When Dichotomy Peddlers Win

Tom McCall was dead by the time Oregon had been reduced to two camps: those who care about spotted owls more than people, and those who care about money more than the environment. That's how they might have described each other, at least. If there was a Tom McCall-style third way in that controversy, I've never heard of it -- and it didn't win. The story is well-told in Oregon, though you'll get a different spin depending on who you hear it from. About five years ago, Rob Manning at OPB re-visited the issue of putting the Northern Spotted Owl on the Endangered Species List.

The spotted owl made for a clear and easy scapegoat for a seemingly irreversible economic trend that has ravaged much of rural Oregon. The decline of the timber industry, though, is a complicated tale. Environmental protection surely played a role, but so did technology, automation, and globalization. These things, though, don't live in Oregon's forests. They're harder to pin down. 

Before you decry the spoiled-rotten spotted owl, you should know that they're not exactly thriving, either. They're surviving, but they've seen better days -- much like the timber industry.

It's a fascinating and peculiar slice of Oregon history, the tale of the spotted owl. It makes for a convenient, if somewhat inaccurate, historical starting point for when the national trend of political polarization hit Oregon. It's when the dichotomy peddlers won, and everyone had to pick a side (or shrink from the stage entirely). 

Tom McCall, or at least the legend of Tom McCall, didn't shrink. He didn't fit cleanly into dichotomies, either. A Republican, yes -- but one who left the party after they rejected him in a primary. A conservationist, yes -- but not like his sparring partner Bob Straub. McCall was a complicated man, and it's anyone's guess how he would fit in today, or if he would at all.

I had a conversation with a close friend of mine, Carl Fisher, the other day. Carl, like me, loves Oregon history. He has one of the largest collections of Oregon political memorabilia you can find, and he gave me a couple of amazing Tom McCall bumperstickers and campaign flyers for Christmas -- perfect complements to the "Keep Oregon, Oregon. Keep Tom McCall." posters I have hanging on the walls of the office at home. 

Tom McCall, in the 1960s and 1970s, was the perfect person in the perfect place for the perfect moment. He embodied what Oregon was about, he cared about all the right things, he spoke directly. He was honest and funny and human. Most importantly, though, he helped solidify an Oregon identity. He built a narrative, or solidified an existing one, about what it means to be an Oregonian. It was about conservation, and independence, and ingenuity, and pride. It was about leadership and solving real problems. 

Oregonians liked it. They elected him decisively both times he ran in the general election for governor.

After Carl handed me the paper bag full of Oregon treasures, I asked him what Tom McCall would do today. What would he say? What would his vision and his narrative be?

Carl's answer was a good one. He diagnosed a cultural problem, Oregon's identity crisis, in a McCall sort of way. 

Oregon shifted from an agricultural, timber-based economy to a technological economy relatively quickly. The transition happened, whether forced or voluntary or a little of both, but we didn't bring people with us. There were some winners and some losers, and there's still a lot of people hurting from a transition that started decades ago. The urban/rural divide is very real in Oregon. Many people living east of the Cascades or south of Eugene feel ignored by state government, or worse -- forgotten.

McCall would probably do something about all that if he were around today, with his words, his actions, and his policies. He wouldn't shrink from it, and he wouldn't exacerbate it for political expediency. He would try the Oregon way. He would try to do something about it.