Joe Miller, Oregon's first Democratic media consultant

By Grant Schott of Fossil, Oregon. Grant is a union organizer and political activist. Previously, he contributed "Remembering Ted Kennedy's Visits to Oregon".

Now one of the most Democratic states in the country, it is hard to believe that less than 60 years ago, Oregon had no elected Democrats statewide or in its four member U.S. congressional delegation. It was in that bleak environment that 32 year old Joseph S. Miller helped elect the first Democrat U.S. Senator from Oregon in 40 years, and subsequently became one of the first and best known media consultants for Democratic candidates nationally. 'Smiling Joe' Miller's fascinating story is vividly and candidly recounted in his memoir The Wicked Wine of Democracy.

Born into a riches-to-rags Depression-era family in New York, Miller traveled to the Northwest as a child and fell in love with it, returning by hitchhiking several times as a teenager. He graduated from UO in journalism in 1943, and was briefly a sports writer for the Oregon Journal and other Northwest papers. Politically motivated, Miller moved to Seattle in the late 40s to work for the short lived League for the Columbia Valley Authority and then the U.S. Office of Price Stabilization, where he became acquainted with an aspiring Congressman, Henry 'Scoop' Jackson. As a well-placed volunteer with Jackson's victorious 1952 U.S Senate campaign, Miller marveled at what an impact a flattering painting of Jackson used widely on billboards and posters had on voters.

Two years later, Miller returned to Oregon to take charge of the uphill US Senate candidacy of a good friend, journalist and legislator Richard Neuberger. Miller's hopes for a Jackson style billboard campaign were immediately dashed, as the candidate had pledged "I am not a billboard candidate." Neuberger's wife and fellow legislator, Maurine, had a perfect voice for radio ads which were widely played. Neuberger himself wasn't a natural for the new medium of television, but surrogates Senator Wayne Morse (then an Independent) and Oregon Democratic chair Howard Morgan (who had toiled to build the party with the Neubergers and State Senator Monroe Sweetland), were effective on the air. Miller's ads, combined with Neuberger's support for public power and organized labor's fist major electoral effort in Oregon, resulted in a squeaker victory over incumbent Guy Cordon. The victory launched the beginning of a still-vibrant Democratic Party in Oregon.

Miller went to DC in 1956 to work as political director for the Democratic Senate Campaign committee under the iron fist of Lyndon Johnson and the two took an immediate dislike to each other.

Dispatched to help candidates nationally, Miller racked up an impressive streak of wins and was heralded by the Washington Post as "the Democrats' answer to Madison Avenue." He retained his Northwest ties by giving special attention to the re-election victories of Morse in Oregon (who had become a Democrat a year earlier) and Washington's Warren Magnuson, while helping a 30 year old novice, Frank Church, win his first of four Senate elections in Idaho.

Recruited in 1959 by Senator John F. Kennedy as a strategist and delegate hunter for his 1960 presidential campaign, Miller had the unfortunate task of telling the Senator that his younger brother was not welcome in Oregon, a key primary state. Bobby's pursuit of popular Portland Mayor Terry Shruck during the Senate Labor Rackets hearings had angered many Oregon Democrats. A nervous Miller, in what he admits was his greatest blunder ever, used the poor choice of "horse's ass" to describe Bobby to JFK's face. A furious Bobby minimized Miller's public role in the campaign, although he remained a key player behind the scenes.

After Kennedy's narrow victory, Miller became a lobbyist for labor and timber interests, chiefly the Western Forest Industries Association which represented smaller timber companies. Miller describes the timber wars of the 60s as between his clients, who wanted limitless federal timber at auctions, vs. big operators like Weyerhaeuser, who wanted to export raw logs. The wars shifted to the industry vs. environmentalists in the 70s. Miller first saw the National Forest Management Act of 1976 as innocuous, but it was the beginning of significant change because of greatly increased funding for biologists and ecologists, paving the way for the spotted owl's protection in 1990. Although then opposed to owl protection, Miller concludes that "the industry's response to the owl was akin to the auto industries responded to OPEC's oil prices increases: it got smart."

Miller devotes his last chapter to money in politics, the inspiration for the book's title. He recalls that in pre-Watergate days, cash flowed freely both as legitimate campaign contributions and as bribes for votes, with the line often blurred. Miller admits to passing around his share of "dead presidents", recalling a refrain from some lawmakers: "give him the checks and I'll take the cash." The 1974 Campaign Finance Act, he remarks, greatly regulated the system but also gave birth to PACS, resulting in a huge influx of new money into campaigns.

For a relatively short book, Joe Miller's memoir is packed full of fascinating political anecdotes as well as public policy discussions. Students of Northwest political history, in particular, won't want to pass up what longtime Seattle journalist Shelby Scates says in the book's forward, a book that "may be the most relevant look at American politics in the last half of the twentieth century that you will ever read."

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    Great post Grant. Perhaps one I should have done years ago.

    I read the book shortly after it came out. Mr. Miller spoke to a group in Portland in support of the book and one of the attendees enthusiastically spoke of the presentation and the book. Being a political geek, I bought it the and read a good chunk of it on a trip to DC.

    Coincidentally, Mr. Miller was at the dinner I was attending while in DC so I got to have a great conversation with him as well. I felt pretty lucky and had this image in my head of him as I finished the final chapters on my return trip. The book is as good as any political biography I've read.

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      Yes, thank you Grant for a great post. This book is the first one on my post-election reading list -- and I'm two chapters in already.

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    I'm old enough to remember Richard Neuberger and his wife, Maurine, who became senator on his death. I'm also old enough to remember the dramatic conversion of Wayne Morse from Ind. to Dem. It was a real tragedy when Bob Packwood,serial philanderer and weasel, unseated one of the greatest senators of the 20th century, perhaps Oregon's greatest senator ever, Wayne Morse, in 1968.

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      For the record, Maurine was elected in her own right. When Richard died, the Governor appointed Hall Lusk. In 1960, Maurine won two simultaneous elections - a special election to serve out the last two ("lame duck") months of Richard's term, and a general election commencing in January 1961.

      Oregon can be proud that it's first (and, so far, only) woman Senator was elected in her own right - not appointed as a placeholder for her late husband.

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    Thank you for both the book suggestion and posting.

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