Commentary: Gordon Sondland and the curious curse of the ambitious Oregonian
Chuck Slothower: Like many prominent players in the state who've come before him, Gordon Sondland clearly craved the national stage — hence his $1 million donation to Trump's inauguration and subsequent appointment to an ambassadorship.
In Oregon, Gordon Sondland, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, is known for his hip boutique hotels and generous donations to local politicians and charitable causes.
For instance, children can tour the Portland Art Museum free of charge because of a $1 million donation from Sondland and his wife, Katherine Durant. His donations to politicians have been somewhat less well-received, with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, recently passing Sondland's contributions to charity as the ambassador to the European Union earned headlines.
Sondland is something of an odd figure in Portland — neither from the city, nor quite of it — though he is a creature of the Northwest. He doesn't have an Oregon story like that of Nike billionaire Phil Knight, who famously sold track shoes out of the back of his car. Sondland was raised in the Seattle area and maintains a legal address there for what are surely sentimental reasons wholly unrelated to Oregon's hefty income tax. (Washington state has no income tax.) Neither does he quite fit the spirit of the place, as a wealthy Ayn Rand devotee in an increasingly liberal Democratic state that prides itself on a certain egalitarianism.
If there's one thing that marks Sondland as a true Oregonian, it's his thirst for national relevance. We Pacific Northwesterners may lay claim to a certain Left Coast independence, but that doesn't mean we don't want recognition. Like many prominent players in the state who've come before him, Sondland clearly craved the national stage — hence his $1 million donation to Trump's inauguration and subsequent appointment to an ambassadorship. Like most of those who've reached that stage, he fell on his face not long after finding his light. Call it the political Oregonian's curse, a desire to be seen that often ends up showing us at our worst.
It's tempting, then, to read Sondland's saga as an Icarus-like rise and fall of a locally significant businessman exposed by the searing heat of national politics. He could have continued to quietly accumulate capital in the Pacific Northwest, accepting praise for the occasional donation and playing in local politics. But that wasn't enough for him, just as it hasn't been enough for many of the region's power players in the past.
Many prominent Pacific Northwesterners have tried and failed to be taken seriously by the East Coast political establishment. Sondland, at least, found a way in, though only for a price.
Other people have failed to make it that far, though not always for want of funds. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a Stanford and Princeton graduate who once led the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic climate leader with the square jaw of a vintage Hollywood star, were unceremoniously shooed off the presidential nominating stage with nary a second glance.
Will Kate Brown, a formidable and popular Democratic Oregon governor, have national ambitions in a few years? If she does, will she be taken seriously? Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, was not. As she'll surely learn, an ambitious Oregonian has a high and perhaps insurmountable bar to clear to earn national media exposure, campaign donations and influence. Maybe this sense of helplessness, the feeling that meritocracy moves faster in Eastern time, could yield to self-destructive tendencies. Oregon's political scandals have been notable for their sheer recklessness and stupidity.
Long ago, there was Wayne Morse, a brilliant senator from Oregon who later became famous for his principled opposition to the Vietnam War, and who made an apologetic run for president before ceding to John F. Kennedy, the East Coast establishment made corporeal. If you don't remember him, no harm done. It probably just means you're not from Oregon.
Oregon icons John Kitzhaber and Bob Packwood seemed promising once, before being brought down by scandals. Sen. Packwood was a #MeToo figure before its time, resigning amid a cascade of sexual harassment allegations. Former Gov. Kitzhaber's legacy was tarnished when he involved his partner in the state's energy policy. Like Morse before them, both vanished from the national conversation.
Perhaps the next time Oregon produces a Morse, Merkley or Brown, someone who is smart and does not appear to be primarily motivated by a thirst for attention, that person will be taken seriously by the East Coast political establishment. Until then, Gordon Sondland — a man who seems happy just to be noticed — may be the best we can hope for.
Sondland, in an unmistakable statement that he had made it out of town, was photographed during the impeachment hearing last week wearing a $55,000 Breguet wristwatch. No fleece vest for him.
Some may have been puzzled that Sondland seemed relaxed — even pleased — to be the subject of a probing congressional hearing, laughing and smiling amid the sharp questions about bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors.
Perhaps Sondland's mien wasn't so curious after all. You see, you were finally paying attention to him. As for the pickle he found himself in? Surely he knew that was coming, if only because of from where he was coming. He has had his 15 minutes of fame. Now, for Sondland, like many ambitious Oregonians before him, it is time to come home.
Chuck Slothower is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.