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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Tragedy of John Kitzhaber

One Oregon legislator said it was like a Greek tragedy, but the dimensions of the decline and fall of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber are more Shakespearean than Hellenic.

The Kitzhaber downfall became so completely bizarre over the last month of so that it would seem unbelievably contrived where the real facts of this political soap opera reduced to a script for House of Cards. You sense that even Frank Underwood is shaking his head. In the end Oregon’s longest serving governor collapsed faster than, well, a house of cards. The drama in Salem over the last few weeks was equal parts Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth.

Consider the basic facts. Kitzhaber, a fixture of Oregon politics for more than 35 years, was elected last November for the fourth time following a lackluster campaign against an inept opponent. The race is marked by audible sighs of “Kitzhaber fatigue” and the governor’s girlfriend/fiancée Cylvia Hayes ultimately became the campaign’s major issue. The real issues in the Kitzhaber saga have always been the violation of the bright line between public responsibility and private interest, between transparency and entitlement. In many states such combinations might have spelled a political end at the ballot box, but in one party states like Oregon (and Idaho) partisanship often trumps the basics of right and wrong. Yet in this case, as with the audience at an Elizabethan drama, everyone save the actors seemed long ago to understand how this play would end.


At a moment that should have marked the pinnacle of his political career Kitzhaber was hardly able to celebrate his unprecedented fourth election due to the cavalcade of news reports about Hayes’ dual and overlapping roles as “first lady” and private sector consultant. As the scrutiny mounted the stonewalling intensified.

In retrospect it is now easy to see that Kitzhaber’s remarkably rapid descent began back during his re-election campaign when he responded, annoyed and testily, to questions about whether Hayes was unethically and possibly illegally benefiting from her shadowy role as policy adviser to her boy friend the governor, while she also billed clients who seemed to all have an agenda with the state of Oregon. All that would have been bad enough without a further avalanche of detail about Hayes’ earlier life, including involvement with a pot farm and a marriage the governor said he’d not been aware of. With every drip-drip of detail the appearances became more damning and the defenses more ineffective.

“We did not violate the law,” Kitzhaber said during a memorable debate with his Republican opponent last October. “We’ve simply given a modern and professional woman an opportunity to continue her career. In 2014, it seems ludicrous that a woman should be expected to give up her career and life’s work just because she will soon be married to the governor.” True enough. Perhaps had the governor drawn brightly the line between his fiance’s public and private roles all this never would have happened. That he never did will become his sad legacy.

That October comment, coupled with no hint of acknowledgment that the governor-girl friend arrangement might have even the appearance of impropriety, was the sure signal of the lack of self awareness that seems to descend on nearly every politician, even the smart and skilled ones, who come to believe in their own righteousness. Shakespeare might have called it hubris.

Incidentally, Kitzhaber’s line about his “modern and professional” fiancée was essentially the same argument the Clinton’s used long ago to justify Hillary’s Rose Law Firm legal career and membership on the Walmart corporate board while Bubba sat in the governor’s office in Little Rock and while she was First Lady. The justification didn’t pass the smell test then either, proving once again that there are no new scandals in politics only the ones that repeat over and over. What is different in the two cases is that the Clinton’s benefited from a political life in Arkansas before email, which, as the former governor of Oregon now knows, were simpler times.

In the final days of this debacle, there rolled out the completely predictable cycle of political scandal: the newspaper editorials demanding resignation, the mad rush to lawyer up, the late-breaking revelations each carrying a unmistakable sense that the hole was getting deeper, the feints that resignation was imminent, the too-late effort to cover tracks, the inevitable abandonment of close allies and friends and the further retreat into the bunker. Like the cycles of the moon, the political scandal always ends the same way.

Still, in the evolution of any scandal there is always a moment – or even many – when an admission of error leavened with public humbleness can provide the opportunity for redemption and perhaps survival. Kitzhaber, a hard charging former emergency room doctor, could never get to a point of responsibility, admission and humility. We’ll never know whether he might have saved his own often impressive political career by simply admitting errors of judgment and asking Oregonian to allow him to make things right. The American capacity for forgiveness and redemption is remarkable, but one has to recognize the need to humbly make the ask. Part of the tragedy here is that Kitzhaber never tried and a bigger part is that he didn’t see the need.

There an old saying among airplane pilots – beware the hundred hour pilot – that applies to the Kitzhaber-Hayes saga. Pilots, it is said, who are still learning the ropes of piloting an aircraft tend to be extra careful with their actions and the condition of their plane. It’s the pilot who reaches a hundred hours of flight time who suddenly believes he’s Charles Lindbergh and has become immortal in the cockpit. The same thing can happen to a politician: Elected four times, obviously the smartest guy in any room, in his own mind his motives only pure, the newspaper and political critics unfair, the advisers timid or shunted aside.

When crisis descends, the truly smart ones reach out – widely. The smart ones have enough confidence to step back and ask what might I have done better and how might I make it right? The hardest and most essential part of dealing with a crisis is the ability to understand the critics and not dismiss their concerns as unknowing or unimportant. In this case it was not only hard but impossible.

Ironically, it is often the most seasoned politician – think of Larry Craig or Bob Packwood or Brock Adams, among many others – who behaves like the all-knowing, all-certain “experienced” hundred hour pilot who follows his “experience” – read arrogance – into the side of a mountain.

There will be many story lines in the days ahead in the Oregon political drama that only The Bard of Avon might have concocted. We certainly haven’t heard the last of John Kitzhaber and his First Lady with the likelihood of a long and contentious legal process just beginning and indictments a real possibility. It will be said that the former governor brought it upon himself. He fell victim and grew blind to the allure of a younger woman with more ambition than sense. Hubris, even arrogance, was at play. Entitlement can be fatal. The Oregon saga was all that.

There is always both sadness and glee when a public figure is brought low; sadness that humans, even elected ones, are all too human and glee, at least by some, in the fact that a once powerful politician was brought down in a strikingly public way. The real tragedy, of course, is that it didn’t have to happen. But that is always the case with political tragedy.

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