Memories of Tom McCall

Tom McCall was someone who was always in my political awareness growing up. I don’t recall the specifics of his unsuccessful race against my predecessor, Edith Green, for the Third Congressional District but instead knew him as the popular, ubiquitous television commentator in the 1960s for Channel 8. Under the Bullock family ownership, the late Ansell Paine was the general manager who had a deep abiding sense of public affairs. Tom McCall was a political commentator and a progressive one.

He was the governor as I came of age politically, and the first governor I dealt with. In college, I organized and chaired the campaign to lower Oregon’s voting age. Part of my job was reaching out and seeking endorsements from every prominent leader - civic, educational and, of course, political. I found McCall much like his image; he was gregarious, quotable, and progressive. He endorsed the campaign and allowed us to use his name in our early promotional material. We featured it prominently alongside his then-political rival Bob Straub, against whom he ran for governor.

In the campaign to lower the voting age, we had interesting pairings like Bob Duncan and Mark Hatfield, who had just finished a heated, bitter campaign for United States Senate. McCall was a prize recruit. I had great fun being close to the political process, in fact I asked a question at the Straub/McCall City Club debate. With good humor, I asked if there was any difference between the two of them, since they both supported the environment, education and were both tall enough to start for any high-school basketball team in Oregon.

McCall went on to appoint me to my first political assignment, appropriately enough on the Livable Oregon Commission, where I was given a chance to deal with the governor’s signature issue. Little did I know it would become mine for the next four decades.
The famous McCall candor and quick quips got him and us in trouble. The campaign to lower the voting age came to a head in the final stages of the May primary. We had organized around the state, worked with young people in literally every corner of Oregon, and had developed a massive, statewide turnout effort and canvassed door-to-door in the last month. As luck would have it, it was that same period of time that Nixon sent bombers into Cambodia and widened the scope of what was, on campuses, a terribly unpopular war in Vietnam.

The bombing of Cambodia struck a cord on campuses across the country. There were protests in Oregon, including Eugene, and most notably in Portland. The Portland experience was particularly confrontational with students occupying the park blocks outside of what is now Portland State University. Ultimately, the police commissioner Frank Ivancie ordered the police to clear the protestors in what would later be labeled a police riot. Unfortunately, the young people were blamed and McCall, on the eve of our election, declared that the voting age campaign was over. Indeed, the headline which we awoke to on the front page of newspapers all across the state read, “Voting age campaign dead.”

We were outraged. We soldiered on, but we lost the election. In retrospect, McCall’s candor was accurate, and we probably would have lost without him proclaiming it, but it hurt nonetheless. I still have a picture of me encountering him on election night as I made the rounds of the television stations talking about the campaign.

Our relationship didn’t remain frosty for long. Even when he infuriated you, he was at his core a likeable, decent, entertaining human being. Later as a state legislator, I was able to support many of McCall’s initiatives and campaign actively for his signature educational reform program.When his proposal was rejected at the polls, I was able to guide a number of his provisions through the legislature and into law. A proud moment and a great memory is his signing my transportation bill that abolished the Highway Commission and created in its stead a statewide Transportation Commission. It appealed to both of us as a statement of Oregon looking at the big picture.

As I observe the celebration surrounding Tom McCall’s centennial, I’m reminded of a delightfully human person whose public image far eclipsed the real, already outsized, McCall. Indeed, his legend would shadow his successor Bob Straub, who was judged at the time to be less successful because he couldn’t measure up to the legend of Tom McCall. Not only did that legend contribute to his defeat in his bid for reelection in 1978, but by that time the legend had grown so out sized that not even the real Tom McCall could measure up. He was defeated in the Republican primary in his effort at a comeback.

Nonetheless, while it may have been a disappointment for the real Tom McCall, Oregonians loved the image, they loved the person, and Oregon is the better for his many contributions.

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