Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book review: Fire at Eden's Gate

My book club selection for this go-round, suggested by the estimable Mr. Johnson, was Fire at Eden's Gate, written by veteran Oregon journalist Brent Walth.  It is a biography of Oregon's most revered governor, Tom McCall, who served from 1967 through 1975.

The book had a lot of personal significance for me.  My maternal grandparents, Bob and Gertrude Metzger were "Tom McCall Republicans."  They spoke his name with reverence and respect.  And I'm old enough to remember when Tom McCall was the governor of our Great State of Oregon.  He led the charge against polluting industries that had poisoned our rivers.  He established the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) which preserved Oregon's beauty against the threat of suburban sprawl. 

But Walth's book gave me a much deeper perspective into Tom McCall, the man.  McCall came from a New England patrician family; he was a hard-drinking, salty-talking ambitious politician who was surprisingly vulnerable to public sentiment.  He was an anguished father.  He was an angst-ridden son. 

Besides McCall, the book provides perspective into some of Oregon's most renowned sons:  Governor-then-Senator Mark Hatfield, Governor Bob Straub, Governor Vic Atiyeh, Senator Bob Packwood and others are all present in the story. Further, the book made me aware of some previously-unknown names that are important to Oregon's history:  Glenn Jackson, the kingmaker; Richard Chambers, the quixotic eccentric who single-handedly brought about Oregon's revolutionary Oregon Bottle Bill.

Walth does a fine job of identifying the crucial moments in McCall's career and giving them appropriate focus.  He, Walth, delves into each event meticulously and thoroughly.  So, for example, he dedicates a chapter to Vortex, the hippie music festival that Governor McCall authorized as a means of drawing potential war protesters away from Portland, where President Nixon was to visit.  Another chapter deals with McCall's (in)famous "Visit, But Don't Stay" campaign.

In reading the book, I became aware of how different is our monde politique today.  The Republican party of 2011 would have no place for a man like Tom McCall. McCall was an independent thinker, willing to buck party leadership in the interests of his state.  Further, in those days, personal troubles (like McCall's excessive drinking, or his son's drug problem) didn't get blasted over the airwaves and in the papers.  Politicians were not as vicious with each other.

Walth is a disciplined writer.  He keeps himself on a pretty tight leash.  At times, I found the writing to be a bit dry.  But his careful research and clear perspective make this book a quality read for anyone interested in Oregon's recent history.

And as for Governor McCall...

Tom McCall rescued this state, my one and only home, my Oregon, from rapacious industry and greedy land developers.  In my mind, he will always be Oregon's environmental savior.  My gratitude to him is boundless.

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