O’Shaughnessy’s coverage of Rick Steves’ speech to NORML in 2005 was slugged “Rick Steves for Secretary of State!” On March 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine ran an informative profile of Steves (marred by grotesque computer-generated graphics) in which reporter Sam Anderson wrote:
… Lately, Steves concedes, his political message has begun to take over his teaching. In “Travel as a Political Act,” the familiar elements of his guidebooks — walking tours, museum guides, hotel reviews — are replaced by rabble-rousing cultural critique. Steves expresses deep admiration for Scandinavian-style social democracy and calls out many of America’s faults: our addiction to cars and guns and mass incarceration; our deference to corporations; our long history of cultural imperialism (“one of the ugliest things one nation can do is write another nation’s textbooks”). Some moments in the book verge on un-American. “Sometimes, when I’m frustrated with the impact of American foreign policy on the developing world,” Steves writes, “I have this feeling that an impotent America is better for the world than an America whose power isn’t always used for good.”
Occasionally, despite his best efforts, Steves still ruffles feathers. Recent TV specials have covered Iran — “I believe if you’re going to bomb a place,” Steves has written, “you should know its people first” — and the rise of fascism in Europe. In a special about the Holy Land, Steves refers unapologetically to “Palestine” instead of “the West Bank” or “Palestinian territories”; some viewers were so outraged that they told Steves they were removing PBS from their wills. After one recent speech in the Deep South, event organizers refused to pay Steves — their conservative sponsors, he learned, considered his message a form of liberal propaganda.
In recent years, Steves has become a happy warrior for an unlikely cause: the legalization of marijuana. He first tried the drug in Afghanistan, in the 1970s, in the name of cultural immersion, and he was fascinated by its effect on his mind. Today, he is a board member of Norml, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and a regular speaker at Hempfest. In his headquarters you will find a poster of the Mona Lisa holding a gargantuan spliff. In 2012, Steves campaigned hard for Washington State’s successful legalization initiative, and since then he has barnstormed other states (Oregon, Maine, Vermont and more) to make sure the civil liberties are properly passed around. On a shelf in his living room, right there among all the European knickknacks, Steves displays a sizable bong.
Sometimes fans urge Steves to run for office. When I asked him if he would ever get into politics, he had an answer ready: “I already am.”