Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dutch Treats: The Jolly Toper and Gubernatorial Glory

The other day I was reading about the unveiling of John Kitzhaber's official gubernatorial portrait later in May. Henk Pander, a Portland painter orginally from the Netherlands, and working in a contemporary Dutch idiom, executed it. Thoughts about that portrait and the notion of "beer art" made me think of Frans Hals' painting "the Jolly Toper." Ale and other drink often appear in Dutch genre painting.

Old master still life and portraiture don't sound so very interesting for the 21st century, but all you have to do is look at the two portraits of Tom McCall to know why it can be interesting. There's the McCall statue recently erected in Riverfront Park, and McCall's official portrait, hanging in the Capitol, also painted by Henk Pander.

I don't much like the McCall statue. It's heroic, flat, a little banal - sappy. Salmon endangered by dams and gillnets carry the emotional charge, and ostensibly he's an ordinary guy just fishing. It's socialist realism! - and captures none of the ambition and ambiguity that makes a great politician. I want my politicians compelling and imperfect. Visionary and a little whacked. Not milquetoast.

The painting is not milquetoast. It captures McCall straddling the water and shore, a fine image for Oregon's proud, but now lost, tradition of centrist and bipartisan Republicans. The line demarcating the upper boundary of the beach's public way bisects his head. McCall extends his hand and yet looks a little forbidding, perhaps even crazy. There's a driftwood stump, the trace of forest and clearcut. The painting is shot through with tension, and suggests the tensile nature of the deal, of balancing compromise and ideals, stubbornness and ambition.

The list of McCall's accomplishments is long. His terms brought us the Department of Environmental Quality, Land Conservation and Development Commission, the Bottle Bill, the beach public access law. Riverfront Park happened in part because the DEQ stopped Boise's river and waterfront pollution. We have much to thank him for.

According to Brent Walth in Fire at Eden's Gate, McCall also liked beer, gambling, and especially gin.

Governor K. is boring, and I wish he'd mix it up a bit. The best he can seem to do is advocate for a 4 billion dollar highway bridge and electric cars. That's not visionary: That's just more of the same mess we're in.

Long before McCall, another Governor who didn't like the mess he thought he was in was Oswald West. Now he was visionary and more than a little whacked.

We saw how in the mid-1890s he'd eavesdrop on Governor Lord and John Minto while they were in their cups. Later in 1912, when he was himself Governor, he came to Salem to clean out the brothels.

His biennial address in 1913 is a marvel - sometimes good, sometimes horrific. Today we have Oswald West State Park, and in 1913 he said, "The ocean beach from the Columbia River on the north to the California State line on the south should be declared a public highway." In the same address he also said:
Degenerates and the feeble-minded should not be allowed to reproduce their kind. Society should be protected from this curse. Our asylums and our prisons are being populated afresh through such parentage. We confine the vicious and the irresponsible for a while, only to send them forth to blight the future by the creation of defective children that grow into the criminal or the imbecile.
Spurred on by the Portland Vice Commission's Report (pdf map here), he'd been working on cleaning out Portland, and in 1914 had his secretary Fern Hobbs shut down Copperfield, a small town in Baker County, too lawless and vice-ridden for his taste.

Reading about "cleaning up" in light of West's enthusiasm for eugenics is a little scary. From the Capital Journal, 1 and 2 July 1912:

The much-looked for action of Governor West in closing or nailing up the house supposed to be used for immoral purposes, near the armory, did not materialize, as up to the time of going to press nothing has been done. From telegraphic advices received from Portland, the governor is in Portland, and is busy with matters of the same kind there. He is expected back this afternoon, but as to whether he will begin operations here today is not known. The intimation is given out that there will be “something doing” tomorrow, but this cannot be verified, as the report is out that a number of women who were located near the armory have left the city.


Further action by the governor will not be necessary, so he says, in reference to cleaning out the immoral house near the armory, as the police inform him that the house has been vacated. This is no surprise to the police, as the city officers have had the place under surveillance for over two weeks. According to the statements of the officers, all the occupants of the property have left the city or have taken quarters elsewhere, leaving nothing for the executive to do. A “for rent” sign on the house, where the supposed immoral practices were going on, is further proof that it has been “cleaned.”

The action of the governor in closing several road houses around Portland has led those conducting questionable resorts to sit up and take notice, and it looks as if good, wholesome obedience to state laws will be had, at least for a time. Every movement of the chief executive has been closely watched by everybody, and his actions seem to meet the approval of the public generally.
The armory was located at the northeast corner of the block where the Pheonix Grand Hotel and Salem Conference Center is located. The same block with the Marion/Chemeketa Hotel and the Capitol Brewery. (You can see several photos of the armory here.)

As a Prohibitionist, Governor West makes me suspicious. More than a little whiff of Larry Craig and Ted Haggard. What was in his closet? His crusades suggest the eradication of something he feared in himself.

The last thing we need is a neo-prohibitionist. But maybe some of the opposite? Governor K. could use a little zip and juice to his final tenure. Maybe not full on Spitzer smash-up - but a visit to Amsterdam and a stripper pole?

1 comment:

  1. I sorta like this Gov West's ideas about reproduction. We need more people to state strong, unpopular opinions and liven up the political scene these days. :)