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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.21.10




Principle Above Politics

The ideals of Wayne Morse remain relevant and timely

By G.V. Stathakis

Again this year the mayor proclaimed Oct. 20 Wayne Morse Day in Eugene. Who is this man many claim to be among the greatest Oregonians ever? He represented Oregon as a U.S. senator for 24 years. The U.S. Courthouse bears his name. He was dean of the UO Law School for 14 years. The law school lobby is named for him. The entrance to the Lane County Courthouse is called the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza. It features a statue of the senator pointing at us with the Constitution under his arm.

He was a lifetime farmer, and his 28-acre family farm is now a city park. This man of principle loved his family, farming, teaching and representing the people of Oregon.

We celebrate his spirit of dedication to democracy; open, clean government; and civic discourse. When Morse moved to Eugene in 1930 he became the youngest law school dean in the nation. He died here in 1974 during a closely contested Senate race using the same motto he used when running for president of his college class: “Principle Above Politics.”

Although his achievements are impressive, we celebrate his spirit today because his efforts to end militarism, racism and exploitation are ongoing. To understand the spirit of Wayne Morse is to understand the spirit of democracy 2,500 years ago. The Greeks were the first to believe that humans were capable of governing themselves. Their celebration of humanity needed no gods, warlords or kings. The Greeks put into practice the belief that humankind is born with a sense of justice and that people can rule themselves. 

Morse, like the Greeks, trusted in the people. He once said, “I have complete faith in the American people to do the right thing if given all the facts. My charge is that the government isn’t giving the people all the facts.” Open, honest government was a key Morse principle. Another was citizen involvement and civic discourse, bringing to mind another Greek word idoites (our word “idiot” today), which originally meant those citizens who took no part in public affairs.

We celebrate his spirit by acknowledging efforts of citizenship locally and globally. Many citizens stand on his shoulders but have never heard his name. Today his spirit is manifested by many involved in grassroots education. He believed ordinary citizens can make extraordinary differences in our society. The spirit of democracy assumes altruistic efforts for the common good.

In the spirit of Morse’s commitment to farmers and sustainable agriculture in Oregon, the Wayne Morse Now award honors Dan Armstrong for his grassroots advocacy for local farmers and to keep Oregon agriculture at the center of our civic discourse. Armstrong promotes a vision for the Willamette Valley based on a re-localized and reinvigorated agricultural economy. He helps coordinate local food advocates to make this vision a reality. His involvement with the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project and the Lane County Fairgrounds Repair Project uses civic discourse to educate citizens on food security and the necessity of rebuilding our local food system. His website is www.mudcitypress.com

How would Morse today evaluate the progress of our democracy? Militarism at home and abroad, racism and poverty have not abated; nor has secrecy in government. The gap between the rich and poor grows, the level of civic discourse is not the “marketplace of ideas” he cherished.

On the other hand the many altruistic citizens working for the common good carry his spirit even though they may have never heard his name. To those people we send our encouragement and appreciation. Democracy implies citizenship. Bottom-up change implies local activism. Local talent and ideas are fine-tuned in the crucible of discourse, Wayne Morse and the Greeks valued giving without self-interest. To celebrate democracy is to celebrate humanity and this man.

G.V. Stathakis is chair of the Wayne Morse Youth Program based in Eugene. The program can be contacted at morsenow@efn.org