Richard Neuberger

Oregon Sen. Richard Neuberger, left, speaks with Adlai Stevenson, Democratic candidate for president twice in the 1950s.

The fleeting shelf life of fame is nowhere better illustrated than in politics. A typical city mayor or state legislator has no greater chance of being remembered beyond their term in office than does a homecoming queen from two towns over.

This is true even of lofty federal officials. It’s a freakishly rare and obsessive person who can name the vice presidents of the 20th century, far less their state’s past 20 U.S. senators. Political power and popularity are effervescent but go flat faster than cheap champagne. (For too many elected leaders, ill-gotten wealth is some consolation for being forgotten.)

Nowadays, though, American politics — and particularly the U.S. Senate — are so broken that some of us are positively nostalgic for past generations of almost-anonymous politicians. Certainly, there were contemptible scoundrels like Joe McCarthy and Jim Crow apologists led by Strom Thurmond. But on the positive side, Northwest leaders like Oregon’s Mark Hatfield, Washington’s Warren Magnuson, Montana’s Mike Mansfield and Wyoming’s Gale McGee were warm and genuine men. Egotistical for sure, but they put public service first.

Their accomplishments remind us of how America became, at least for a time, the envy of the world. By reexamining what they achieved and how they did it, we may perhaps be inspired to elect a new crop of truly great U.S. senators from both parties.

As many have observed before, maybe it was their shared experience of the Great Depression and World War II that forged an ability to strongly advocate for opposing ideas, while retaining the ability to sometimes compromise on behalf of solutions that worked well for most citizens. Hardship gave rise to a kind of generosity within conflict. It was a time when the expression “ladies and gentlemen” came with an expectation that leaders and citizens alike embody the virtues required to actually be a lady or a gentleman.

Neuberger: A name to remember

Even for most Oregonians, the name Richard Neuberger is unlikely to immediately spring to mind as a member of the pantheon of noteworthy national leaders from the Pacific Northwest. He died in 1960 just before completing a first six-year term in office, and so never had a chance to acquire the seniority needed to score many political or appropriations victories.

However, as an eyewitness and inspired writer on the gargantuan upheavals of the years just before and after World War II, Neuberger has few equals. His 1933 reporting on Germany’s slide into a venomous dictatorship opened many eyes to the growing potential for a planet-gripping conflict.

“One must see for himself before he can realize the horror and hopelessness of the situation,” he wrote. “I write that statement advisedly, for three months ago I myself was not aware of the brutality and thoroughness with which the Nazis have abrogated the right of citizenship to the Jewish people. In fact, as I look in retrospect at the days before I visited the vast fortress that is Germany, I wonder how I ever could have so minimized in my mind the catastrophe which has overtaken the Jews in that country.”

For years Neuberger continued to be at the forefront of telling his contemporaries of approaching events. So while he didn’t achieve lasting greatness in the Senate, his intrepid adventures would certainly make for a compelling book. He is like a figure out of heroic fiction.

As it happens, a book on Neuberger is underway. In fact, Oregon newsman Steve Forrester, who observed him at close distance as a teenager in his parents’ Pendleton home, is telling his story as part of a forthcoming book about “Eminent Oregonians” and later in a full-fledged biography. In Forrester’s telling, Neuberger’s inspired body of writing and moral courage richly deserve to remembered. In a Feb. 18 appearance at Columbia Forum — information and tickets at https://tinyurl.com/Forum-Neuberger — Forrester will tell what many months of research have revealed about this singularly fascinating figure.

“Looking at that life, some 60 years beyond his death, it appears Neuberger was a man who lived at such a pace and took such risks that he seemed to sense he would be dead by the age of 47,” Forrester says. “His cosmic equivalent is a meteor — a brilliant light streaking through the night sky and suddenly gone. In fact, upon his election to the U.S. Senate, the York, Pennsylvania Gazette and Daily carried a cartoon of ‘a comet streaking through the sky labeled Sen. Neuberger Victory.’”

History-making in its own right, Neuberger’s hard-won victory to the U.S. Senate in 1954 — becoming the first Oregon Democrat elected to that office in 40 years — tipped the balance of power, making Lyndon Johnson majority leader and setting the stage for the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and other advances of the 1960s.

Yukon coincidence

In a coincidence, Neuberger might have crossed paths with my dad, Elmer C. Winters. Researching a Father’s Day column about Dad’s work on the Alaska Highway and the CANOL oil pipeline project, Neuberger turns up as a lieutenant working as an aide to Gen. James O’Connor.

O’Connor was promoted in 1942 to lead efforts to link Alaska with the U.S. mainland as Japan threatened to cut off seaborne materiel routes in the Pacific. A captain in the Quartermaster Corps, Dad was grappling with supply shortages in the Yukon portion of the project as winter approached. In common with many who “fought the road,” in the minus-60 nights he suffered frostbite that degraded his circulation for the rest of his life.

Neuberger wrote memos and reported from the scene for Army publications. With his usual verve, he wrote of a “Yukonized” summit conference: “I was awakened by a gentle padding on the lumber floor. … General O’Connor, in his long underwear, with his fur cap on his head and his parka thrown round his shoulders, was tip-toeing to the door. He threw it open and in walked [Canadian] Generals Pearkes and Ganong.”

While it’s only a wild guess that Dad and Neuberger may have played cards and shared a cigar in the Yukon, it’s certain they did share a sincere belief in America and our ability to help navigate a positive course for the world. Our times call for the same kind of smart and hardy citizens willing to lead.

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