Eulogy of Tom McCall

By Win McCormack
(Oregon Magazine)
March 1983

There are leaders who are remembered—and missed—more for the sense of greatness they inspired in their followers and constituents than for the greatness of their own actual executive or legislative accomplishments. Winston Churchill was probably not a military genius, but his ability to inspire the English to wartime fortitude and unity has made him a historical figure of towering stature. John Kennedy, during his too-brief tenure as President, saw very few of his legislative programs enacted into law—and saw some of his foreign policy maneuvers go drastically awry—but Americans now recall his time in office as the last in recent memory when a President of the United States was able to give his nation a sense of moral purpose and direction.

Tom McCall, governor of Oregon from 1967 to 1975, was, on a lesser scale, a leader in this mode, one whose impact lay more in the realm of psychological and moral inspiration than in the realm of pragmatic accomplishment. Not that his concrete achievements as governor were paltry or insignificant. Oregonians owe to him, among other things, such major innovations in the area of environmental legislation as the Willamette Greenway and the coastal preservation act. He assembled an excellent staff, bringing into government men of the caliber of Bob Davis, Ron Schmidt and Ed Westerdahl, and gave the state of Oregon one of its best-run administrations in this century.

But Tom McCall will be remembered much more, and much longer, for the sense of pride and moral purpose that he instilled in the people of Oregon. Oregonians have always been proud of their state, to the point, let us be frank, of considering themselves special. Before Tom McCall, however, they considered themselves special more because of where they lived than because of who they were or what they stood for. McCall worked a transformation in the Oregon psyche, convincing the citizens of this state that they had an almost ethical duty to preserve their natural heritage against the potential ravages of modern technology and that their greatness as a people lay in doing so. He created an image, or myth, for Oregonians to live up to, and they lived up to it with the stubbornness typical of the Oregonian personality. McCall's support was not confined to one segment of the Oregon political spectrum, but ranged all the way from the conservative Republican establishment that sponsored his early political career, and whose basic ideals he never abandoned, to the committed environmentalists who, by the end of that career, had come to revere him. The eloquent eulogy delivered to his memory by Vic Atiyeh, the state's most conservative governor in a long while, shows clearly how broadly and deeply Tom McCall's inspiration runs in Oregon.

How did Tom McCall work his political magic? First, from his childhood along the Crooked River in Eastern Oregon, to his days as a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, to his long and dynamic career as a journalist in Portland, he knew his state and its people thoroughly and from that knowledge was able to fashion a political vision, at once conservative and progressive, uniquely suited to them. Second, he brought to his Oregon political career, from his family's background in Massachusetts, some of the vigor and the passion for excellence that is part the New England heritage. Third, and very importantly, he hadagain like Churchill and Kennedya striking command of the English language, of its rhythms, syntax and diction, and the facility to stir people with either a witty thought or an eloquent phrase, a facility not common among our political leaders these days.

Tom McCall is dead, and the political agenda of the state has altered radically since he was in office. The pressing problem now is to modernize and diversify an outmoded economy. But the basic challenge that Tom McCall posed his native statethe challenge of moving forward into the future without letting go of the virtues of the pastremains, lingering in the air from the Crooked River to Portland to Eugene. How well will Oregonians meet this challenge in the years ahead?

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