Every now and then when I think about Republicans who wouldn’t make it in today’s political climate — yes, I actually think about these things — the name of Victor Atiyeh pops into my skull.
I didn’t know Atiyeh well, although I knew plenty about him. I met him once while he was campaigning for Oregon governor back in 1978. I was a reporter working for the Oregon City Enterprise-Courier — a small suburban afternoon paper about 15 miles south of Portland. In those days, politicians thought it was important to talk even to small papers in order to get their message out to the voters.
Atiyeh, who died this week at age 91, had served many years in the Oregon Legislature. He was running against Democratic Gov. Bob Straub in 1978. The contrast between the men was striking.
Straub, a nice guy, was a scatter-shot speaker, unfocused, rambling and seemingly nervous to be in the presence of us small-town media types.
Atiyeh was the picture of coolness and calm. I remember that he smoked like a freight train during our interview. The Republican challenger was focused, engaging, looked me in the eye when giving direct answers to direct questions.
Atiyeh won that election and would win re-election four years later.
Here’s a couple of things about Atiyeh that need saying. One is that he was the first politician of Arab descent ever elected to a governor’s office in the United States. The other is that he was a consummate “establishment, mainstream Republican” who made tough choices they needed to be made. An editorial in the Portland Oregonian spells that out:
Atiyeh likely couldn’t cut it in today’s Republican Party. He was as staunch a Republican as any politician of his time. Today, though, being faithful to the GOP’s traditional pro-business, low-tax mantra isn’t good enough. You have to be mean-spirited, angry, obstructionist and accusatory — all traits that Vic Atiyeh never exhibited.
He was a gentleman through and through and he turned out to be a very good governor of my home state.
May this good man rest in peace.