Looking for (and not finding) the Oregon Way
The "Oregon Way" emerged in a bygone era. The return to a special way of doing things seems hard to imagine given the current political climate.
A journalist, education leader, and cattle rancher, Murdock is chair of the Umatilla County Board of commissioners. He is a graduate of WSU and holds a masters degree from Linfield College.
For the past 22 years I’ve been a resident of Pendleton and Roseburg but admittedly I haven’t always been a true Oregonian.
My ancestors, including my father and grandmother, settled in Dundee where the family has been since 1886, but I was born in Newport, Rhode Island during World War II and started school in Washington. I returned to Oregon in 1964 to attend Linfield College and worked for the McMinnville News-Register before going back to the Evergreen State.
I’m providing this little bit of family history because it contributes to my observations of a term called the “Oregon Way.” At one point, that term actually meant something useful and productive. Then, the “Oregon Way” was twisted into something vastly different. The current misuse and sorry state of this term is depressing because it should be our legacy as a state.
During my tenure at the News-Register in the mid-sixties, Tom McCall came to town and the publisher, Phil Bladine, asked me to take the then Secretary-of-State on a tour of Yamhill County in the newspaper’s aging Buick. The car, which was never reliable, broke down on a remote country road about eight miles northwest of town.
Today, we would just take out a cell phone and call for help. In those days, there were no cell phones so the only answer was hoofing it back to town.
At the time, McCall had his eye on Mahonia Hall and it was exciting to be in his presence. I was no Pulitzer Prize winning reporter but during the course of an 8-mile hike you can ask a lot of questions and get to know someone pretty well.
I became an instant fan of the future governor and to this date, in my mind, he remains one of the most effective political figures in Oregon history and one of several such legends mentioned whenever the real Oregon Way comes up for discussion.
For the most part, the Oregon Way, as exemplified by such figures as McCall and Mark Hatfield, had as much to do with a sense of pride, trust, and unity that permeated every corner of our state, as it did with a way of making thoughtful, informed decisions that reflected the best interests of Jordan Valley, Enterprise, Medford, Redmond, Eugene, and Portland.
People may not have always agreed, but they were confident those in charge cared about how they felt.
Fast forward fifty-five years and in reality, the Oregon Way is mostly an illusion.
It would be hard to find a time in history when the state was more polarized. Today, when people across the country hear about Oregon, it is rarely in terms that would suggest we have a special way of doing things that is worthy of emulation.
The fact that seven of our 36 counties have voted to secede from the state and flee to Idaho is a telling message. While the concept of secession is, in reality, more of a state of mind than a political reality, it is nonetheless how today’s Rural Oregon residents feel about the Oregon Way and Oregon. What’s more, while seven have voted, a good many more have talked about it and speak openly and regularly about subjects like disenfranchisement and marginalization.
The term, the Oregon Way, sounds good but that grand concept most likely comes up midway through a robust happy hour or through political convenience.
Today the Oregon Way looks more like exacting agreement from Rural Oregonians regarding the progressive ideas of those living in the city because their country cousins need guidance. It is, for the most part, sans any real consideration or recognition of divergent thoughts or impact.
While it is reasonably safe to assume Metro politicians look down kindly upon an idyllic life in the country, an equation built upon almost absolute power and control has a tendency to blur one’s vision regarding the fact there might be another way. Oregon Democrats, with their super-majorities and a lock on the statehouse, govern a state that is not a breeding ground for contemplating or perpetuating any ideas that could lead to compromise or divergent thoughts and ideas.
Fortunately, there are still a few legislators who understand they are the state’s governing body and therefore have an obligation to view issues beyond the boundaries of their local district and what will get them re-elected. But they could most likely meet in a phone booth.
One of the most eloquent speakers on the subject and probably true proponents of the process is Senator Ron Wyden who well understands the value of overcoming political barriers and inclusion. He has earned the respect of his colleagues for reaching across the aisle for good ideas. But even the best of champions can be beguiled by the trappings of power and authority.
For my own part, I still long for a return of the Oregon Way, but such concepts always look more appealing to those on the outside looking in.