OPB Documentary examines the life of a political maverick

Wayne Morse served four terms (1945-1969) in the U.S. Senate. He represented Oregon with brilliance and bravado, and he followed a vision of “principle above politics.”

A former campaign staff member recalled: “Morse did his homework. He had contempt for senators who did not do the homework.” He could be quick to criticize and unwilling to compromise. And by changing political parties twice, he managed to rankle just about everybody at one time or another. But he also championed the U.S. Constitution with diligence. And guided by the rule of law, he sponsored a wide range of legislation that was well ahead of its time. The next episode of OPB’s OREGON EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, February 21 at 8pm, examines the life of the man who, though not Oregon-born, came to personify the feisty spirit of his adopted home state.

The Wisconsin native came to Oregon from the University of Minnesota where he had taught speech and studied law. He moved to the Eugene area in 1929 to teach law at the University of Oregon. And at age 31, he became the youngest law school dean in the country.

In the early days of collective bargaining, back when few rules existed for solving workplace conflicts, Morse arbitrated some of the country’s biggest labor disputes. His repeated success with longshoremen’s issues earned him the nickname, “Boss of the Waterfront.” And at the outset of World War II, President Roosevelt appointed him to the National War Labor Board.

In 1944 he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and won. But in 1952, he supported Democrat Adlai Stevenson for president, in protest of Dwight Eisenhower’s policies, and declared himself an Independent. Then, in 1955, this self-described liberal decided to become a Democrat.

Morse promoted civil rights, funding for education, equal rights for women and health care for the elderly – often long before these issues drew public attention. But with the onset of the Vietnam War, other matters would, in his words, “pale to insignificance.”

Morse had warned of an American war in Vietnam – a full decade before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution formally started it. He was one of just two members of Congress to vote against it. And for the rest of his career, Morse led a national outcry to end the war and bring the troops home.

“The famous line is that Morse didn’t come early or late to the peace movement. There was a time when he was the peace movement,” said Ron Abell, one of Morse’s campaign workers interviewed in the documentary.

In 1968, Morse’s bid for re-election did not go as expected, and a young, media-savvy Bob Packwood defeated the incumbent by a slim margin. Morse ran for the Senate again in 1972, challenging Mark Hatfield, and lost. In 1974 he challenged Senator Packwood for his old seat, but as the campaign began to gather steam, Morse passed away.

Senator Edward Kennedy said of the man known as “The Tiger of the Senate”: “Wayne Morse was daily proof in the halls of Congress that an individual can make a difference … That a single voice of integrity, insight, understanding and compassion can change America and alter the flow of history.”

OREGON EXPERIENCE Producer Eric Cain said: “Morse was a complicated and fascinating man. Many Oregonians today don’t remember much about him, if they remember him at all. But here was a man who insisted that a democracy can succeed only if its citizens have access to the facts. He believed that government plays an important role in protecting people’s rights and freedoms. He was a politician whose vote could not be bought. I think the life and work of Wayne Morse are well-worth a fresh look.”

“Wayne Morse” was produced by Eric Cain and edited by OPB’s Bruce Barrow.

Watch OREGON EXPERIENCE: WAYNE MORSE online anytime after the broadcast at watch.opb.org.

OREGON EXPERIENCE is an exciting history series on OPB TV that brings to life fascinating stories that help us understand who we are and that reinforce our shared identity as Oregonians. The series, co-produced by the Oregon Historical Society and Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), takes advantage of the extensive film, video and stills from the archives of OHS and OPB, and draws upon the expertise of OHS researchers and historians. Each half-hour show features captivating characters – both familiar and forgotten – who have played key roles in building our state into the unique place we call home. Funding for OREGON EXPERIENCE is provided in part by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and Oregon Cultural Trust.

About OPB

OPB is the largest cultural and education institution in the region, delivering excellence in public broadcasting to 1.5 million people each week through television, radio and the Internet. Widely recognized as a national leader in the public broadcasting arena, OPB is a major contributor to the program schedule that serves the entire country. OPB is one of the most-used and most-supported public broadcasting services in the country and is generously supported by 115,000 contributors.