OSU Libraries | OSU Home

An interview former US Congressman Les AuCoin

October 10, 2019

We’re starting off the beginning of fall by celebrating one of our new releases! Former US Congressman Les AuCoin’s debut memoir, Catch and Release: An Oregon Life in Politics, explores the intricacies of power, privilege and the importance of fighting for your community. Today on our blog, AuCoin—first Democrat to hold a seat in Oregon’s First Congressional District—shares with OSU Press interns Isaiah Holbrook and Ashley Hay the purpose of memoir writing, the current state of mass media, and the search for balance between personal and political narratives.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Isaiah: We noticed that you refrain from speaking explicitly about our current political climate in your memoir. Why did you choose to stay away from this topic?

Les: I set out to write a memoir, not an op-ed. I have a journalism background. I’ve written many op-eds, which are statements of opinion, which cover things like the inadequacies of standard journalism, the direction it’s heading, the critiques of politicians and political movements. If I had spent a lot of time banging Trump around, my book would’ve been no different than a thousand others that are doing the same thing, either banging him around or praising him. On the other hand, no one knows my life story except me. And my purpose was to tell my life story and let readers see what is relevant to them and in this moment in their personal life and our national life.

Ashley: Could you talk a little bit more about the audience that you envision for this book? Who are you writing to? Who do you think should be reading this?

Les: I did not want to write a textbook. It’s for the general public. I wanted to show how Congress once was, and how it can work, and how far we’ve drifted away from that so that people can realize that a return to better days is possible. I also wanted to show the basic daily sociology of the Congress. At any one moment, there’s five hundred and thirty-five lives living under Capital dome. You have cads and courageous people. You have normal people and despicable ones. I wanted to show the range of behaviors and the types of people that are there. Through the eyes of somebody who lived it. I think that today overwhelmingly people see Congress through the lens of the mass media. It’s always about political horse-races and the fight. But in the Capitol, life is not all about fighting. There are wonderful moments of quiet courage, along with moments of human duplicity. Most of the human moments are never covered in the news; they don’t make the definition of “news.”

Ashley: Do you have any particular moment that comes to mind as an example of what you would want to see in the news? I think this is an interesting perspective to take since you did start in journalism—what would you want to see reported?

Les: I think journalism has really degraded since my day and since its heyday in the 40s and 50s. Today, most decisions made in newspapers, and in TV news, are to get advertising revenue. But business values are not news values. The problem is that in a democratic republic, the media used to be considered the “fourth estate,” and it functioned as an intermediary between the elected and the electors. Its job was to report news from the life of the voters to those who are elected and to funnel information back to the electors, to explain why their elected representatives did whatever they did. That’s fundamental for a democracy. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter channeled Thomas Jefferson when he said “an ignorant people cannot remain free.” If we have a media that’s not edifying, that instead is titillating and entertaining, the public becomes more and more ignorant. So that’s my beef with the modern media. Please note the difference between criticism of the media and Donal Trump’s. In his view, uncomplimentary news is “fake.”

Ashley: We noticed that you’re not afraid of addressing your political opinions in your book at all. Did you ever want to shy away from any of those political opinions? Was there anything that you were debating about including in the memoir?

Les: This book is about my life, an intrinsic part of which involves my political values. They’ve changed and evolved but they’re part of me. If people get steamed and throw the book down, well that’s fine, this is America, they can buy Rush Limbaugh’s book. But I’ll say this and I won’t go into any more details. There was one passage in the chapter about Senator Bob Packwood, who defeated me narrowly in a Senate race that effectively ended my career. There was a segment about my early exposure to him, something that had happened. I decided it was so sensational it would eclipse everything else in the book. I cut it out so that it wouldn’t happen.

Isaiah: You write about how it was for you to be in Congress, and there are many threads in your memoir. What do you feel is the ultimate takeaway from your memoir?

Les: Well you know, the ultimate takeaway depends on each reader. A memoir is not an autobiography. It is slices of memory. In a memoir, you shouldn’t preach at people or forced-feed a conclusion. You want to lay out a story, or stories, that actually have been lived. They might inspire some folks and revolt others. Either reaction is fine. This book is story-telling--tales that one man lived, for whatever value it may be for others on their human journey.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Les AuCoin represented Oregon in the US House for eighteen years until 1992, when he gave up his seat to run for the Senate. He is an award-winning magazine editor and public radio commentator, and his articles have appeared in major newspapers throughout the country. He lives with his wife, Sue, in Portland, Oregon.

Member of AAUP