Tour Portland’s Political Underbelly

I’m reading (well, listening to the audiobook of) Nixonland by Ron Perlstein (Amazon affiliate link) and Portland’s been mentioned as a location twice, even though I’m less than a third of the way through. First, Nixon was in a hotel here during the campaign for president Eisenhower; Nixon was the vice-presidential candidate, and there was some controversy about a slush fund, and Eisenhower was apparently pressuring Nixon to bow out. Instead, Nixon doubled down, and two days later, gave the infamous “Checkers” speech, where he deflected criticism by showing off an adorable Cocker spaniel. (To be clear, the speech was given in Los Angeles, in the El Capitan theater).

The second mention was when Nixon started a boiler-room phone bank operation here to spread misinformation about a political opponent.

That got me to wondering if I could track down the actual locations. Would it be possible to find the exact hotel room Nixon stayed in? Is the building where that phone bank was situated even still standing?

It felt like it was turning into a project that an author like Tim Powers would love, and I love Tim Powers’ work. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I imagine I would feel something like haunted, standing in a place where Tricky Dick worked his weird anti-charisma magic. Language and communication and consciousness are deeply affected by context, and that particular context is difficult for me to resist.

And that got me to thinking: what other Portland buildings, rooms, street corners hold the not-actual-ghosts of some of Portland’s infamous political history. We’ve had our share of home-grown seedy politicians.

  • Neil Goldschmidt, once a rising star of the Democratic Party, went from Portland City Commissioner and Mayor to US Secretary of Transportation under President Clinton, to state Governor. He was probably going to make a run for president, but some investigative journalism uncovered a victim of his: a woman revealed he had been her statutory rapist, back in the 1970s, during his tenure as Mayor. She had been 13 or 14 at the time.
  • Bernie Giusto, The Teflon Sherrif, had been Goldschmidt’s bodyguard but eventually rose to elected official himself as Sherrif of Multnomah County, a position he was forced out of in large part because he lied about knowledge of Goldschmidt’s rape during the state’s investigation into the matter.
  • Bob Packwood, Senator from Oregon from 1969 until he stepped down in 1992, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was discovered to have been sexually abusing and assaulting women during his political career. He’s no longer in public office, but he’s apparently doing quite well, sharing his expertise in government funding with a large number of private firms as a lobbyist.
  • Going further back, Oregon was under Federal investigation as the center of organized crime and corruption that went all the way to the statehouse. The Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, a.k.a. the McClellan Committee, as part of their investigation into Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, found out about a plot by the Teamsters to bribe, blackmail and extort their way into power in Oregon. Recordings of conversations with Jim Elkins, a Multnomah County crime boss whose specialties were brutality and illegal gambling, were played on national television, to 1.2 million viewers, in 1957.
  • Portland Mayor Sam Adams, three weeks into his first term in 2008 and enjoying wide popularity, was accused of sexual misconduct with an intern by the name of Beau Breedlove, who had been a teenager at the time. Adams admitted to the accusation. Despite the resulting scandal, and with Beau Breedlove appearing wherever and whenever he could in the local media to remind everyone of the scandal, Mayor Adams was cleared of criminal wrongdoing and served out his full term,  retiring from public life to become the director of a non-profit devoted to climate change.
  • Then there was Police Chief Derrick Foxworth, who, in 2006, got caught via email for sending sexually explicit emails to a subordinate. He was demoted, and filed suit against his accuser, but remained employed until he retired a couple of years afterward.
  • The last truly local scandal I can recall without more research is Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, was forced to step down after his affair with a policy advisor was made public. When his emails and text messages were published he was found to have enjoyed support from the union president, too, who had known and warned Cogen about the affair a year before.

There’s a bunch more, going farther back: land fraud in 1908, Sen. Hatfield’s graft in 1984, Police Chief Harrington’s improper collusion with drug dealers in 1986. But I was specifically trying to find ones that may have ties to a Portland, or, at least, Multnomah County, location.

Portland is seen as incredibly liberal, and generally, politically, it is, but there’s another side of the coin that doesn’t get as much play. Our political leaders seem to enjoy, or maybe I should say take flagrant advantage of, our native sexual permissiveness, only to find that public opinion about that can turn on a dime.