Down the Ballot

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tom McCall for President? What a Tease!

Few Oregonians have been able to capture the nations attention like Governor Thomas Lawson McCall. For three decades he dominated the scene here in Oregon; towards the latter end of his provocative and curious career, when he was looking for a next step to capitalize on his popularity, his staunchest supporters had plans to help keep their hero in the spotlight. They would make him Vice President of the United States.
McCall with Vice President Spiro Agnew.

You may recall that during the mid-70s the United States was going through some pains. President Richard Nixon was engulfed in the largest scandal of the modern day presidency: Watergate. It was in these waning hours of the Nixon Administration that McCall loyalist Phil Freeman of Eugene and his associates began an 11th hour campaign to get McCall elected Vice President. The 17 member committee was called "Citizens for McCall for Vice President". The group composed a letter to House Speaker Carl Albert in Washington D.C. I'm still trying to track down a copy of the letter, but all we have right now are these snips found in the Eugene Register Guard.

The letter asked Speaker Albert to put a hold on the confirmation of Gerald Ford. They believed that a President who was on the verge of being impeached should not be allowed to select his replacement. Freeman and his group suggested that there be an special election in the coming weeks for Vice President, guaranteeing that the people would have the final say in who was to replace President Nixon. "I have nothing against Gerald Ford", Freeman states, "I think McCall would beat Ford in a national election."

Sadly, this committee didn't get far in it's work as later that week the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Ford on a vote of 92-3 and then in the House 387-35. Still hope remained that the popular McCall might answer his supporters call to higher office by running for President in the 1976 election.

McCall for President? 

 Henry Willis of the Eugene Register Guard reported on a possible McCall for President campaign in late December 1973. While attending a National Governors meeting in Washington we get the first ideas of what Tom McCall may have been thinking about in terms of a Presidential campaign. The question about running a campaign came from the NBC Today Show. He said there was a "tremendous response" to mounting a independent, third party campaign for the White House. In typical McCall tounge and cheek he says, "We've already recieved $15 dollars in contributions. We got $10 from Scotland, and $5 from Sacramento. It's been a great response."

McCall was reading Americans and Oregonians he had encountered through his travels and was discovering people were fed up with the Watergate era hijinks of those in power. He couldn't resist giving Oregon as an example for how government could function positively as a force for good. "The Oregon story is a hopeful force. I think it shows that the system can work and that people respond if there is leadership with imagination and guts." McCall was giving it serious thought that if a third party presidential campaign was the best way to share the the Oregon story then that's what he may end up doing.

It is also important to note that McCall felt the messenger should not get in the way of the message. If there was a better candidate out there to carry his Oregon story then he wouldn't mind backing that candidate. He told Today that he would be thrilled to be Nelson Rockefeller's running mate.

A few months would pass and in Feburary of 1974, McCall was interviewed by Russell Sackett of Newsday. Sackett prods for answers about what a possible McCall for President campaign would look like. McCall answers bluntly, "there's no point being coy about it. Yes, I'd like to be President. Hell, yes." I'm sure this type of talk made his old colleagues in the Republican Party very weary. He hadn't really been the kind of Republican they thought he was going to be. McCall's conservatism was really more like conservationism. He was a Rockefeller Republican in an age when these Republicans were on their way out of the mainstream of the party. Prior to this interview he had declined an invitation from the Republican Governors Association to be head their campaign committee for 1974. He wanted to campaign for candidates he liked, not the ones the party told him to support.

One of the other interesting aspects of a possible McCall candidacy was his Californian counterpart Governor Ronald Reagan, who was a rising star and set to seek the nomination in 1976. McCall and Reagan both served as governors of west coast states at the exact same time. Sackett does a nice little summary of the two different styles both men would bring to a campaign,

Analysts will have spectacular opportunities to contrast philosophies and lifestyles of the two governors, whose personal relationship is described as being correct, but not warm. Reagan, the orthodox, travels like a star behind an advance man and a quartet of security men. McCall goes pretty much alone, frequently flying tourist class. Around the state these days he travels with his 6 foot 5 inch frame jackknifed into an Audi compact.
McCall again talks about his 'third force', as something more than just the typical splinter group from a party like the Progressive and Bull Mooser's  at the dawn of the 20th century. Candidates, he thought were "only as important as their sensitivity in recognizing what the issues are and in finding alternatives." He believed this third force could attract "some 50 million independents and disgruntled Republicans and Democrats who are looking for the positive and hopeful in a country that deserves spirited leadership."

It would seem very clear to you dear reader that no McCall for President ever materialized. The cancer that taken him by surprise had been addressed, but it was not the final battle he would have related to this first encounter with it. McCall would turn the later years of his life away from national politics and focus on helping grow the Oregon system of problem solving by helping other states adopt similar legislation to Oregon's bottle bill, tackling comprehensive land use measures and urban planning.
A little bit of fantasy.

How would McCall have handled a debate on national television between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter?  Would Oregonians have rallied behind their governor on election day? Would his third force have outlasted the man and reshaped American politics? Would we be better off today had he taken the leap into the presidential campaign?

It is still interesting to dream about a McCall for President campaign. I think, it was that dream of ensuring quality leadership and innovative policy solutions that led him to run again for governor in 1978. Dreams are worth it sometimes. McCall had a very simple and hopeful attitude about life,

You just put on your boots and you ride. You go like hell, and then you look up and see where you are. I've never in my life said I didn't want to be governor, or vice president or president. But neither have I ever walked over my grandmother, or even been tempted to. I'm only going as far as I can.
One of the things that McCall was able to see was the shrinking of political parties after the fallout of Watergate and Vietnam. This is not to say that political parties do not play important roles in American politics, but more and more of their resources are being devoted to winning critical independent voters or unaffiliated voters. I think McCall would be more surprised at the fact that the swelling ranks of independents and non-affiliated voters seem to still share many policy stances with the traditional parties instead of seeking out the new or alternative solutions to our old problems.
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