By Penny Harrison

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“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” — Abraham Lincoln

With partisan spinning all around us, perhaps it’s time to look for a way out of the vortex. A reasonable start may be to clear away distractions and seek leadership that can guide us safely home.

Some years ago a friend told of one such leader. “Before he started speaking out, the people weren’t sure who they were,” she said. “But he told them, and they liked what they heard and responded ‘Yes, that’s who we want to be.’”

That leader’s name was Tom McCall, and from 1967-75 he was the governor of Oregon. During his tenure and largely due to his colorful language, idealistic fervor and political skill, the state gained its reputation for accomplishments in land use planning, public access to ocean beaches and cleaning up and protecting the environment.

Before his election as governor, McCall had gained a reputation as a fearless journalist and commentator. When he wanted people to understand the truth, he showed it to them.

As a journalist, he produced a documentary that revealed the disastrous condition of the air and water quality in the state. The public took up his message, and the Oregon Legislature responded. McCall’s attitude toward those who would foul air and water and endanger human health and the people’s natural resources remained constant throughout his life, as did his belief that a clean, healthy environment and a vibrant economy go hand in hand.

As governor, he continued to reveal the results of choices that were theirs to make. Oregon has a beautiful seascape, and its beaches remain open to the public, but in 1967 when a bill was introduced in the Legislature to include the dry sands in that public access, much of the Legislature at first opposed it. Then McCall landed on the beach in a helicopter followed by a second helicopter filled with reporters and photographers who showed the people what they stood to lose. Word spread rapidly. Legislators heard from their constituents. McCall happily signed the bill.

Quality of life for all was his theme. He laid it out in 1973 when he addressed the Oregon Legislature:

“Quality of life is the sum total of the fairness of our tax structure, the caliber of our homes, the cleanliness of our air and water and the provision of affirmative assistance to those who cannot assist themselves.”

In an interview with author Studs Terkel, he reminded us of our responsibility, urging each of us to do our part:

“I am just … wondering, where is the glow of yesteryear? I am wondering where the heroes went. Gosh, I don’t know how long ago they left. Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. They are people who say: ‘This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.’ Interweave all these communities, and you really have an America that is back on its feet, a comfortable nation to live in again.”

Even at the end of his life, McCall kept fighting for truth, for responsibility, for doing what needs to be done, for a better life for all. In that spirit, he continued to urge each and all of us onward.

From his farewell address to the Oregon Legislature in 1975:

“May your quest go well. May we continue to find accord and high purpose. May we forever prove (by our action) that people can join together for mutual benefit and greater good. May we continue to work together. May we face and endure every winter with spring … forever on our mind.”

Those words and the sentiment they reflect remain a good place to start.

— Penny Harrison is the executive editor of Open Spaces Publications Inc. in Portland.