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Other Views: Vic Atiyeh, truth-teller

A few years before his death this week, Vic Atiyeh reflected upon his success in making painful budget cuts and tax hikes in helping Oregon withstand the ravages of early-1980's recession, the darkest economic time in Oregon since the Great Depression. The former governor told The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes that it had helped him to ignore political consequence. Specifically, it was useful, in the face of nasty but necessary choices, to avoid thinking at all about career preservation. Even though he would be re-elected in 1982, he said his attitude needed to be: "I'm not going to run next time."

The lifelong Republican made it tougher to get welfare at a time when Oregonians needed it the most. He persuaded Democratic legislative leaders to raise an income tax surcharge and boost taxes on cigarettes while cutting back on business tax deductions. In a hurry, he got the job done, pulling Oregon out of a free fall and seeding what would become a more stable economy that looked beyond timber and to foreign shores for investment — a feat that earned him the nickname "Trader Vic."

Politically, however, Atiyeh did it not by being clever or leveraged so much as being brave. He set an example. He was in that sense a leader: above political party, though he loved being Republican, and above personal interest, though his rug business found the tending it needed to flourish. With the threat of political backlash muted, Atiyeh was free to lead: to do the right thing on behalf of all Oregonians while withstanding political challenges within the statehouse. And it may, in truth, have been more possible in a more trusting Oregon of 30 years ago. Vic Atiyeh might simply have been the right man at the right time.

In that sense it would be myopic and nostalgic to wish for another of him. Vic Atiyeh would not be able to deliver Congress from its current dysfunction or rid local politics of corrosive polarization, some of it fed by social media and the cynical view that public office is about greed and self-interest. But it is difficult to imagine a failure on the scale of the Columbia River Crossing in Vic Atiyeh's time. It is as inspiring to remember Atiyeh's frequent admonishment to his staff, as reported by Mapes: "It's amazing how much you can get done if you don't care who takes credit for it." (Atiyeh never did take enough credit for calling the White House to help dissuade President Ronald Reagan from vetoing federal protections for the Columbia Gorge.)

Vic Atiyeh's most enduring gift to Oregon may not be in his economic rescue plan or his commitment to land management at all but instead the example he set: of a truth-telling leader whose goals were realized and achievements are lasting because he put his own skin in the game and never asked anything back for it. Though he did "run again," he coached himself along the way to take decisive action as if he had no intention of doing so.

Atiyeh stepped up as an adviser on public issues following his governorship. More tellingly, though, he persisted in the little unseen acts of selflessness that helped define him as a man. In 2005 at age 82 and on his way to the hospital for heart treatment, he stopped to fill his wife's car with fuel. Why? "Well," he would recall thinking, "Dolores is going to need the car."

We all need a Vic Atiyeh from time to time. Oregon was lucky enough to have him for a full, consequential run.