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Worth a listen

Oregon Editors Say

John Kitzhaber's remarks should make Oregonians stop and think

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

John Kitzhaber never was much for the public life, even when he was in public life as a two-term Democratic governor of Oregon.

There's an old joke, variously told, about a child who grows up without ever saying a word. Years later as an adult, while eating at an exceptionally bad restaurant with his wife, he glances up from his plate and says, This food stinks. You've never spoken all these years, his astonished wife replies. Why didn't you say something before now? His reply: Never had anything to say before.

When Kitzhaber emerges from his cherished cocoon of privacy to speak out as a private citizen, it behooves Oregonians to listen. The man has something to say.

Last week, Kitzhaber accepted an award from the newly formed New Progressive Network in Portland. He used the occasion to speak his mind about what's wrong with Oregon's ' and this country's ' political system.

— Kitzhaber said people have come to view government as an entity separate and, in many ways, irrelevant, to themselves. As a result, he said, money and special interests have moved in to fill the vacuum.

The evidence of this problem is all around us, he said. It's shortened school years. It's rising tuition that is putting a college education beyond the realm of many high school graduates. It's a crumbling physical infrastructure. It's unprecedented hunger. It's a growing population of at-risk children. It's a social safety net, including the Oregon Health Plan, that is near collapse.

Speaking with the clarity that comes only from fresh firsthand experience, Kitzhaber attributed this dilemma to a skewed and cynical political system that puts winning elections and holding on to public office above addressing the issues that are near and dear to the electorate and that motivate people to seek office in the first place.

He also cited a system of governance that relies on laws and regulations to manage conflicts between competing interests, rather than bringing people together to solve problems.

Kitzhaber also had a poignant exhortation to the young adult membership of the New Progressive Network, an outgrowth of last year's Oregon Bus Project, which campaigned for legislative and congressional candidates. The former governor, who was first elected to the Oregon House a quarter century ago at age 31, recalled how he had been inspired as a college student by the examples of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and by the movement to oppose the Vietnam war.

Today there is a greater need for this kind of civic activism than perhaps at any time in the past 40 years, he said. Believe you can change the world, because you can. When I first ran for public office in Roseburg in 1978, I was young, naive and idealistic. As you can see, I am no longer young, I certainly am not naive - but I tell you I am still idealistic.

When private citizen John Kitzhaber speaks, citizens of Oregon, young and old, would do well to pay attention and reflect on what government would be like if idealistic people no longer felt called to public service.