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AuCoin publishes political memoir

Former nine-term Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin’s just-published autobiography, “Catch and Release,” gives a candid peek behind the scenes at peak crises and heroic changes in the state’s public life from 1970 to 1993.

AuCoin, now 77 and living in Portland, taught political science and business ethics at Southern Oregon University after losing a knife-fight of a campaign to then-U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood in 1992, when newspapers decided not to publish reports of Packwood’s long history of sexual harassment, abuse and assault of women.

The book bursts out of the chute with a gritty tale of AuCoin’s father, a compulsive gambler, blowing the family savings and deserting the family, leaving mom to raise two boys in Madras, on the earnings of a waitress. It was a soul-crushing experience that took him a long time to get over.

A stint in the Army, winning the girl of his dreams (still his wife, Sue) and youthful success editing a small newspaper in Redmond helped put him back together, he writes.

As public information director at Pacific University, he and Sue became main organizers of the 1968 Oregon presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy as a way “to avenge the war crimes of LBJ.”

What bent AuCoin to a life in politics? While in the Army, he saw a white Nashville mob attack blacks, was stunned by the JFK and RFK assassinations, then crestfallen when — despite huge popular opposition to the Vietnam War — antiwar candidates lost. The following year, he used his Democratic volunteer network to land a seat in the Oregon House. In 1974, he was part of the “Watergate class” after the fall of Nixon.

The book is extraordinarily transparent, something not normally expected from political memoirs, with AuCoin confessing his fears, failures and hard lessons along with triumphs, as he tried to hew to “my principles of racial justice, environmental protection and opposition to the arms race.”

AuCoin entered Oregon politics in a time of partisan harmony, when people from the other party would mentor you on the risks of a dicey vote, instead of trying to destroy you. Republicans in 1973 tried to wave him off a bill to ban discrimination against gays in housing and employment, noting it was essentially political suicide.

“In the early ’70s, to propose a gay rights law was about as likely as the Columbia River running dry,” he writes. “It was well before the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses seven years before the Democratic Party adopted a platform calling for protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

The House Republican leader approached AuCoin, saying, “Les, you don’t want to do this.”

“Do what?” said AuCoin.

“This queer thing. It’s toxic. As a Republican, I shouldn’t help you, but you bring this to the floor, it could taint you forever.”

Among witnesses he called in was “the first known occurrence of a parent speaking publicly in support of a gay child, (which) surprised my committee with its moral force. They spoke of loving families, familial bonds, their children’s good deeds and scholastic leadership The witnesses constructed a mosaic of pain and principle impossible to ignore.”

When the committee vote fell one vote short, Rep. Sid Bazett, R-Grants Pass, the most conservative member of the House, asked if AuCoin needed his vote. “Yes, Sid, I do.”

Then change my vote to aye,” said Bazett.

AuCoin writes, “I could have hugged the old man. We respected each other. Bigness had bested bigotry.”

On a floor vote, the bill failed on a tie. It was a bitter lesson, he says, but AuCoin notes he became a frequent speaker for the Human Rights Fund, the nation’s major gay rights organization — and 34 years later, the Oregon Legislature finally legalized what the old bill tried to do.

The book is full of such tales of emotionally charged or partisan tangles where AuCoin has his characteristic “aha moment” and says let’s get all sides together, talking back-and-forth to each other, instead of cultivating resentments behind each other’s backs — and, lo, compromise happened.

At one fundraiser, he was seated by a clueless gent who said, “Why is it when you guys run for office, you make sense, but as soon as you get to Washington, you start compromising? That’s just it, noted AuCoin, you listen to each other’s pains and desires and soon you’re helping each other get there, just like the Founders when they created two houses, one based on states and the other based on population.

Sometimes, it’s vital that it doesn’t happen, as with President Reagan’s attempts to build the SDI “Star Wars” missile defense. AuCoin and Sen. Mark Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, had built a close working relationship across party lines and, in committee, tried to spell it out to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger: If we can shoot down Soviet missiles, then we can incinerate Russia at will, without fear of them “making our rubble bounce.”

“But it’s just a defense,” argues Weinberger. Yes, but, the Oregonians countered, if we start on it, they will be defenseless and will have to nuke us asap. The plan helped spawn the Beyond War movement, which was powerful in stopping SDI and, notes AuCoin, is much needed now.

AuCoin’s close 1992 race against Packwood marked the end of AuCoin’s political career — and when Packwood later resigned, AuCoin declined pleas to run again. Why?

Instead of representing constituents, a Congress member had to “dial for dollars” 30 hours a week and raise $3,000 a day to get over a million dollars needed to hold a seat or get party support — and that amount was 10 times what it took when he started.

Now a Southern Oregon University trustee, AuCoin tells of trying to lobby a congressman for a university need. He was given an appointment, but at the last minute, in the capitol, he was told the congressman was holding a $500-a-plate event and AuCoin could come to that and, of course, pull out his checkbook. AuCoin told him, “That’s the first time I’ve been extorted” in person.

Another big problem was the press. It had become intolerable for its “inability to report facts hidden in plain sight and general failure to sort fact from sensation,” with the crowning blow being the Washington Post and The Oregonian sitting on the story of Packwood’s sexual offenses until after the election.

It was “white hot magma the story that couldn’t be told, waiting just below the surface.”

The Oregonian published a page one apology, noting it had “failed to pursue the story aggressively enough and to devote the time and resources needed to delve into the rumors that had swirled around Packwood for years.” One of Packwood’s victims was even on the newpaper’s staff.

Here we see AuCoin watch TV news. They’re in a helicopter. An armed man is in a warehouse in a standoff with police. It goes on for 45 minutes. Now it’s over. Nothing happened. That wasted time could have been useful, he says, if the journalist had dug into the story of what’s happening to salmon, but news is being run by the business office, which demands ever-increasing viewers.

By the time he left office, AuCoin bemoans it had become a “permanent partisan campaign that voters abhor” — and soon an SOU teaching post beckoned and, eventually, the honor of being named best professor.

“I decided I had but one life to give for my country, and I had given it. I cannot think of another state where someone like me could have made it to the top of national life. On the river (fly fishing), I’m in my cathedral. I am at peace with myself and the deep family love I spent a lifetime seeking.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Former nine-term Oregon Congressman Les AuCoin’s just-published autobiography, “Catch and Release,” gives a candid peek behind the scenes at peak crises and heroic changes in the state’s public life from 1970 to 1993.