Friday, January 30, 2009

Spice up the blawg

That's the advice I got from a reader from NY who I just got off the phone with. "Come on. It's getting a little eh."

Okay, spice. Here goes.

Last night I went to a public forum prompted by the Sam Adams controversy.

If you're not from Portland, and you don't have time to read the whole article, the basic story is this: It recently came to light that Portland's new Mayor, Sam Adams, was having sex with a teenaged legislative intern in 2005 while Adams was a City Councilman.

When the accusations began back in September, before his election, Adams responded super-righteously and with indignation [see: Clinton]. Then, after he was elected, Adams hired the muckracking writer from the local alt rag - who would've broken the story - to work for his office.

In short, Sam was discovered to be a politician, an old-school, ambitious, lying, manipulating, arrogant, power-abusing politician. Surprise!

Last night's forum, sponsored by the Oregon Council for the Humanities, attempted to be less of a argument about whether or not Sam should stay - that debate continues to rage - but a discussion about the boundaries between public and private space, for public figures and for all of us.

The panelists were Mark Zusman, editor of the Willamette Week, the newspaper that broke the story, Caitlin Baggott, director of the Oregon Bus Project, Robert Eisinger, chair of the Political Science Department at Lewis and Clark University, and Tom Bivins, Chair of Media Ethics at the University of Oregon School of Journalism.

Mark began by stating his two founding principles of privacy: that privacy of the individual is an absolute right, and that there is absolutely no place for privacy in government. Interpreting what falls in which sphere is what his work is about, and what the night's discussion became about.

Mark emphasized that there are no hard rules, but the measuring stick is always whether the personal behavior in question affects the person's job.

There was much talk about character, whether it was immutable or a series of choices or habits. Peter Steinberger, dean of faculty at Reed College, and an excellent moderator, pointed out the different ways a politician's personal failures are interpreted by pragmatists, who see politics as in terms of results, and purists, who see politics as an embodiment of our highest potential as humans.

The pragmatists are able to reconcile effective politicians whose personal lives are a wreck - FDR, JFK, Churchill, etc. Professor Bivins seemed to fall into this second group, and reminded us that if we expect our politicians to be angels, we are guaranteed to be disappointed.

In her many daily conversations about the scandal, Caitlin Baggot noticed a different split, which she described as generational. The older people were more disturbed by the morality of having a sexual relationship with an intern; the younger people were bothered by Adam's attempt to control, manage and cover-up his failure.

"Let's be honest," Mark Zussman said near the end of the evening. "If Sam's initial response had been 'Yes, this happened, but I never broke the law, this is a personal matter, and it never affected my job as public servant,' we wouldn't be here tonight."

"He didn't trust Portlanders enough to tell us the truth," someone in the audience said.

That's what this thing seemed to be about to me, the shift in politics from cover-ups and crisis-management to openness and transparency. Sam's trying to go about business as usual, but I don't think it's over yet.


Ashly Stewart said...

Great spice! I really hoped to make it to this last night, but studying for midterms is getting the best of my free time. The commute wasn't doable, but this was nice to read, so thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

ok, I'll bite. I didn't like Sam in the beginning because he lied and danced with developers regarding a deal on Mississippi Avenue last year (see PDX Indy Media). Despite that I voted for him because his main opponent seemed insincere in his desire to be mayor. Since politics seemed all that Sam had I thought he'd behave with a more visible position. Also he lives in NoPo, as do I, and I thought that was fresh.

Anyway, I bring this whole thing up because where were people like Mark Zusman and WW when Sam was playing to developers and ignoring neighborhood activists, neighborhood associations and working groups on their recommendations? These are the people that make Portland what it is. He displayed very backhanded behavior.

Plainly, with this current story, is that sex sells. Neighborhoods complaining about behind the scenes dealing is boring. This story and the way it has unfolded is rotten in so many ways.

Portland has always sort of been deceptively corrupt (hence the strong radical element) and this just seems like more of the same.

Anonymous said...

that's a really hard call...when you're gay. to come out and say you had that relationship with an intern. it magnifies. everything. times are shifting. there are no answers. and, yet, everything remains the same. ethics and journalism. they used to be one and the same. but it's harder and harder to find that line.
what about the writer who was going to break the story and then decided to work for adams' office? wtf is that all about? what an idiot. that sounds like major shade there, too. hide the story, keep the job, then decide to bleed it?

it's a mess. i felt bad for him. i imagine there are many many many men who have had "affairs" with their interns. just not all of them make into the news. BUT it was also a total disappointment. i don't think his career should fail because he got down with someone. who wasn't even married. who wasn't even underage.

there are no answers. but it would be nice if people looked at how he's been working and based it on that a little more. let that lead their noses. than the other stuff, which everyone does. politicians are people. not gods.