Jeb Bladine - Sharp, but not barbed
By JEB BLADINE
For the News-Register
Henry Reeves contributed opinions to our Readers’ Forum for many years. His death this month leaves a hole in those columns because his was a voice that often disagreed vehemently with views we expressed in News-Register editorials.
He was “Milt” to family and friends, but I won’t take the liberty of using that familiar name here. He was so opposed to some of our opinions he might have become one of our most ardent detractors.
But here’s the unusual thing: Thinking back, I couldn’t remember a single time when one of his letters criticized our newspaper or its specific editorial opinions. That disparity sent me into our electronic newspaper archives going back to 1999, and it substantiated my memory of his letters.
In the process, I found myself thinking about two different kinds of commentators — those who heap criticism on people holding opposing views, and those who simply state their own case without needing to disparage others.
Even when whimsical, always on point
Henry Milton Reeves, 85, served in the U.S. Navy and had a much-admired career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. In retirement, he and his wife, Merilyn, moved to Amity, where he built a home, made furniture and continued his lifelong passion for scientific writings about wildlife.
Last year, they celebrated 60 years of marriage. His obituary said, “She will miss his love, sense of humor, intelligence and many talents. News-Register readers may miss his pointed and whimsical letters to the editor.”
He was often a bit whimsical, but Henry always made his point.
In 2004, commenting on the traits of an unnamed Republican president, he wrote about “Insane Cowboy Disease, Texas Strain,” as a satire on Mad Cow Disease.
In 2011, he suggested that an enlarged Riverbend landfill “might become a notable landmark to tourists,” and that it “could be renamed Mt. Trashmore and mounted with statues honoring those who made the achievement possible, as well as scenic viewpoints, much like scenic Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.”
Commenting on America’s loss of manufacturing jobs, Henry reasoned that we should learn to export what we make best: “Things such as burgers, fries, pizzas, espresso, buffalo wings, billboards, exercise machines, fish and chips, cigarettes, health foods, light beer, vitamin pills, cartoons, lattes, doughnuts, junk mail, chewing tobacco, credit cards and financial ‘products.’ Just think of all the low-paying jobs this increased production would create.”
His own approach to commentary
Whimsy, however, was just a small part of Henry’s repertoire. He practiced a form of commentary I would call “sharp, but usually not barbed.”
Sometimes, it was extra-sharp, especially toward former President George W. Bush. Between 2003 and 2006, Henry flayed the president on issues ranging from the economy to Iraq, from domestic policies to Hurricane Katrina.
“To paraphrase Churchill,” he wrote in 2005, “never has a U.S. president alienated so many, so quickly, for so little cause. Presidential ignorance combined with arrogance makes a very expensive witch’s brew that is giving us far more than a mere bellyache.”
On issues of politics, Henry primarily excoriated Republicans. He was a constant critic of former legislator and county commissioner Leslie Lewis, and to a lesser degree, of former state Sen. Gary George.
And how did he feel about News-Register positions? Well, let me count the ways:
Henry intensely disliked a president we supported in two elections. When we criticized Friends of Yamhill County, we were targeting a group that he and Merilyn supported and on which she served as long-time board member and president. He thought the Newberg-Dundee Bypass, which we supported for decades, was a huge waste of money.
The bypass, perhaps, was his favorite topic. Henry’s final letter to us, published in January, summed up his opinion of the project:
“We don’t know the final costs of the completed bypass nor the necessary local contribution by the county and affected cities. Every cost estimate is higher than the previous one. And who will pay for maintenance and fee collection costs, also undetermined, for only the truncated Phase One of the 11-mile corridor? We appear to be buying the proverbial pig in a poke.”
Disagreement not universal
In those matters, Henry’s opinions clearly ran counter to ours. Yet, over those years, not a word of derision came our way. The one comment I found about the newspaper was words of praise for our 2001 water series, “All Tapped Out,” which Henry called “investigative reporting at its best.”
Here, maybe, was the answer to my question: Our differences with Henry were far from universal.
In 2000, he shared our criticism of Measure 7 — the “takings” law that Oregonians approved but the state Supreme Court rejected. In 2007, we favored a legislative fix to soften the negative land-use impact of voter-approved Measure 37, and Henry was on the same side, though slightly more animated when he wrote:
“Remember the Thirty-Seveners, outfitted and grub-staked by Oregonians in Action to pan for wealth from Oregonians’ prime agricultural and forest lands and ground waters? Measure 37 is pitting neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends and even relatives against kin. In short, it results in unforeseen ills that even the promoters of the legislation never envisioned. Measure 37 is not only a mess but also a fraud.”
Henry also shared our assessment of the U.S. Congress and the American public in 2011 when he wrote:
“While nearly all agree that Congress is dysfunctional, we bear much of the blame ourselves because we demand too much of it and adamantly refuse to pay the costs. That aside, we can greatly improve the overburdened legislative processes … Prohibit a member from singlehandedly impeding or stopping the legislative process. Require that all funding, including military, be within the general budget. Require that the House and Senate establish standardized rules for the legislative process.”
Yet the question remained
Even with those areas of agreement, it didn’t quite explain why Henry Reeves passed up so many opportunities to remind readers that certain opinions published under our editorial masthead ran so counter to his own.
Perhaps, the answer was a trait Merilyn Reeves captured in one of many letters she has written over those same years. Here, from 2010, is an excerpt from her letter about civility:
“Civility is defined as polite behavior. It cannot be enforced, and no laws require civility. But I believe public policy problems are more easily addressed when all respect the opinion and views of others. Elected officials can set an example, making certain that meetings are conducted in a fair and impartial manner with respect for all … One cannot force respect or civility. But our county and our nation face many difficult problems that cannot be solved without trust, respect and a return to civility.”
Perhaps Henry “Milt” Reeves was simply being civil in his commentary by not targeting our opposing views. Perhaps it was a respect for the value of a free marketplace of ideas. Certainly it entailed a personal belief that the positive expressions of his ideas would be more powerful than if he burdened those ideas with criticism of others.
As we say goodbye to Henry, we add our gratitude for his many contributions to our commentary section. We also hope that his approach to commentary is passed along to others, near and far.
Jeb Bladine editor and publisher of the News-Register, can be reached at email@example.com or 503-687-1223.