I was a political reporter for the Consortium for Public Radio from 1995 to 2003, which means I covered most of John Kitzhaber’s first two terms in office. I remember him as a smart, articulate and passionate leader—always with his eyes focused at least 30 paces in front of him, as if Kitzhaber, an ardent fisherman, were looking for a good hole to cast his fly. Meaning: he was a forward thinker: The Oregon Health Plan, the Sustainability Workforce, the Energy Plan, his focus on higher education and kids reading and early childhood development…
There is a long list of things Kitzhaber tried to tackle. Some were successful, many were not, but at least there was the effort—the call to arms, someone who supported workers and the poor and kids, even when partisans in the legislature appeared not to.
|John Kitzhaber singing Margarittaville at his 1999 inauguration|
I remember him coming to my office one day, this was when my son was about 13 months old and half my office was then a play room. He walked in, sat on the floor and played cars with Elijah, pushing them along the carpet. Making noises. That’s a memory that will stick. So will him guiding an elderly lady out of the capitol after it had to be evacuated due to a post-9/11 anthrax threat. I remember him near tears when talking about how hard it was to allow for the execution of two prisoners, and I remember him during the endless “special sessions” that had to be called when the economy crashed. I also remember him telling me he was going to crack open the Wild Turkey when the legislature finally came out with a budget he didn’t feel compelled to veto.
But of all the memories I have, the one that has been coming up in my mind as I watch the unfortunate unraveling of Kitzhaber’s reign is related to the song Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet. I have seen the governor preform this twice. Once at a private party of reporters, and the second at his 1999 inauguration party. True to Kitzhaber’s form, staff, friends and family were invited to a “hoedown,” versus a formal affair. It was held in an old K-Mart and people came dressed for a square dance: all cowboy hats and petticoats. Halfway through the party, Kitzhaber took to the stage with the band, borrowed a guitar, and off he went singing about being, “wasted away in Margaritaville,” and “looking for his last shaker of salt.”
But of course it’s not those particular words that stick in my mind now, but the ones at the very end.
“Some people say there’s a woman to blame, but I know, it’s my own damn fault.”
If there’s one fault I can find about Kitzhaber is that his iconoclast personality gave him a swagger and a false of sense of invincibility. He broke rules of dress, of social conformity, he never backed down from saying what he thought, never glad-handed. These are characteristics that draw people in. But in the end, they were not characteristics that could save him from himself.
I have no inside insight into what happened these past months with Kitzhaber and his fiancé, and how their actions led to his resignation, but I do think the Governor’s departure will find him focusing a little closer in, and maybe searching for a new song.
-Naseem Rakha February 18, 2015