“You could say that my administration produced a classic continuing example of bullet-biting. In fact, we’ve bitten the bullet so often, it’s a wonder we haven’t contracted lead poisoning.”
Tom McCall, the two-time governor of Oregon, offered that quip during a farewell speech in 1974. He then lamented the seemingly incessant presence of “reactors (to innovative government ideas) who are barren of imagination and courage in their own right, that knock down everything you try, with the languid flick of a finger.” In those lines, McCall outlined two characteristics that seem as hard to find as a Nintendo Wii during Christmas of 2012.
The first characteristic is the courage to think over a longtime horizon. Gov. McCall did not shy away from challenging the idea that the government could solve every problem. Time and again, he called for better coordination between government agencies, for more transparent government, and for more accountability in government. All of these suggestions — requiring the hard and time-intensive work of rigorously asking which aspects of the government have become too rusted to even turn — are not short-term political winners.
Few communities mobilize around the vague concept of “good governance.” That’s why upending ossified state bureaucracies requires a deep appreciation for the future well-being of Oregonians.
Yet, in recent decades, few champions of an honest and thorough reform of government have emerged. Few have been willing to bite the bullet.
McCall went a step further than just calling out the government for inefficiencies. He also broke what appears to be a modern rule — asking civil society and citizens in general to help solve public problems. In calling for an “age of volunteerism,” McCall celebrated more than 2,000 Oregonians volunteering to assist the Department of Human Services.
The people could have rejected Gov. McCall’s invitation to serve, but they instead welcomed the opportunity to do work that’s likely best suited for community members rather than bureaucrats unfamiliar with the community norms and values that exist around the state.
The second characteristic is a willingness to call out those who prefer to obstruct rather than experiment. One of the greatest threats to solving a problem is allowing too many parties to veto any proposal. In an age of special interests, that power has been extended to far too many groups and individuals these days.
As McCall pointed out, improvement and innovation require courage, but that courage is in short supply these days.
Too often, it seems we prefer to imagine worst-case scenarios rather than those that could unlock greater human flourishing across Oregon.
McCall was not a perfect governor, but he was a governor that leaned into these two characteristics, which Oregonians desperately need to see from our next leader. If we bite the bullet on things like heavily investing in early childhood education, workforce development, and public health, and if we channel the courage to again be a model of good governance, then we can all “feel certain that Oregon has a place in the destiny of the world leadership ... that this state is a lodestar for the wavering pace of the American society.”