The Real McCall

Most likely you haven't heard much about Tom McCall lately. Since leaving office as Oregon's governor in 1974 he hasn't

Most likely you haven't heard much about Tom McCall lately. Since leaving office as Oregon's governor in 1974 he hasn't been drawing the national attention he did back then, when some were betting on him for a national candidacy in 1976. But there's no doubt he's been speaking with undiminished irreverence in the intervening years.

It may have been McCall's own wry tongue that knocked him out of the running. Back in 1974, the Republican was in line to chair the upcoming National Governor's Conference. (Jimmy Carter used his spot as chairman of the Democratic Governor's conference in that year as a launching pad for his own campaign. But after McCall labelled an address by Spiro Agnew as "One rotten, bigoted little speech," his prospects for heading the conference grew dim. The Republicans blacked him out completely after he endorsed the Democratic candidate to succeed him as governor, a post which he could no longer hold under Oregon law, having completed his second term in office.

McCall as governor was a Jerry Brown figure: unpredictable, iconoclastic, controversial. Take the time a convention of American Legion stalwarts was coming to Portland, led by John Mitchell, and a group of counter culture organizers had called a People's Army Jamboree in reaction, inviting several thousand anti-legionaires to attend. A confrontation between the two groups seemed inevitable, so, in gubernatorial character, McCall called out the national guard and ordered a helicopter to be sent to the city for possible crowd dispersal. But unlike your average chief exec, McCall specified that the troops were not to carry guns and that the helicopter should not be stocked with the usual tear gas, but instead rose petals, since Portland is nicknamed the City of Roses. By these and other techniques, the governor kept both sides off balance, and prevented any incidents.

McCall probably first earned his national reputation as an environmentalist, not a prankster. During his eight years in office, moderate Oregon banned throwaway bottles and flip-top cans, liberalized its abortion and contraception laws, and began a policy prohibiting development of the state's 300-mile coastline. McCall--and many other Oregonians--wanted to save the state from the anarchistic growth that California and other states had experienced in the preceeding years. The state tightened up environmental regulations--so much that some heavily-polluting factories had to be closed--and discouraged all but clean industries from settling there.

The real gem McCall's staff dreamed up, though, was a program of sending"negative greeting cards" to tourists, prospective immigrants, and anyone who contemplated moving to, or even visiting Oregon. However, the cards were only half serious--most of them emphasized the heavy rains Oregonians experience each year--and they probably backfired by actually drawing attention to the state's pristine beauty.

Before he entered politics, McCall worked as a journalist and a televison commentator in Portland, and this background may have resulted in another of his idiosyncrasies: open press relations. Long before politicians began crooning about "government under glass" and "sunshine" laws, McCall was churning out ways to let the people in on the decision-making process. He opened his staff meetings to the press for instance. (At one such public session, the governor spent half an hour deciding whether to remove one welfare recipient's telephone. He eventually solved the dilemma by taking up a collection in the room to pay the bill.)

In McCall's administration, everything was open to the press. He got a law through the legislature that permitted press presence at any gathering at which a decision could theoretically be reached--a cocktail party, for example, or a reception where a majority of the legislature was present. Some state officials invited reporters to listen in on their phone conversations, and a few even made tapes of the calls if no reporters could be present.

Before leaving office three years ago, McCall talked of forming a "Third Force" in American Politics--outside of, yet competing against, the two party system. Whether the idea has amounted to anything, or whether it merely represented the vague ramblings of a frustrated Ralph Nade is unclear. But McCall will be speaking in Piper Auditorium on April 18 at 8 p.m., and he may throw some light on where he and his hoped-for movement are going.

Even if "Land Use Planning: A View from the West," McCall's topic, doesn't send you into paroxisms of intellectual delight, simply listening to McCall talk should be a pleasure. His speaking style is light, slangy, and occasionally outrageous. When governor he hired an avant-garde poet as a speechwriting assistant, and he once read a tract from the libretto of "Hair" to a staid group of Masons. Who know's what he'll say to a group of college students?