Friday, June 5, 2009

Books about Oregon: Fire At Eden's Gate: Tom McCall & The Oregon Story

Fire At Eden's Gate: Tom McCall & The Oregon Story
by Brent Walth

If you were born in Oregon, or if you have ever lived in Oregon, even if you don't know anything about the man himself or what he accomplished, you have probably heard of Tom McCall.

Born Thomas Lawson McCall in March of 1922, as the grandson of two powerful American figures (Copper king Thomas Lawson and politician Samuel W McCall), for nearly thirty five years, McCall's influence over Oregon reigned supreme over nearly every public figure in the state. Starting as a newspaper journalist in the 1930's, McCall was a pioneer among early radio news announcers and later graduated to early television. McCall entered the Oregon political arena in the late 40's as an assistant to Governor Douglas McKay. By 1954, McCall had won the Republican nomination for Oregon's Third Congressional District only to lose the election to Edith Green. However, having remained out of politics for some time, in 1966, McCall was elected to his first term as Oregon Governor under the Republican ticket and was later re-elected in 1970.

In an era of notoriously corrupt politics, with the exception of his private life where he struggled with debt, the drug addiction of his youngest son and his own affliction with cancer, McCall shines through as an enormously forthright and human individual despite holding a major public office. While other polititians of his day despised and often avoided the press, McCall routinely sought the press out in an effort to inform people of the inner workings of Oregon's government. Considered too much of a populist for Republican tastes and too conservative for the tastes of Democrats, McCall firmly established himself with a reputation of being a maverick. While the people loved him, others in politics distrusted him.

As governor, McCall was finally in the position to do something about the issues that had always been dear to his heart. Namely, this included McCall's profound respect for the Oregon lands. During his tenure, he restored Oregon's beaches to public ownership, introduced the nation's first bottle bill, blocked the U.S. military from dumping chemical weapons in Oregon, guarded stands of wilderness from clear cutting, cleaned up the Willamette River and halted the advancement of urban sprawl into precious farm land. Long before the appearance of Ross Perot, Tom McCall spoke of the need for what he called a "Third Force" in American politics. He was also largely responsible for bringing down the Nixon administration over Watergate, by publicly demanding that Nixon resign.

Tom McCall made himself many enemies.

On January 12th, 1971, as McCall was entering his second term as governor, he was propelled to nationwide fame. That evening he appeared on CBS and was asked to sum up his views on conservation. (Which he was already famous for). What came out of McCall's mouth, is still the subject of a lot of debate, when McCall promptly remarked:

"We want you to visit our State of Excitement often. Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here."

Having long been enraged over urbanization, Oregonians instantly embraced McCall's "Visit, but don't stay" remark. Anti-tourism materials promptly appeared statewide. One pamphlet of the period stated:

"Tom McCall, governor of the Great State of Oregon, cordially invites you to visit ... Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, Hawaii or Afghanistan"

Another stated:

"People in Oregon love to see out of staters. Send us some photos of yourself when you get a chance."

Meanwhile, in my neck of the woods, bumper stickers began to appear that read:

"We Shoot Every Other Car With California License Plates"

Commercials appeared on TV pushing Oregon made products, while trashing products made elsewhere.

Though a tremendous sense of statewide pride surged through Oregonians due to McCall's statement, as well as a major boom in Oregon made products, McCall's words actually backfired on him and actually incited a rush to Oregon that had not been seen since the days of the Overlanders.

In the end, Oregon's economy actually collapsed. Tom McCall was an easy scapegoat, in that people claimed that "Visit but don't stay", as well McCall's legislation had discouraged business interests in coming to Oregon. Meanwhile, the enviornmental movement had somehow outgrown McCall, regarding him as out of touch on current issues.

In 1978, and anxious to do more work for his ailing state, Tom McCall once again desired to be governor, but in refusing to run as an Independent, he was beaten in the Republican primary.

In 1982, Governor Vic Atiyeh sought to remove the last vestige of "Visit, but don't stay" in the form of a sign that sits at the Oregon border with California on I-5. The sign read "Welcome to Oregon. Enjoy your visit". Atiyeh wanted to blow the sign up with dynamite to get the press there and publicly announce that Oregon was open for business, regardless of the potential damage.

Despite the fact that he was dying of cancer, McCall crashed Atiyeh's press conference and had the last word, saying:

"There's been a lot of bad mouthing about 'visit but don't stay'. It served its purpose. We were saying 'visit but don't stay' because Oregon, queen bee though she is, is not yet ready for the swarm. I am simply saying that Oregon is demure and lovely, and it ought to play a little hard to get. And I think you'll all be just as sick as I am if you find it is nothing but a hungry hussy, throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that's offered."

Brent Walth, a reporter at the Eugene Register Guard, does an excellent job in writing "Fire At Eden's Gate". Through his work, you can get a real sense of the sort of man that McCall was. Unlike other writings about McCall (which portray him either as a saint, or a demon) Walth gives us a genuine look at the man himself, as well as how he came to be, where he succeeded and where he failed.

If you're interested in Oregon, in politics, historical figures or if you're just pissed off at the state of the country and would like a breath of fresh air, pick up a copy of "Fire At Eden's Gate".

Get "Fire At Eden's Gate" at Amazon.

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