Governor expected Vortex I to lose him the election
Governor Tom McCall was in a tight spot.
Twenty-five thousand American Legion members were a month away from descending on Portland for their national convention, and President Richard Nixon had promised to be there. A particularly belligerent group of anti-war radicals had pledged to turn out in force, 50,000 strong, to “confront” them. The F.B.I. had issued warnings that almost seemed panicky, confirming that tens of thousands of angry protesters could be expected.
All it would take would be one liquored-up Legionnaire throwing a punch, or one overzealous peacenik throwing a brick, and Portland would explode and people would die — at least, that was the governor’s darkest fear.
So when his chief of staff, Ed Westerdahl, came before him with a plan to defuse the whole thing, you would think he’d welcome the chance with gratitude and relief.
You’d be wrong.
“Westerdahl! Are you crazy?” the governor shouted. “Are you out of your [expletive deleted] mind?”
But McCall knew better than to ignore Westerdahl, so he grumblingly settled down and listened to what had to be the nuttiest pitch he’d ever been hit with.
What Westerdahl was proposing was that the governor say yes to two young men who’d approached him a few days earlier with a plan: Throw a giant week-long party in a state park, let those in attendance take off their clothes and smoke anything they want, and have all the cops look the other way.
The plan had come out of the worsening situation among anti-war protesters in Portland. In the wake of the Portland State University student riot that spring, the anti-war organization called People’s Army Jamboree was mostly in the control of its more radical members. These radicals were holding meetings and making plans for a “confrontation” with the American Legion, and taking a very cavalier attitude about the possibility of violence. Less pugnacious anti-war activists were getting alarmed — and disgusted. After all, how meaningful is your opposition to war in Vietnam, if you’re making plans to get into street battles in your own home town?
Finally a group of them had walked out of a meeting and sat down together to talk about what had to be done. Calling themselves “The Family,” they came up with the idea of throwing a music festival at a state park when the American Legion came to town. Then all the motivated young people who otherwise might feed the brewing riots would have a positive, pro-peace alternative. Instead of destroying the credibility of their movement by indulging in disorderly street battles with their opponents and justifying it with the same old worn-out clichés about fighting fire with fire, they’d be demonstrating the change that they wanted to see in the world, inviting America to notice the contrast — and having the time of their lives in the process.
The more they talked about it, the more the idea made sense. So two members were delegated to pitch the idea to Portland city officials.
Well, you can imagine how well that went. The officials they were pitching this to were the same ones who’d sent a hundred cops into the Park Blocks to crack skulls during the student riots. Parks Commissioner Frank Ivancie and Mayor Terry Shrunk had no interest in using city resources to help The Family throw a giant party, and even less interest in turning a blind eye to the pot smoking and public nakedness that could be expected to accompany it.
And that’s when the activists made their pilgrimage to Salem to talk to Westerdahl. Westerdahl, knowing what the governor’s initial response would be, did some quiet behind-the-scenes scouting to get his ducks in a row. He decided on 847-acre McIver Park near Estacada, 30 miles from Portland, as the best location. And he brought in the governor’s legal counselors, Ron Schmidt and Robert Oliver, to talk about how to get it done without breaking laws.
When all was planned out, Westerdahl laid the scheme on Governor McCall — who, after his initial explosive reaction, warmed up to it quite quickly. There was, however, one problem that rose to his mind. Here’s how author Brent Walth describes the conversation that ensued:
“’Ron,’ he (McCall) said to Schmidt, ‘you’re the political man. If I make a decision to do this, what happens?’ Schmidt shook his head. He noted that the election followed the American Legion convention by only seven weeks. ‘Whether it works or not, Governor,’ he replied, ‘it’s very likely you’ll lose the election because of it.’”
It was a tough call. Do nothing, let riots break out, and probably win re-election in their aftermath? Or take action, prevent the riots, and probably lose the election amid accusations of “pandering to the hippies”?
McCall chewed this over silently for a bit, staring at the wall behind his desk.
Then he spun his chair around to face the three men. “I’ve made my decision,” he said. “And I’ve just committed political suicide.”
It wasn’t over yet, of course. There was a good bit of outrage in certain quarters when the plan was announced. Up in Portland, Commissioner Ivancie was the most strident anti-Vortex voice, showing cartoon-supervillain levels of tone-deafness as he railed against the plan’s moral implications. Many residents of Estacada were also very unhappy about the plan.
But the most bitter opponents of McCall’s plan may have been the hawkish members of the People’s Army Jamboree, who suddenly saw their support dwindle away to almost nothing.
McCall wasn’t taking any chances. He’d called up the National Guard, sent them up to Fort Lewis in Washington for riot training, and kept them on hand in a sort of standby mode, just in case. Interestingly enough, he took care not to officially deploy them, since that would make it possible for the federal government to take operational control of them; clearly, McCall still didn’t entirely trust Washington not to make trouble.
On the eve of the event, McCall made a remarkable speech in which he expressed absolute support for the protesters’ Constitutional rights and an absolute-zero level of tolerance for any violence, no matter who the perpetrator. It was actually one of history’s great masterpieces of the speechwriter’s art, and it left McCall looking strong, fair, statesmanlike and very much in control of the situation.
Ironically, though, he didn’t much feel in control He’d done all he could, and now all he could do was wait, looking nervously down at the streets of Portland from a suite in the Portland Hilton, hoping for the best.
We’ll talk about how the weekend worked out in the third and final part of the Vortex I story, next week.
(Sources: Walth, Brent. Fire at Eden’s Gate. Portland: OHS Press, 1994; Cain, Eric. “Vortex I,” Oregon Experience, Oregon Public Broadcasting, February 2010)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
Image above: Image: Oregon Public Broadcasting. Governor Tom McCall and other state and city officials look out over the streets of Portland from a room high in the Portland Hilton during the weekend of Vortex I, keeping an eye on the marches and protests by the American Legion and the People’s Army Jamboree and hoping for the best.
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