Who, after all, would take in an alien with a penchant for cats, no questions asked?
He was the product of a thriving, open, optimistic America. He was a man who could always see the good in people.
A social worker in the 1980s, Tanner had been on the frontline as America’s working poor grew and Reaganomics unleashed waves of deindustrialisation.
Despite his dislike of Reagan and the 1980s culture of excess, Tanner was no bleeding heart. While he saw more and more people struggling, in some part of him, he could see a logic in what was happening to his country.
While Willie had always been on the left of the Democratic Party – he’d campaigned for McGovern, supported Kennedy’s challenge to Carter in 1980, and was an early supporter of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 – he was still pragmatic. He’d lived long enough to see times change, and he thought they would once a Democrat took the White House.
Yet, when the US Military’s abducted ALF and Willie’s best friend was never heard of again, Tanner was hit by a jolt. He came to see the 1980s not as an exception before another American rebirth, but as a newly entrenched norm.
For Tanner, the US Government’s treatment of ALF seemed to foreshadow a much wider attack on outsiders throughout the 1990s and into the new century.
As a social worker, he’d worked with the downtrodden all his life. He’d seen how hard it was for migrants to make it in Reagan’s America. But when the false promise of Bill Clinton (who Tanner did vote for) proved to be exactly that, and Clinton signed into law Gingrich’s Welfare to Work legislation in the 1990s, Tanner broke with official politics in the United States and never looked back.
He could no longer tolerate the way the US Government treated its most downtrodden. And he could not tolerate the way a creeping xenophobia began to infiltrate the nation’s public life.
The social crisis echoed a personal one – after his wife Kate embarked on a torrid affair with longtime neighbor Mr Ochmonek, Tanner broke from his comfortable life as well.
So, Tanner left town and headed south, and spent the remainder of the 1990s and most of the 2000s on the Mexican border, ferrying migrants illegally across the Rio Grande. He couldn’t save ALF, his marriage, or the country at large, but he could aide Mexican workers as they sought a better life, echoing the refuge he gave an alien from Melmac nearly two decades before.
Sadly, as economic conditions in the US worsened, opportunistic politicians jumped on illegal immigration and whipped up racial resentment as a distraction to social plight. In the ensuing frenzy that erupted, Willie Tanner fell victim to a bullet from neo-fascist Minutemen.
He was attempting to bring a young mother and her son across the border.
He was denounced as a traitor in the right-wing media.
But Willie Tanner was a good man.