The human being beneath the veneer of an eminent politician is seldom very interesting.
In recent Oregon political history, U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield was the notable exception. Hatfield was a great conversationalist on many topics. Few knew as much as Hatfield about Oregon history. He was a Lincoln scholar and a book collector. He was also that rare person who could discuss Christianity beyond skin-deep cliches.
Les AuCoin is similarly an interesting guy, with more to say than political gossip. AuCoin’s new memoir, “Catch and Release” (Oregon State University Press), is evidence of his writing talent as well as his powers of observation.
While Hatfield wrote about himself (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” 1976), I don’t believe another Oregon senator or congressman has given us a memoir. Oregon’s most talented and prolific writer-politician was U.S. Sen. Richard L. Neuberger. Dying suddenly at 47, Neuberger did not leave us an autobiography. Along the way, however, he narrated his life with self-revelatory articles such as “I Run For Office” (Harper’s 1947); “I Go to the Legislature” (Survey Graphic, 1941); and “When I Learned I Had Cancer” (Harper’s, 1959).
Neuberger is relevant to AuCoin’s electoral victories. As the first Oregon Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in 40 years, Neuberger broke ground for the modern Oregon Democratic party. AuCoin became the first Democrat elected to Congress in Oregon’s 1st Congressional District. His Republican predecessors included two Astorians: Walter Norblad and Wendell Wyatt.
Catch and Release is a combination of personal and political memoir. It is about more than AuCoin’s ascendance in the U.S. House of Representatives. There is a healthy dose of his family history, including his very humble beginnings. It is also about AuCoin’s emergence in Oregon Democratic politics — in a decade that also produced Earl Blumenauer, Vera Katz and Neil Goldschmidt.
The 1980s and the era of Ronald Reagan are distant history in the age of Donald Trump. That’s when I got to know AuCoin. As a correspondent for Pacific Northwest newspapers, as well as publisher of NorthwestLetter, I covered AuCoin, so I’ve found this literary trip down memory lane fascinating. It reminded me that AuCoin was a consequential member of Congress. He tells us how he blocked oil exploration off the Pacific Coast, which Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt had launched.
The book lacks a summing up — as Somerset Maugham titled the memoir of his literary life. But AuCoin does offer confessionals that are sprinkled through the book. For instance: “Groveling on the phone felt so odious, I wanted to take a shower. When I left the Congress, begging for money was one big reason I never ran again.” In that sentence, AuCoin dispels the illusion that being a member of Congress is a glamorous life.
All politicians nurture a myth about themselves. Covering Hatfield, it seemed to me the senator sometimes imitated Cary Grant portraying a rich banker. Watching Hatfield at the 1968 Republican convention, the NBC analyst David Brinkley said Hatfield reminded him of “the man in the glossy magazine advertisement who sits at the bar and orders a $10 glass of brandy.” Hatfield was meanwhile aware of his mortality, and that’s what made him an interesting character.
In this self-revelatory work, AuCoin exudes a sense of purpose that startles us, because we live in an era defined by cynicism, indecent values and greed.