Book tour

Former Congressman Les AuCoin has the following book events scheduled in Central Oregon:

• Sisters Festival of Books; 3:40 p.m. Saturday; Paulina Springs Books; 252 West Hood Avenue, Sisters.

• Herringbone Books; 6 p.m. Tuesday; 422 SW 6th St., Redmond.- Roundabout Books; 6 p.m. Oct. 24; 900 N. Mount Washington Drive, Suite 110, Bend.

A longtime congressman, who also happens to be a former interim editor of the Spokesman, Les AuCoin has quite a story to tell.

And he tells it in detail in “Catch and Release: An Oregon Life in Politics,” his 272-page memoir that was recently published by Oregon State University Press. The title is a reference to AuCoin’s longtime fly-fishing passion.

His book tour brings him back to Central Oregon this week, including a Tuesday stop at Herringbone Books in Redmond.

AuCoin, who like his wife of 54 years, Sue, is a member of Redmond Union High School’s graduating class of 1960, first worked at the Spokesman after his senior year. He said he became interested in journalism because of a charismatic teacher named Della Bell.

“She just lit my fire,” he recalled. “I started getting A’s on every story I would write for the journalism class.”

So when legendary Spokesman publisher Mary Brown called Bell looking for someone to fill in as sports editor after Leo Davis left for what would become a lengthy career at the Oregonian, the teacher recommended AuCoin.

After time at Pacific University in Forest Grove and then Portland State University, AuCoin joined the Army, where he served as public information specialist for two divisions, writing dispatches for publications including the Nashville Tennessean, Louisville Courier-Journal and Stars and Stripes.

When AuCoin returned to Redmond in 1964, his mother greeted him at their home on 11th Street with news that Brown’s news editor has just quit, and she was again looking for AuCoin to help out.

“My mother was breathing so hard, she almost forgot to say ‘hello’ to me, and she hadn’t seen me in two years,” AuCoin said.

After one summer at the Spokesman, AuCoin returned to Pacific, where he worked as public information director while pursuing a journalism degree, which he received in 1969.

AuCoin, who turns 77 on Monday, went on to serve two terms in the state House of Representatives from 1971-74, including as the House majority leader in his second term. He was then elected to the U.S. House, where he served from 1975-93 as a Democrat in his home of Forest Grove. His political career ended after a 1992 run for the U.S. Senate to incumbent Sen. Bob Packwood, who received 52 percent of the vote to AuCoin’s 48 percent. The race was clouded by newspapers’ decisions to wait until after the election to release stories on numerous sexual misconduct allegations against Packwood, who resigned under fire in 1995.

While AuCoin had moved away from Central Oregon by the time he ran for Senate, he campaigned in Redmond with help from his late mother in 1992.

“I lost narrowly that time in one of the most controversial and ugly races in Oregon history,” AuCoin said.

In an interview conducted by email with the Spokesman, AuCoin discusses growing up in Redmond, his thoughts on today’s political climate, and his son, actor Kelly AuCoin, who has been featured in television series like “Billions” and “The Americans” and movies including “The Post.”

The AuCoins now live in Portland.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book? It looks like you are doing quite an extensive tour for it.

A: I wrote the book for several reasons, which is the case with most authors. Having lived an eventful life, I wanted to remind my readers how our politics used to be and how they can be again—that is, closer to the people and less influenced by professional consultants. Fairer to wage-earners and less chummy with the ultra-rich. I also wanted to show that if you’re dealt a tough hand in childhood, it isn’t a life sentence. I was a fatherless boy in Redmond, supported by a mom who supported my brother and me on a waitress’ wage and tips. No child support. She didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Against all expectations, I finished college and climbed up the ladder of national politics. With hard work, this is still a land of opportunity.

Q: What was Redmond like when you were growing up? I know you played basketball, were there other activities you enjoyed there?

A: I remember so many small but vivid things about growing up here. I had an early morning paper route. As a Boy Scout, my first campout was in the Deschutes National Forest. In high school, I loved the soda fountain at Duff McAndy’s drug store on Sixth Street and the Tom-Tom drive-in north of town. In boyhood, I admired the Cent-Wise founder, Vernon “Pat” Patrick, so much I wanted to be a pharmacist like him. Basketball, though, was my passion. I grew up listening to the Redmond Panthers on KPRB radio. As a high school senior, my Panther teammates voted me Most Valuable Player and Honorary Co-Captain. Oregon basketball coaches gave me an honorable mention on the Associated Press’ All-State team. I was also passionate about writing for the high school newspaper. My journalism teacher, Della Bell, awakened in me a life-long love for the written word.

Q: You and former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall are probably the best known people from Redmond, and both of you went from journalism to political careers. Is there something in the water?

A: Tom McCall was to Oregon politics what a sequoia is to a forest, a giant. He fundamentally changed Oregon’s environmental stance. We had graduated from what was once Redmond Union High School — some 30 years apart — and we both knew it. When I was House Majority Leader in the Oregon legislature in 1973, he would spot me in a Capitol corridor as he towered about his entourage. “Hi, classmate!” he would shout out with that huge smile. We were friends, and my book shows how closely we worked together in those days.

Q: Mary Brown, who was Spokesman publisher from 1931 to 1971, is still a legend to many in Redmond, even though she died at 77 in 1982. I don’t know how many people are still around who worked for her, so you might have a unique perspective. What was she like to work with?

A: Mary was a chain-smoking character, but, man, did she understand community journalism. Mary wrote a farm commodity report that, for sheer quality, equaled stuff in the Wall Street Journal. Her sportswriter for many years was Leo Davis — one of the best of his breed. When he left for the Oregonian, Mary asked Della Bell if she had a student who could fill Leo’s shoes while she looked for a permanent replacement. Della picked me. So, my first newspaper job was writing sports for my hometown paper as a high school senior! When I returned from the army in ’64, Providence smiled on me again. Mary was losing her editor. When she saw me unload my Army duffel bag at the Trailways station on Sixth Street, clutching my honorable discharge, she hired me as acting editor until I returned to college in the fall. I managed to lose not one advertiser or get sued for libel.

Mary was a tough taskmaster, but I loved her standards. One of her first suggestions was to do a story about the then-Tumalo Emporium (now Tumalo Feed Company), founded and run by the parents of my former high school classmate, Sue Swearingen. Sue had just returned home herself, after hitchhiking through Europe. It was pure fate. Sue and I got married a year later! I doubt that Mary — gruff, opinionated, and unsentimental — thought she would ever play cupid. But did she ever!

Q: How often do you get back to Central Oregon? Why did you want to do a book event in Redmond?

A: At least once or twice a year. Sue has relatives in the area. Central Oregon was where my son and daughter spent their summers when I was in Congress (We wanted to ensure that they never lost their Oregon roots!). And this region has trout streams that a fly-fisher like me adores. So, it’s only natural to return to my hometown to talk about my book. Are there any jobs open on the Spokesman’s news desk?

Q: Was there something in particular you learned in Redmond that helped you in your political career?

A: I learned that no one can limit you unless you let them do it.

Q: What are you most proud of in your political career?

A: It’s a long list. But it includes saving Rock Mesa in the Three Sisters Wilderness from the grasping intentions of mining companies; the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act, which doubled the acreage of federal wilderness in our state; the 1983 anti-recession bill that let companies return timber sales to the feds when the price of lumber dropped far below what they paid for on the stump. That bill, written by Sen. Mark Hatfield and me, saved dozens of Oregon mills from bankruptcy and, with them, thousands of jobs.

Q: I know you took some positions that were considered controversial compared to other Democrats, like on gun control (especially compared to today’s Democratic Party). Have your views evolved since then, or is there any other issue you now see differently?

A: When I got serious about the Second Amendment, I realized that it has limits just like every other freedom in the Bill of Rights. No “right” is absolute! The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech doesn’t free us to shout “fire” in a theater. The Second Amendment isn’t absolute, either — a rifle that fires up to 45 rounds a minute has no business in civilian life. It belongs in the hands of soldiers, for whom it was designed. If you need to fire 45 rounds a minute to get your deer, you should take up fishing instead.

Q: Why were you able to avoid returning to politics, when so many seem to try to keep running for office as long as they can?

A: It was easy. I remembered the price I’d paid—hours of cold calls, begging for campaign bucks from strangers, the media’s inability to report facts hidden in plain sight, their failure to sort fact from sensation, and novice foes who proposed to turn my years of hard work into a political liability for being a “Beltway insider.” I decided I had but one life to give to my country, and that I had given it. I returned to a family life, soon to be blessed with granddaughters, and I took up college teaching, which gave me a rush when I saw a student light up. I also reacquainted myself with nature through camping and fishing. Nature is much more rational than the human comedy that has played out since the beginning of recorded history.

Q: Is there anything that can be done to bridge the political divide between the Willamette Valley and Central (and especially Eastern) Oregon?

A: As a way to understand Oregon, “divide” is a false construct. It suggests differing behaviors are as permanent as bedrock—Western Oregon versus Eastern Oregon, Northern Oregon versus Southern Oregon, Ashland, Oregon versus Jackson County — heck, even Portland versus Portland suburbs. A wise man once told me something that makes sense. He says what’s really at the bottom of all this is two types of people—the WITTs (We’re In This Together) and the YOYOs (You’re On Your Own). We need political leaders who promote a “we’re-in-it-together” compact for our state. More importantly, we need political “followers” who demand the same thing — one Oregon. It’s possible — although I represented the First Congressional District in Northwest Oregon, I worked with Eastern Oregon folks on two economic development projects in their area — Baker City’s Oregon Trail Visitor’s Center and the visitor’s center at the John Day Fossil Beds. If Oregon’s current congressional delegation got together, they could turn the Fossil Bed site into a world class scientific center with housing and labs for foreign scientists and sophisticated tourism facilities. That was my dream in the beginning. It could inject hundreds of millions into the local economy.

Q: What have you learned from writing the book?

A: How very far we’ve drifted as a nation even from Mainstream Republicanism. Reagan negotiated nuclear arms treaties with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, Trump unilaterally pulled out of them. Reagan put Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, Trump named Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Eisenhower build the Interstate Highway system, Trump has paid lip service to infrastructure but has done nothing to repair our highways, bridges or ports. Instead, he’s fixated on shifting funds needed for our military to build a wall he promised Mexico would finance.

Q: What’s it been like to see your son, Kelly, have an acting career? Do you have a favorite role you’ve seen him in?

A: Kelly’s a fabulous son — we’re very close. In his latest role, he plays “Dollar” Bill Stearn in Showtime’s hit series, “Billions.” Last year, at one of our annual father-son Trail Blazers weekends in Portland, fans in our row kept looking us over and buzzing. From experience, I felt sure they recognized me and would come down to ask me about, say, abortion. I gnashed my teeth when they came our way. But they stopped in front of Kelly and asked, “Aren’t you ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn?” Kelly graciously answered questions, then says, “And this is my dad, former Congressman Les AuCoin.” They toss me a silent nod, then swing back to Kelly and say, “Now, about Dollar Bill...”

I love it. It’s Kelly’s time in the sun. As his dad, I’m thrilled.

— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@redmondspokesman.com

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