» News » Actor Kal Penn roots for Obama

Actor Kal Penn roots for Obama

By Monika Joshi
February 04, 2008 13:38 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Many people, particularly South Asians, have noted the fact that presidential hopeful Barack Obama pronounces 'Pakistan' correctly.

Actor Kal Penn, who has canvassed for presidential hopeful Barack Obama across United States, referred to it at a phone conference in Iowa on Saturday. The conference was organised by a group of South Asians supporting Obama.

"It seems something so simple, but knowing that a world leader can actually go over and negotiate with certain countries, discuss things with them, the fact is he should pronounce the name of the country properly," Penn said.

As an example of the Illinois senator's foreign policy experience and insight, he cited an essay Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs last summer about the need to refocus efforts on Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

Penn, who is recognised for his role in the comedy series Harold and Kumar as well Mira Nair's The Namesake, also explained why he signed up to volunteer for Obama.

Since he turned 18, Penn has not been aligned to a particular party and has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, as well as independents. His grandparents had been imprisoned for marching with Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence.

When Penn was old enough to understand the sacrifices people made to ensure a better life for the coming generations, it made him skeptical of politics. "I didn't see any candidates – whether it was for governor or for the school board, and certainly not for president – that I could get really excited about and believe in," he said. 

Four years ago, Penn was living in Texas where a friend was making minimum wage working for a trucking company, while trying to save for college. One day, the friend got a call from Halliburton and was offered a $90,000 a year job driving a truck for the private sector in Iraq.

"I thought that it was a really sad situation where the world's richest country could only offer two options to a buddy of ours who wants to go to college, and that's minimum wage or 90 grand in a war zone," Penn said. "That made me even more cynical."

A few weeks later, Penn was working on his computer while the television played in the background. The Democratic National Convention was on. Something made him look up.

"It was Senator Obama's keynote, and he said: Especially after 9/11, we should not be divided between blue states and red states. We should be focused on being the United States," Penn said. "I'm sure we all remember that not just in the days and weeks but the months and years after 9/11, different folks around the country felt, for one reason or another, that they were not part of the American society." After the address was over, Penn wondered, like many others, when Obama would run for president.

When the opportunity came four years later, Penn said he researched Obama's stand on various issues – his co-sponsorship of the End Racial Profiling Act, support to reforming the H1B programme so that legal immigrants aren't dependent on shady employers just to stay in the country, and support to family reunification.

"Barack is a huge family guy," informed Penn. "He talks to his wife Michelle several times a day, and when they were in Iowa, Michelle was notorious for flying home at night just to talk to the girls."

While the traditional approach in a campaign is to view a minority community as a voting bloc, Penn said he could say as an insider that the Obama campaign doesn't use those terms. "What you hear constantly is how folks can be included," he said.

Penn cited Iowa, where during outreach at a rural high school with a sizable number of Latino students, they found that the parents had never participated in the political process. Instead of asking for their votes, the campaign decided to find out more about the community's needs that were not being addressed by politicians and the government.

"It means that these communities aren't being ghettoized or targeted specifically because folks think we are different or we have some money to donate or because we're a bloc of voters," Penn said. "But Barack truly wants to include people in the process of what it means to be an American."

For example, while other campaigns may appoint one or two South Asians to reach out to the South Asian community, Obama goes beyond token gestures, the actor said. One of his senior policy staff is a South Asian, who has taken time off Yale Law School to work with him. His environmental outreach director in Iowa is Rohan Patel, a Northwestern University graduate.

"What you're seeing happen on the ground you're certainly not seeing as a news story,  because there is no need to publicise diversity for the sake of publicity," Penn said.

People of all backgrounds and from all walks of life are joining hands with Obama. "That's something that we haven't seen as a South Asian community. Particularly after 9/11, I think too many politicians are willing to tokenise us but not enough are willing to include us," said Penn.

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
Monika Joshi