Jim Weaver. Photo by Ted Taylor.

Voice of Conscience

Jim Weaver speaks out on war, elections, the environment, and 'two kinds of people.'

Jim Weaver’s influence on national and Northwest politics today is difficult to gauge, but anyone who tries is likely to fall short. As our outspoken and often cantankerous 4th District congressman from 1974 to 1987, Weaver rocked the establishment with his loud, intense and eloquent advocacy for wilderness preservation, his attacks on the nuclear power industry, his stand against the Vietnam War and wasteful military spending, and his objections to herbicide and pesticide proliferation.

He gathered around him a dream team of staffers and volunteers who have gone on to positions of power, influence and activism. They include Peter DeFazio, Peter Sorenson, Cynthia Wooten, Ron Eachus, Joe Rutledge, Dan Meeks, David Fidanque, Mardel Chinburg, Greg Skillman, Grattan Kerans, Clayton Klein, Gayle Landt, Bern Johnson and many others.

Weaver’s making fewer headlines these days, preferring a reclusive life of reading and writing at his rural home near Buford Park and Mount Pisgah. He and his second wife, Katie, live in a solid, modest house he built 32 years ago when he was in the construction business. He grows tomatoes and keeps a flock of friendly mixed-breed chickens. Still trim and fit at 75, he says he “leads the straight and narrow life,” runs a 3-mile circuit on country backroads and climbs Pisgah every week.

Is he quietly fading into history? Not likely. He keeps popping back into public view. Weaver ran for mayor of Eugene in 1996, tested the waters for a District 40 legislative race in 2000 and declined a Green Party draft for the governor race this year. But his greatest future contribution may be with a book he has written that could change the way we look at war and peace, intolerance, invention and the environment see accompanying story).

On Bush’s Rush to War

Weaver is fascinated by America’s perpetual division of “hawks” and “doves” and figures we’re in big trouble with another hawkish Bush at the helm.

“Doves are powerless against hawks. They can beat the shit out of us anytime. George Bush can right now,” he says. “The only chance we’ve got is voting, because we’ve got the numbers.”

“Twenty years ago I said in many speeches and writings that we’re going to come to the end of the era soon — I thought it would have happened earlier than this — and when that happens, when our political institutions are under enormous pressure, a Roosevelt is not going to get elected — we’re going to get a fascist. Now whether that’s Bush, or somebody coming after him, I don’t know. He could be just a precursor.”

Weaver’s pleased with Rep. DeFazio’s strong public stand against Bush’s rush to war. “Whether I had any influence on him, I don’t know. I like to think maybe because he’s following in my path, he takes some courage from what I did.”

But while Weaver is a dove, he is no pacifist. He enlisted at the age of 17 and served in World War II on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and he supported Truman sending troops into Korea in 1950. “But I opposed any involvement in Vietnam from the start,” he says. He spoke out against the war both in Congress and on the streets in Eugene.

On Ethics and Elections

“I’ve been outraged by lying,” Weaver says. “People lie! George Bush in his speech yesterday — a dozen lies in a five-minute speech. I used to have witnesses before my committee — that’s how I got a reputation of being abusive and abrasive — and these would be cabinet secretaries and presidents of corporations who would sit there and lie, and I wouldn’t let them get away with it.

“Republicans have to lie, and I mean this very seriously. They couldn’t possibly get elected otherwise. Have you seen Gordon Smith’s commercials? Did you know he was an ultra-liberal? That pisses me off.”

On his own low-key, low-budget run for the Eugene mayor’s race against the well-financed Jim Torrey in 1996, Weaver says, “I misread the public entirely. I thought they were ready for change, for reform, for slow growth or no growth. … Why on earth do you want more people to come in? It does make some real estate developers rich, but the rest of us have to pay higher taxes, pollution, congestion, etc. It’s crazy, but it’s deep in the culture of this country …”

On the Environment

“Jim’s accomplishments are legendary in the progressive folklore of Oregon,” says Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson who worked on Weaver’s staff from 1974 to 1977, and is still a big fan.

Weaver, known for his expertise on energy policy, made headlines in his successful battles to stop the proliferation of nuclear power plants in the Northwest, strategically using economic arguments while other activists were touting safety and environmental concerns. Others have followed Weaver’s example and today economic issues, such as calculating the true cost of sprawl, are often used to draw broader support for environmental concerns.

“I’ve been outraged by what I see around me, ever since I was a kid. I was an environmentalist back in the 1940s as an 18-year-old. I hated cars, spewing their poisons, and I didn’t own a car until I was 30 and had to get one for a job I had.”

Weaver sponsored and pushed through Congress more than a dozen bills, many of them dealing with environmental protections, such as the National Forest Management Act, the Federal Land Policy Management Act, National Organic Agriculture Act, and expansions of wild and scenic river areas and wilderness designations. He is credited with legislation protecting more than a million acres of Oregon wilderness.

“Weaver was ahead of his time on a lot of issues,” says DeFazio, “certainly on the issue of the Washington Public Power Supply System, Bonneville Power System, and the need to better provide for salmon in the hydro system. All the things he worked on and fought for in the Northwest Power Act we’re still fighting for. Jim staked out the direction 20 years ago.”

“Jim is like many geniuses. He saw things, and still sees things very clearly,” says Dave Fidanque, Oregon director of the ACLU, and another ex-Weaver staffer. “He was not always right. He was always convinced (even 20 years ago) that the economy was going to come crashing down. His timing was a little off. … America’s dependence on foreign oil was one of the things Jim always hammered at, and goodness knows, it’s more of a problem today than it was in the late ’70s and early ’80s and nobody’s doing anything about it.”

On Money in Politics

“I’ve always been strongly opposed to money in politics,” Weaver says. “I find it offensive, immoral, corrupt. I kept the spending I did to the absolute minimum. I was in 16 hotly contested congressional races and spent in all 16 less than Ron Wyden spent in one uncontested election for Congress. I have accepted no honorariums, no gifts, no trips, no dinners, absolutely nothing. I’ve been to some receptions and I’d eat the shrimp, but no lobbyist could ever take me out. … And I’ve always been opposed to gambling, even Indian casinos.”

Joe Rutledge, another former staffer and now a nationally known marketing and communications strategist living in Connecticut, says, “I doubt that most Oregonians have any real knowledge of how effectively Jim used his intellect, street smarts and political sense to get things done for the average citizen, despite the combined opposition of most other Northwest officeholders and staff members who viewed their primary constituents as PGE, PP&L, the timber guys, and a handful of other interests,”

“Jim played many important roles in Congress,” says Mardel Chinburg of Eugene, another former staffer, “but significant was his role as a voice of conscience — he tirelessly and passionately advocated progressive legislation without sacrificing issues or his philosophy in order to get bills passed.”