It's sobering to recall that, not that long ago, the West wasn’t labeled Blue or Red, but rather a shade of beige. Just a generation ago, centrists like Mike Mansfield, Cecil Andrus, Frank Church, Scoop Jackson, John Melcher and progressives like the cousins Morris and Stewart Udall represented Westerners in Washington. Today, if a Western candidate isn't talking guns, patriotism, “pro-life” and God, he or she doesn't stand a chance of getting elected.
Here in Oregon, many of us still talk proudly about former Democratic Sen. Wayne Morse, a maverick who started life as a Republican, and who famously cast one of two “Nay” votes in the U.S. Senate in 1964, opposing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Then there’s Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, the only Republican to vote against the first Gulf War.
But nobody transcended political boundaries with more flare and lasting effect than Oregon’s Republican Gov. Tom McCall. On March 22, the day McCall would have turned 100 had he lived that long, the students at Portland’s Newport High School celebrated his extraordinary achievements with a special edition of their school newspaper, the Harbor Light.
McCall's two terms in office spanned eight tumultuous years, from 1967-1975, a time when 54,000 American soldiers came home in body bags from a war that nobody in the government has ever been able to explain or justify. Race riots turned dozens of cities into burned-out war zones. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, weeks apart in the spring of 1968 -- on top of the Tet Offensive -- unleashed violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The country was a mess.
A year later, President Nixon's secret decision to bomb Cambodia led to nationwide protests and the killing of four students by national guardsmen at Kent State University. Then, in a brazen act of state-sponsored terrorism, Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger helped a thug named Augusto Pinochet overthrow Chilean President Salvador Allende in a violent coup, on Sept. 11, 1973, during which 3,100 people “disappeared” forever. Meanwhile, back home, a group of petty criminals broke into Democratic Party headquarters, a bungled crime that eventually brought down the Nixon administration in the Watergate scandal.
It was a chaotic time, and that makes Tom McCall's achievements all the more remarkable. In an article for The New Yorker, published in 1974, McCall modestly described his initiatives as "innovation and regeneration that can actually be used anywhere."
Guided by his leadership and vision, the Oregon Legislature passed a number of bills that today seem like notes from a lost world. They included:
* “The beach bill” protecting ocean beaches from commercial real estate development. Beaches would be treated like an undeveloped commons to be owned and enjoyed by all citizens, in perpetuity.
* A 1 percent set-aside of highway funds for bicycle and pedestrian paths.
*The first mandatory 5-cent deposit on returnable cans and bottles in the nation.
* A head-to-tail cleanup of the Willamette River.
* A comprehensive open-meetings law for all state and city government.
* Reform of the penal code and the decriminalization of marijuana.
* A statewide program of energy conservation.
* And, perhaps most importantly, Senate Bill 100, a visionary land-use law that continues to protect farm and forestland from real estate development. Among many other things, this law is credited today with protecting the forested hilltops and oak savannahs, where Oregon's fabled wine industry took root and flourished.
This brief litany of remarkable achievements made by a Republican governor and a bipartisan legislature, is a reminder of how far we have fallen from the grace of progressive governance in one short generation. American progressivism, which once set the standard for the world in social innovation and problem solving, has devolved into a quagmire of American primitivism. We're experiencing an era of a social paralysis and ideological regression that we haven't seen since the years leading up to the Civil War.
We are no longer Democrats versus Republicans. We are now quasi-rationalists versus primitives, and nothing illuminates that contrast more starkly than the legacy of Gov. Tom McCall. I salute the students of Newport High School for reminding us what we are capable of achieving when all parties work toward the middle in the spirit of serving the people. At the bottom of the Harbor Light's masthead was this note: "Produced under the influence of Tom McCall, bipartisanship, Republicans, Democrats, mavericks, rain, beaches, The Cookie Crew, bicycles, pie, rock and the belief in print journalism."
Tom McCall would have cheered.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.