from barely acknowledged post-traumatic stress to the lingering health effects caused by Agent Orange and other lethal chemicals that were used abundantly in that conflict.

As a presidential candidate, Laughlin had a varied platform, focusing on “two Americas,” one for the haves and one for the have-nots. He wanted a tax cut for “ordinary Americans,” universal health care and nuclear disarmament. But he especially focused on veterans, those he felt had been used and cast aside.

And the vets responded, flocking to his appearances in places like the Gristmill. Many of them wore their old uniforms or remnants of them, including fatigues, and they sported their medals. Some were angry; others more worried, convinced that no one cared about them or their concerns – at least until Laughlin, Billy Jack, came along. He listened. He encouraged them to air their concerns, not just to him but to others seeking national office. He listened to their worries about their health. He spoke up for homeless vets and for vets with drug and other addiction problems. He was there.

He gave them a voice.

In the end, unsurprisingly, Laughlin didn’t do particularly well in that ’92 primary, garnering only 1,986 votes. He was bitter about it, complaining that the state Democratic Party had shunted him aside, lumped him in with fringe candidates – the folks who show up all the time in New Hampshire primaries, people like Lobsterman, a professional wrestler sporting a red cape and lobster claw mittens, or Vermin Supreme, known for wearing a boot on his head.

And Laughlin did have a point. He was a serious candidate, with serious concerns. At least the vets who sought him out thought so.

In the time since Laughlin rallied the troops at the Gristmill, veterans’ concerns have moved a lot closer to the forefront of national political concerns, propelled not only by the increasingly vocal Vietnam vets but by those serving in our more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, who have rapidly rallied and mobilized to advance their service-related concerns.

Laughlin ran in two subsequent presidential elections, 2004 and 2008, but few paid any notice. He’d become part of the noisy background of our national political theater.

He may have died in relative obscurity, but at least for a short time he had some devoted followers in the persons of disillusioned vets who felt they’d just been thrown away. And the New Hampshire primary gave him – and them – a voice.

And that is why the New Hampshire primary is a very good thing.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

Yes the NH primary is a very good thing. Finally, I can agree with one of Katy's beliefs.

The Billy Jack films came out in the early 70's, and remember them well.

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