Jim Weaver 1927-2020

A remembrance of Oregon’s charismatic 4th District congressman from 1975-1987

Jim Weaver. Photo by Ted Taylor.

By Joe Rutledge

Given the enduring impact of Jim Weaver’s accomplishments during his years in Congress as well as the countless friends, colleagues, news organizations and others who have paid tribute to his vision and political courage, it’s gratifying to know that so many Oregonians are now hearing about his impact on our world and the environment we’ll leave our children.

Several hallmarks will be cited most often:  

His success stopping the Washington Public Power Supply System, aka WPPSS, nuclear power plants — battling wealthy New York bond holders, mammoth private utilities, CEOs and the entire Northwest Congressional delegation. Twenty-one in all — none of whom joined our side, even after BPA Administrator Don Hodel started bellowing (today’s) hilarious claim that “the Northwest will suffer brown-outs and blackouts throughout the 80s and 90s if Jim Weaver isn’t stopped.”

Other accomplishments that stand out: The only filibuster in U.S. House of Representatives history, sustained yield forest management laws, wilderness protection for ancient forests and fisheries habitat, America’s first organic farming bill, stopping USDA rubber-stamping of directives from Dow Chemical, Monsanto and other herbicide makers. And others.

Having served as Jim Weaver’s chief of staff for many years I was also there for the wit and irony that probably won’t be included in Jim’s remembrances:

In a Congressional hearing, Jim described an out-of-state academic hired by lobbyists to falsely dispute job-loss data as “an economic imbecile.” Afterward, facing Republicans who angrily demanded an apology, Jim was humble, stating, “You’re correct. I was wrong. He’s not an economic imbecile. He’s simply an imbecile.” We escaped amid gales of laughter. 

Jim wore a small, remarkably natural-looking, hairpiece during his first term — so natural that when it was mailed to the D.C. office from wherever Jim had sent it for cleaning before leaving for a two-week trip to Oregon, no one knew what it was. Someone suggested it was a pelt from an Oregon trapper appreciative of Jim’s habitat protection. So, it was mounted on a plaque and hung on the lobby wall. 

Jim always arrived by 7 am. When we arrived at 8 am the morning after his return, we saw the plaque, but no pelt. When Jim walked into our meeting we all looked up and immediately recognized that what we’d mounted was no pelt. The plaque was later discreetly removed. Years passed before the story was shared with Jim, who — fortunately — howled with laughter.

My favorite Jim Weaver story: The House cafeteria was always jammed at lunchtime. Members and staff would shuffle down a counter, selecting and then paying, but sometimes particularly self-impressed members would push ahead, irritating everyone. Finally fed up, I and others angrily told a group of pin-striped Republicans to stop their bullying. Their leader said, “Hell no!,” then grabbed a placard from an easel and on its back wrote in giant letters “It’s NICE to be Important!  WE are.” It was tacked above the counter.

A week later a more substantial wooden sign appeared directly below it. In bold letters it stated simply: “But it’s a helluva lot more important to be nice.”  

No one knew its origins; but soon, I did. I received all of the office’s House administration invoices. A week after the new sign’s appearance, an invoice arrived from the House Carpentry Services Office. Inside, the bill simply said “House Cafeteria Be Nice Sign.” Below it was the handwritten scrawl I’d seen a thousand times before: 

“J. Weaver, 4th district, Oregon”

Knowing Jim as well as I did, I never mentioned it. I’m glad that now, you know.

Joe Rutledge served as Congressman Jim Weaver’s chief-of-staff from 1975 to 1984. 

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