jeremy's Reviews > Fire at Eden's Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story

Fire at Eden's Gate by Brent Walth
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May 24, 10

bookshelves: oregon-pnw
Read in May, 2010

during his two term tenure as oregon's governor (republican, 1967-1975), tom mccall came to be one of the most well-known and beloved figures not only in state history, but also in american politics. written by pulitzer prize winning journalist brent walth, fire at eden's gate chronicles mccall's personal life and political career. much like its subject, this engaging biography is characterized by its abundance of both verve and aplomb.

born into wealth and privilege (the grandson of copper magnate thomas lawson and massachusetts governor samuel w mccall), the tale of tom mccall's ascendancy to elected official is a fascinating one. armed with a journalism degree from the university of oregon, mccall went on to do considerable work in radio and television (increasing his public profile all the while) before first running for office, and losing, in 1954. after a brief stint as secretary of state, mccall won the 1966 gubernatorial election. fiercely independent and widely respected, in mccall's eight years as governor he served to reshape the political landscape of oregon like no one else had in the state's history.

credited for developing and signing some of the nation's most progressive ideas into law, mccall remained a republican throughout his political career more as an homage to his grandfather than because of any deep ideological leanings (the republican party would eventually foment a deep loathing for what they perceived as his failing loyalties). frustrated by the two party system and its inability to enact any meaningful change, mccall regularly called for a "third force" in american politics. mccall's success as a politician was due, in no small part, to his unwavering and outspoken devotion to oregon, her constituents, and her future well-being.

mccall's legacy is an extraordinary one, and the changes he brought to the state came be to known nationally as "the oregon story." always with a quip or sound byte at the ready, none of his candid remarks attracted more attention than his infamous (and often mischaracterized) comment to "come visit us again and again... but for heaven's sake, don't come here to live." worried about the irreparable environmental degradation that inevitably follows rampant growth and development, mccall set in place some of the nation's most innovative and forward-thinking legislation.

under mccall, oregon became the first state to enact a "bottle bill," offering a deposit and refund system for reusable cans and bottles and effectively banning non-returnable beverage containers. the law had (and continues to have) the simultaneous effect of increasing recycling while decreasing litter. mccall spent much of his administration focused on environmental issues, including the cleanup of the notoriously polluted willamette river (detailed in a 1972 national geographic cover story). as governor, he also instituted the first statewide land use planning system (urban growth boundaries!) and strengthened a law protecting public ownership of all oregon beaches.

mccall was not without his critics (though many of them were often political opponents or chastised business executives), and his life was not without its share of personal setbacks and hardships. fire at eden's gate does not seek to canonize the late governor, but instead recreates a tumultuous era in state and national politics. the book portrays mccall as a dedicated public servant who cherished nothing more than his role as the state's elected trustee. rare is the politician that cares about anything more than the trajectory of their own political career, but tom mccall was, indeed, a rare and refined individual.

in an era when political discourse has come to be ruled as much by moneyed interests as it has by fallacious and vitriolic onslaughts, it is beyond refreshing (to say nothing of encouraging) to read about an elected official who was beyond the pettiness of partisan politics. tom mccall was a man of great character, possessed by an integrity and sense of justice alien to most elected officials. the mark left upon our state by his tireless work is an indelible one, and all oregonians present and future shall continue to enjoy the benefits therefrom.

fire at eden's gate is an exceptional work that recalls the labors of an exceptional leader. that the book seems so effortlessly well written only enriches the story's wide appeal. whether for crafting a portrait of an important political figure, or for distilling the unique essence of an american epoch, or simply because it is an altogether intriguing work of nonfiction, fire at eden's gate is an important, singular, and unforgettable work.

"heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky. they are people who say: this is my community, and it's my responsibility to make it better." ~tom mccall

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