by George Beres
"Porter was best known as the irascible ex-congressman who frequently promoted a political view on the liberal edge, in many cases, ahead of his time. . . . I think he was one of the most principled people I have run across. He never shied away from controversy."
—David Fidanque, Oregon's director of the American Civil Liberties Union
"Former lawmaker Charles Porter dies," The Register-Guard, January 3, 2006
(Swans - March 13, 2006) When former US Congressman Charles Porter of Oregon died in January he left -- in Lincolnesque terms -- an empty spot against the sky, as if a giant fir had fallen. It had an impact all the way to the nation's capitol, even though it had been half a century since he served there. The day after his death, the Washington Post gave its major obituary, one-sixth of a page, to Porter.
Charlie's long ago departure from elective office did not diminish his impact on society. In his home of Eugene, Oregon, his efforts on behalf of religious justice achieved fame and notoriety by creating another empty spot on the horizon -- an area once occupied by a giant Christian cross illegally placed on elevated public property overlooking the city.
His success in removing the cross -- an act that earned him hatred from local Christian fundamentalists -- relates to a major national issue today: separation of church and state. It reached a new level when President Bush and evangelists forged a coalition that threatens to turn the nation into a theocracy.
Like a modern Don Quixote, Charlie pursued goals that to some seemed remote from reality. The last one of his life dealt with impeachment -- not of the president (whose impeachment he favored), but of five members of the US Supreme Court of 2000, who he felt illegally appointed George Bush president. That was not inconsistent with the way he pursued justice -- even at the risk of physical harm to him -- when he was a Congressman.
I have a grainy, black and white videotape of his appearance in 1959 on the still surviving network program, "Meet the Press." In it he acknowledged that on advice of capitol police he carried a sidearm for protection. He needed it because one of the Latin American despots whom he opposed, Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, had Charlie marked as a target of one of the hit men Trujillo used to maintain his power.
The three hosts of the program tried to put Porter on the spot. Even though he was a brand-new Congressman in his late 30s, he successfully parried their every challenge, and succeeded in making his points before a national audience.
Charlie never had the image of a knight in shining armor. Yet he always seemed to be riding the white horse of an earnest Don Quixote, with fairness and justice as guidelines for what he did. New though he was to Washington (1956-60), Charlie was not shy about going after those who ignored the people while serving big money powerbrokers.
Latin America was his special concern, and Trujillo was not the only dictator to feel his impact. Decades before Chávez emerged, Porter met with Venezuelan President Betancourt as he sought to democratize neighbors south of the border. He told me of his admiration for Cuba's Castro, who he felt was forced into some dictatorial behavior by the arrogance of a US government unsuccessful in destroying the tiny island off the Florida coast.
Porter was a founder of the Wayne Morse Historical Park, honoring the Oregon senator known for gadfly qualities that came to be part of the Porter persona. More than once I heard him speak proudly about how "Wayne would have been with me in working to save separation of church and state on Skinner Butte, and to bring justice to those Justices who wrongly appointed George Bush president."
Now his white horse has been led to pasture. But whenever courage is shown in the face of powerful self-interest, we in Oregon can be reminded of Charlie Porter.
A Don Quixote who supported the "Little People" . . .