John Whitehead: A civil libertarian's job is never done

John Whitehead has been fighting for the rights of the underdog since he was a young pup of a lawyer. This year, the organization he founded to defend religion and other civil liberties– the Rutherford Institute– celebrates its 20th anniversary.

In an office full of art, including both his own and giant mock-ups of Francis Bacon paintings, Whitehead reflects on the state of civil liberties.

"We've come full circle from about 1949-1950– the McCarthy era," he says. "Since 9-11, it's accelerated."

On this particular day, Whitehead points out dangers of the Patriot Act and Operation TIPS, the program that encourages workers to report suspicious activity.

"If you're reading the wrong kind of books," he warns, "the phone guy can turn you in, and you go on a computer data base."

As for the state of the union: "Since George W. Bush took office, it's gotten worse."

The Rutherford Institute is perhaps best known for representing Paula Jones in her lawsuit against then- president Bill Clinton. Whitehead hasn't heard from Jones lately, but he did catch her on TV in a boxing match with Tonya Harding. "Tonya beat the poop out of her," he says.

Renaissance man Whitehead also founded Gadfly, a critically acclaimed, if short-lived, popular culture magazine.

On the floor of his office, leaning against the wall, is Whitehead's mixed-media painting, Blue Baby. It used to hang in the hall, but his wife made him take it down. Even First Amendment advocates can get censored.

Age: 56

What brought you to Charlottesville? The university... and the area. I thought the quality of people would be enhancing. What's the worst about living here? I can't afford a house. We bought a log cabin south of town. We're in the slums of Afton.

Favorite hangout? Big Jim's

Most overrated virtue? I don't think any are overrated. The most important virtue is loyalty. Martin Luther said that without loyalty, you're no better than a goat or a pig.

What would people be surprised to know about you? That I have liberal tendencies.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My looks

Of what achievement are you proudest? That I didn't sell out

What do people find most annoying about you? I tend to be a perfectionist and to nag a bit. Maybe my primal screams.

Whom do you admire? Dead? John Lennon. Living: Nat Hentoff. He's a good friend and a cheerleader for us.

Favorite book? Orwell's 1984 and [Salinger's] Catcher in the Rye

 What causes you to rant? People's tendencies to give away too much in terms of rights and freedoms

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Plants continue to grow, and God speaks through nature. I live in the woods.

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? How life continually dehumanizes people. In the future, we're going to come face to face with that. Spielberg speaks to that in AI and Minority Report.

What's your next journey? I think I'm being prepared for a journey. I don't know what it is. I'm learning to wait. Be still and wait for God. There's a lot of beauty in quietness and stillness. Or as Bob Dylan says, "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind."

What do you drive? Jeep Wrangler

What's in your car CD player right now? McCartney's Band on the Run

 What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? The Paula Jones case. That was a lot of trouble.

What do you regret? The lack of funding to do more here

Favorite comfort food? Wine

What's always in your refrigerator? Sparkling water

Must-see TV? The Sci-Fi channel

Favorite cartoon? Peter Pan. As a kid, I loved Bugs Bunny.

Describe a perfect day: A productive day at the office, then I go home and garden.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I'd be an actor in a sci-fi or horror movie, even if I were just a bum in a gutter.

Who would play you in the movie based on your life? Harrison Ford. Paul Newman is a little too old.

Most embarrassing moment? When I was a junior in high school, I was running through the halls. The glass door was closed and I went through it with everyone watching. I can still see that in slow motion.

Best advice you ever got? Don't turn down a raise.

Favorite bumper sticker? I don't like bumper stickers. They annoy me.

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