25 Nov

Change in Oregon’s presence in U.S. Capitol could be statutory

James Beard would be the happiest figure in Statuary Hall. (Inkwell Management)

Now that we’ve decided who’s going to represent Oregon in the U.S. Capitol, we can focus on who’s really going to represent Oregon in the U.S. Capitol.

Long-term.

After this month’s election, even newly re-elected Sen. Jeff Merkley is guaranteed only six more years under the big pointy dome. But now we need to talk about a figure who could be representing Oregon there when President George Bush V delivers his inaugural address.

A commission appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber is currently reconsidering the two statues allotted to Oregon in the Capitol, positions long occupied by the early Oregon figures John McLoughlin and Jason Lee. The idea was driven an effort in the Legislature to replace Lee with the late Sen. Mark Hatfield, who unlike Lee has already spent 30 years in the Capitol, and would know how the parking and cafeteria works.

Updating a state’s statue representation is not unknown; in recent years Kansas, Michigan and California have replaced figures known mostly to their state historians with statues of Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. And while senators and congressmen who have been removed often remain in Washington, pursuing lucrative roles as lobbyists, the outplaced statues seem to have been removed to their home states, where they’re desperately trying to call their agents.

There’s a lot to be said, of course, for Mark Hatfield taking one of Oregon’s spots. Hatfield was Oregon’s foremost national figure for decades, and it would be nice to have at least one Republican in the Capitol who actually spoke to Democrats.

The governor’s commission, assisted by Oregon Historical Society executive director Kerry Tymchuk, has met twice, solicited from local historians a list of potential replacements and posted them on the OHS website for input. The next meeting will be a work session, to consider whether either of the current statues should be “repatriated” to Oregon, or who might stand in the Capitol instead.

There are thoughts that Jason Lee might want to wait before renewing his Washington Post subscription. In the replacement survey on the OHS website, reports Tymchuk, Hatfield is currently trailing Nez Perce chief Chief Joseph, although Hatfield is leading Tom McCall and women’s suffrage advocate Abigail Scott Duniway.

It’s a fine list, if rather tending toward usual suspects. Instead, this could be an occasion to make a more distinct statement from today’s Oregon.

Further down the list, for example, is Oregon State graduate Linus Pauling, the only winner of two individual Nobel prizes, one for chemistry and one for peace. Along with Pauling’s being close to Oregon’s current political outlook, he’d be one of only three scientific statues in the Capitol – a useful presence when so many politicians explain they can’t think about global warming because “I’m not a scientist.” Pauling could stand next to Philo T. Farnsworth, an early developer of television, who might not have run out of things to say to his colleague from Utah, Brigham Young.

Among the Capitol’s collection of noble statesmen, determined humanitarians and unregenerate Confederates, Oregon could make a very different statement with Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and the quintessential Oregon novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion.” There’s only one other writer on the list, Indiana’s Lew Wallace, a Union general who also wrote “Ben-Hur” – the book, not the movie. Representing the most recent state to legalize marijuana, Kesey would also bring a whole new atmosphere to the Capitol, where things could definitely stand to loosen up a little.

If the goal is to send the Oregonian who’s had the greatest impact on modern America, we might send James Beard, the food figure who did so much to liberate Americans from iceberg lettuce. (The Postal Service just put him on a stamp.) Besides countless cookbooks, Beard wrote one of the great Oregon memoirs, “Delights and Prejudices,” and while most of the statues have little to identify them with their state, Beard could be holding a Dungeness crab. If the Capitol took him, we might also throw in a food cart.

With Beard, Oregon could also make its own 21st century statement with Statuary Hall’s first openly gay figure.

Any of the names under consideration would be distinguished additions to the Capitol. Being Oregon, however, we might be looking for a figure who would not only stand there, but stand out.

There would be limitations to any statue’s capacity to represent Oregon in the Capitol. Once the figure took its stand, and assumed its position, it couldn’t really do anything else.

In fact, any statue would be a lot like Congress.

Note: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/19/14.

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