The Office of the President Emeritus: University of Oregon

Speeches and Writings

"What Goes Around…" (or "Running for Sheriff")

Round Table of Eugene1
February 12, 2008

Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon

"What goes around…" seemed a great topical placeholder some months ago. It was designed in Round Table tradition to disguise my subject; maybe to attract a curious audience; and also to put off for a day—or a week—the daunting task of deciding what subject of personal interest might really engage the discerning intellects of this distinguished peer group for the next hour or so.

"What goes around"… as this saying of indeterminate American origin usually continues, "comes around." Even without the research skills honed by Google and Wikipedia, my paper might—with great authenticity—begin to explore concepts of reincarnation; or to examine contours of a legal theory of punishment for just desserts; or to discover insights from a Buddhist treatise on the "Wheel of Life." Or (if we are honest) it could engage our dreams of "revenge" for past slights or insults: If it does "come around"—this is the ecstasy of the knockout punch; the perfect public put-down of an adversary; or the cutting epithet that silences, indeed cripples a critic or foe.

Alas, the Google temptation also leads us elsewhere. Justin Timberlake had a hit song of this title. His now sad and presently hospitalized ex-companion Brittany Spears sang a lyric with this line. A London playwright made the saying a briefly successful theatre title. And the list continues.

But sometimes, what "goes around" means oppressive conditions are too much to take, and we want someone to stand up and just do something about it. The recent Oscar-winning film, "No Country for Old Men" poses the theme poignantly. A sheriff steps down when the new age finally overwhelms. We hope someone authentic, not a coward or a sleaze merchant, will step up to be sheriff. In reflecting on that old sheriff, I was reminded of an intriguing 15 word quote, and beyond that, of a topic.


Forty-eight years ago, the legendary Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn, spoke those 15 words to his protégé Lyndon Johnson, then just elected vice president of the United States.

Johnson seemed overwhelmed by the intellectual and academic credentials of President John Kennedy's aides. Johnson spoke of them in glowing, if somewhat awed, terms.

Rayburn was Johnson's fellow Texan, a man who had been in the midst of every major congressional battle since the Great Depression (he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1912 and never faced a Republican opponent for the next 48 years – something many of us, Republican or Democrat, would undergo the removal of teeth without anesthesia to experience).

Rayburn listened to Johnson's thoughts on Kennedy's brilliant New Frontier aides and then is reported to have replied:

"I'd feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff just once."2

The question I explore is – what did old Sam Rayburn mean when he said he'd feel better if some of "them" had run for sheriff just once?

What is it that sets apart those who choose to "run for sheriff?"

What insights and character traits did Sam Rayburn feel might be missing from a person chosen for a position of public trust if that person were someone of intellectual power or academic insight alone – or even a member of the loyal partisan posse – but hadn't "run?"

I present these thoughts to you in part autobiographically as an electoral veteran with some scar tissue. In the past, I ran for the legislature, attorney general and governor – often successfully, one time not. Visibly not. Very publically not. And I can say – there is something about the run for sheriff – the run for any office - that changes you, that . . . well . . . let's look at what it does.


There are – and I do speak from my own experience – at least two levels at which running for sheriff makes its mark on the one who does it.

There is the external – the way you think and feel and relate to the world around you, on the streets of town. And there is the internal – the way you are with yourself during and after such an experience – win or lose.

Let's look first at the world outside, the streets of town.

What did Mr. Speaker Sam Rayburn mean?


First, he must have meant that when you run for sheriff you need to understand more deeply what it means to know the people – to know when they have spoken or whether they have – to have a greater sense for the democratic process – to have a real appreciation of what it means to receive what I can only call "the blessing of the people," as in "We the people… ." You may "feel their pain," or say you do. But if you don't have a dose of the empathy gene somewhere in your DNA, you won't really have run.

In that response to the people, I believe he also meant that it should lead us to comprehend the reality of pluralism, that different people hold different convictions, that people really can be – really are – very different, and that one of our strengths is in our – and I use the word purposefully – in our diversity. Thirty-four years ago, Ted Kulongoski, now our Governor, told me—even as he ran for State Representative in a district adjacent to mine —that I'd win or lose "west of Willamette" where pickups, gun racks and country and western radio station bumper stickers outweighed the emblems of the University of Oregon precincts. He was right, and I won in big part by paying attention to folks there.


I believe Sam Rayburn understood that the run for office should lead us to the realization that election to office is not the same thing as a reaffirmation of our own single-minded zeal. Some deeper sense of responsibility is joined with the reward of election.

Running for sheriff should place us in the world – our communities and neighborhoods – in such a way that we understand that deeply-held values actually do clash and that in this real world you can't usually have it all.


The person who runs for sheriff also learns what it means to make a promise. It is easy to be promiscuous in promises, to cater to the particular hopes of a particular audience, to try to give everything to everyone every time.

But if you run for sheriff – and understand what it will mean to be elected – you have to be careful with promises made, because all promises cannot be kept.

Promises may not seem to cost much to make, but unkept promises create backlashes that hurt, not only the one making the promise, but also the people who were promised – and the process of democracy itself.

Politicians often are criticized for the vagueness of their words, and the woman or man who runs for sheriff must speak with a clarity and straightforwardness that can be understood. But I also believe that a certain ambiguity is not invariably bad. It may be better not to promise than to promise what you know can't be delivered.

It is the rare candidate for sheriff who can promise to clean up the town of gunslingers – and then follow through 100 percent. As we all know from the westerns, there's always another gunslinger waiting to take on the hero.


In this same line of thinking, I also believe that Sam Rayburn understood that compromise is not a dirty word. He understood that compromise holds a respected and vital place in American history.

Without the justly named "Great Compromise" at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 we would not have found the legislative balance between states and the electorate established in the United States Constitution by the creation of two houses – one for people, one for states irrespective of their population size. It is untidy, some say hopelessly messy, in academic theory, clearly – but somehow viable in practice.

Without compromise, we would have few if any bills from any of our representatives. Without compromise, government itself, as we treasure it in the United States, would not be possible.

The one who runs for sheriff needs to know the difference between the purity of good intentions and the reality of clashing interests. A moralistic hip-shooter may never get out of the box, or if he shoots too frequently, his box will be made of pine.

I am not saying, nor do I think that Mr. Rayburn believed, that there is not a time for the sheriff to stand out on Main Street and have it out at high noon – just that there need not, cannot, be a high noon showdown every day.

If you run for sheriff you need to know that it is foolish to burn your bridges when you don't have to…to walk alone so many times so self-righteously that no one wants to walk with you at all when it counts.

If you run for sheriff you also know that it is almost always smart to leave something on the other guy's plate. I heard that first from a fire-eating Texas populist—wiser by far than his public image as Texas Attorney General would suggest. Allowing an opponent a little self-dignity in a loss doesn't usually cost very much. It's typically the right thing to do, and it may offer an incredible and unexpected payoff somewhere down the road.

If you run for sheriff you learn that it is always nice to be able to be both smart and right – but if you think you can be smart and right every day, you're a prime candidate to be sold the Brooklyn Bridge for a buck.


And think of the audiences you get and the audiences you may want. When you run for sheriff, you hear the gossip about who's the gambler, the whore, the drunk, the preacher and the prude. You're told who's coward and who's citizen. None may behave as the stereotype and anyone can surprise you. But the voter who's venal or who's dumb as a post counts at the polls just as much in a democratic society as the smartest woman in the county—if she even is eligible to vote.


At the same time, it is absolutely necessary for the person elected sheriff to keep the peace. When the crowd is heading for the jail ready to lynch the accused murder suspect, the sheriff can't join in and be the zealot leading the mob. Of course not.

But neither can the sheriff just stand aside and let the mob rule – with the possible exception of a Clint Eastwood movie where waiting until the last moment is a part of the dramatic effect, where a hanging can be remedied by a single well-placed shot from a Colt .45.

Few of us in reality, though, can shoot straight enough at the rope to wait that long. (And see Sharon Stone's character in the otherwise forgotten film, The Quick and the Dead, to glimpse the true price of gun slinging accuracy). Most likely, the time to act is now.

As you run for sheriff, it dawns on you that the demands of running for office are not the same as the demands of serving and governing. In office, one has an obligation – one "promises" – to uphold the law, to protect the unprotected and helpless, to defend the majesty or simplicity of law even in the face of personal danger.


The sheriff is engaged and has to mix it up – even if at that same time the sheriff becomes someone else's amused spectator sport. Sheriffs can't be sideliners or sidewalk superintendents. She or he has to keep the peace. The alternative is breakdown and chaos, mob rule and anarchy, the vigilantism that so often replaces the law in the classic western.

If you help to keep the peace, you are assumed to accept personal responsibility for consequences—far beyond the responsibilities of advisers or observers or members of a brain trust.

Sam Rayburn must have known this. And he must have known that keeping the peace requires more than completing a tidy academic book chapter as one of JFK's new frontiersmen could easily do. It takes more than understanding how a syndicated columnist phrases a satisfying knife-twisting metaphor. It requires more than knowing how a hostile reporter constructs and mocks a two-dimensional stick figure of you. It's brains all right, but it's more.

When someone has to get a bruise or take a gut shot, your badge means you're the one to take it – you're the one mixing it up – your duty lies in the realm of action, not just in the world of the realm of thought and theory.

And so, at times, you stand alone against the mob, – the theme of so many westerns. The sheriff understands both the noble and high qualities of the human soul, and the tragic depths to which it can sink – as we were able to see in living color and perhaps all-too-enraptured slow motion on CNN of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, the massacres in Kenya or today's latest daily tragedies.

When you stand against the mob, understanding just how depraved humanity can become, you are, in spite of the odds, betting on the long run – betting that the nobler qualities will again surface and that your actions can enable them to do so. And your chosen words and actions may be a very direct part of this. If you don't appeal to "the better angels of our nature," as a famous frontier lawyer once put it, you'll probably see the worst.

But you also take your stand knowing that betting on the long run is a very hard thing to do, because many extremely desirable rewards are measured in the short term. And as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes once pointed out, "In the long run, we are all dead."

Often, of course, the mob may not be in the streets. It may be in the angry letters to the editor or the sarcastic voices that worm their way out of incendiary talk shows on radio or television – or more recently in the YouTube ambush or the caustic and nasty blog site that's suddenly hyperlinked to dozens of others.


Embedded in Sam Rayburn's comment to LBJ was, I believe, another question that any of us who run for sheriff have to ask ourselves – why do we do it? And when we do it, what do we give up? This is the unseen and unheralded battle.

These are the questions that explode within our own lives and those of family and loved ones. There's surprisingly little great literature written about this. Robert Penn Warrren's classic All the Kings' Men may come closest. A pseudo anonymous Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors, a thinly disguised parody of Bill Clinton. Theodore White's series on The Making of the President gave insider accounts, but not psychological ones. A couple of books about intellectuals in politics skate near this ground, but —oddly — it's fairly unexplored territory

So let's turn to the battle that goes on inside.

  • Running for sheriff is emotionally grueling: most of the pain deliberately is left inside.
  • You always wear your game face.
  • It is hard work – with long hours – it takes a high toll on your nerves, energy and sense of perspective.
  • You experience weight gain or loss – whichever you don't need.
  • You develop – maybe to your surprise – an extraordinary sensitivity to media attacks, anything you perceive as unfair criticism. You live in an echo chamber—perhaps of your own creation—that is always tuned to "high."
  • And the pain is not only experienced by you, but by the entire family—it's felt every time the daily paper hits the doorstep or driveway, every time a neighbor looks down or the other way, every time an acquaintance tells you how unfair the attack ad is that you haven't even yet seen on the T.V.

The theme song to the classic Gary Cooper western "High Noon" includes the unforgettable words, "Do not forsake me, oh, my darling."

Most of us probably have not been forsaken by our darlings as we headed for our electoral high noon – but we've known the pressures that family members have felt right long with each of us during a long and stressful campaign. Unhappily, it is too often we who have forsaken them.

Many years ago during one of my races, my son, now 33 – then about 8 – said to me, with the poignancy only a child can truly express, "Now I know why they call it a campaign – because there is so much pain in it!"

During my first campaign for the Oregon House of Representatives in South Eugene and Goshen, I wore out three pair of shoes, got two dog bites, and knocked on 9,000 doors.

Of those 9,000 doors some were opened to me by couples in the middle of marital squabbles . . . some by battered spouses . . . some by the recently bereaved . . . some by young families . . . others by the aged or unemployed….and some clearly under the influence of something that shouldn't be influencing them. Here's a true vignette from a high wealth precinct in 1974. Doorbell: "Who is it?" Answer: "I'm Dave Frohnmayer, running for State Representative!" Response: "Isshn't it too late to be a shhtate respresshennatif?"

Some doors were opened by people eager to greet you and talk . . . others by people only too eager to see you leave.

All of this is such a vital part of what Robert Putnam wrote about in his important book of a few years ago, Bowling Alone. It is the development of that vital social capital, of knowledge and connection with the wide variety of social, economic, racial, religious and cultural groups that combine to make a vibrant American political system. That's what "running" helps you to create, to be part of, and to understand more profoundly and immediately.

The capital does not come with theorizing or developing position papers – it comes with rubbing elbows with your neighbors, door by door. You are a connector of human networks.

And in practice, holding the office of sheriff depends on much the same.

One of the challenges faced by the Oregon Legislature today, as described to the Public Commission on the Legislature (2005-2007) by a long-time respected lobbyist, is that too many of its members don't "know" each other anymore. They have lost that "rubbing elbows" friendship that runs beyond party affiliations or partisan interests.

This can be directly attributed, he thought, to the disappearance of the Velvet Horse Lounge in the Marion Hotel – a place where Oregon legislators gathered for years following afternoon committees to quench their thirst, eat peanuts together, and create a bond that helped the institution work.

But the Marion Hotel burned down, and no social center – notwithstanding a friendly tavern and pool hall called McGoo's – has ever quite emerged to replace the Velvet Horse in Salem. Yet years after legislative terms have expired, colleagues who have served together, even as bitter and public adversaries, embrace each other as friends. Some members of the public don't understand this. I do. They've "run for sheriff."

The sheriff learns a lot - and gains a lot - from dropping by the saloon from time to time. You understand, of course, that the "saloon" can mean the bowling alley, the golf course, the tennis or basketball court – or even the neighborhood park where your kids play. When we know each other as neighbors and friends, we broaden the possibilities for serving beyond the realm of our own personally held zeal, possibilities for serving the fuller diversity of interests that make up our communities.

Running for office also brings with it a revealing understanding that those who support you – those who decide to vote for you – may do so on something as seemingly simple as the firmness—or absence — of your handshake.

You begin to wonder about others – their motives and intentions and whether they care as much as they should about the right things. They become depersonalized "issue clusters," rote numbers and demographic categories instead of richly complex human lives.

You worry that your family is not coming first – that "quality time" with loved ones has been replaced by "me first." And you know the sickening fear that the very notion that you think you are giving "quality time" to your loved ones itself is a transparent rationalization. Self-deception is a killer of relationships. It casts a deep shadow on personal authenticity.

You begin to see your personality put on auto pilot.

During one campaign I watched a good friend shake hands with his spouse and introduce himself (asking for her vote, of course) – before he finally came down to earth. This was on his own doorstep! Another good friend from across the nation, recently a justice of his state supreme court, made the same confession about greeting his wife in this same embarrassing manner.

You get advice — beyond kissing babies at the county fair — about how you might engage in stunts to gain the voters' attention that may make you seem the village fool or appear to be the subject of robotic programming. And a young woman reporter really did ask me once, "boxers or briefs?"

You may spend thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands of other peoples' money, on smart ads and strategic campaigns, only to realize in the end that the final judgment can rest on something trivial such as your smile, forced or real, an unguarded comment, a personal indiscretion from long ago that comes to light, or some untraceable and often unanswerable smear.

The fact is that you can never catch up with an unfair rumor. It's quite impossible to have a showdown on Main Street with a lie.

Running for sheriff means that your fast friends of today on an individual basis may unite with like-minded members of their occupational, professional or religious groups to become an interest group or political action committee - and in the process become tomorrow's implacable enemy.

Lifelong friends can suddenly be lined up against you – or become afraid to stand with you. You're not sure if some friends really are your friends, or whether they see you as that "sell out guy."

And when you prepare to walk down what could be that last dark alley for the right reasons, who's really got your back, and who's fickle or flaky? The discovery of how lonely it can get is scary and depressing.

And there is always the regrettable possibility – well, let's be honest, the high probability - of being caught saying stupid things and having to live with your own words. You expound in public and suffer in private. I kicked off my first campaign by asserting that the legislature needed more lawyers, and I'd be happy to be one. After the three weeks of outraged indignation at my arrogance stopped echoing off the south Eugene hills, I was able to emerge from self-imposed toxic shock and finally change the subject.

And if we are honest, we also have to worry about the shadow side, knowing all-too-well – to steal an idea from the space western Star Wars - that Darth Vader was not born bad.

We worry about the dozens of little compromises that in context might add up to a huge sellout – the gradual transformation of character, never recognized, never wanted, never thought possible in yourself. A friend from another state whose integrity I admire deeply confessed his relief that he'd lost his governor's race. He couldn't have stood up, he thought, to the special interest demands that are part of the governor's life.

Compounding the risks of the shadow side are the political aphrodisiacs—and judgment distorters—of sex, money and power. We read and know of stories, too, of the nerve-soothing temptations of John Barleycorn and cocaine.

An old hand admonished my entering class of attorneys general in the late fall of 1980 that a minimal job requirement was to "stay out of jail." We laughed. After a decade had elapsed and office holders had come and gone, I was to be friends with about a half dozen whose—to us—unsuspected and otherwise invisible dark side and sometimes a 'vindictive' prosecution led to a criminal conviction.

Is that what running for sheriff does to you – or at least makes that much more possible? A law professor who remains a mentor to this day asked me recently why so many office holders sell and even resell their souls so frequently and patently.

The most obvious temptations of politics lie in its toxic mixture with money. But running for sheriff may make us lose our grounding and our character in fundamental ways far removed from personal monetary gain.

And there is a final, even more desperate consideration: is it inevitable from the nature of the enterprise, that political action inevitably requires you to get "dirty hands," however pure your heart? Some years ago, philosopher Michael Walzer argued that the process was inevitable but still necessary and even morally justifiable. His influential essay, "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands"3 challenges me and my students to this day.


So why run for sheriff?

Maybe we like our name in the lights … .

Perhaps, for some reason that only a movie script - or years of therapy - can reveal, we need to have our egos satisfied … .

Rayburn himself offered some insight into this when he admitted: "I like power and I like to use it."

Maybe it is some insatiable and non-rational desire to win … .

Perhaps it is even some undiagnosed desire to suffer … .

Or - perhaps it reflects somehow some nobler holy grail … .

Happily, it is my belief – and it is represented by many of my associates who have run for office – that there is some, if not "holy" grail, at least some nobler calling.

I believe that there is a sense within us that there is something to be done . . . a calling from friends and neighbors . . . a desire to make things better . . . an idealism which makes one engage in an often most un-idealistic process.

Often there is a specific human call behind it, whether it be the plight of deprived children in need, the callous despoilation of the environment or a principle of public life to be vindicated.

It can be—and is more often than is credited — a sense of service, trusteeship and even obligation. For some it may even be that— like a religious calling — we fight it for some time until the voice speaking to us cannot be ignored. Ultimately, only a spouse, counselor or confessor will be able to probe into the real truth as to why you run – for sheriff …or any office.

So what did Sam Rayburn mean when he told Lyndon Johnson that he'd feel a lot better if some of the Kennedy men had run for sheriff just once?

He meant that the political process is messy and the stakes are high.

He meant some part of the old joke that the only thing worse than politics is academic politics – because in academics the stakes are so low.

He meant that running for sheriff is a thing apart from the ordinary – that it does take a special person to do that. Many years ago, the historian and social philosopher Sidney Hook said it this way: "So long as they are permitted to grumble, most people are gratefully relieved to find someone to do their chores, whether they are household chores or political chores. Politics is a messy business, and life is short. We put up with a great many evils in order to avoid the trouble of abolishing them."4

Sam Rayburn meant that there is something gained in the process of this often-messy effort, and that the effort itself offers insight into an often-messy process – a process we have to struggle through each and every day in order to make a difference to those who elect us.

Unlike the movie western, running for sheriff is not just about the shootout, it's about the day-in, day-out struggle to make things work. Some would-be candidates envision the "Joshua effect" of their speeches. They visualize their magic moments of oratory in halls filled with multitudes fired with adulation and cheers as the candidate promises with trumpet blasts to change the world, and the walls of resistance tumble. Alas, it seldom happens with such great moments; instead it takes thousands of little ones.

So Sam understood that those who elect us, for the most part, want more to know if the person they elect sheriff is a good person, is someone who exercises good judgment, who under great stress can do right for a whole lot of people.

Are you the kind of person who can make those tough judgments?

In the movie "High Noon" the townspeople abandoned Gary Cooper when the bad guys came to town. He was the one, alone, who had to stand up to them – or leave town marked as a coward.

All the time, if you remember that classic movie, the clock is ticking in the background. Decisions have to be made now, very soon …not later.

A merely brilliant person might be captured by analysis paralysis – frozen into inaction by the overwhelming nature of the challenge. There's no book to tell you what to do.

Courage – and an understanding of democracy – is required.

One can almost hear the lines of an alternative script as the sheriff debates in his mind what he should do:

  • "The people want no part of this fight, so why should I?"
  • "Someone could get hurt if there is gunplay in the streets."
  • "Those guys may not be that bad after all."

Decisions must be made. Right now. And when you are the sheriff, you are the one who has to make them.

We do not have to wait for a dramatic "high noon," though those times are more present than many might think.

Sam Rayburn also advised, "Do not wait for extraordinary circumstances to do good action; try to use ordinary situations."

The run for sheriff, he understood, puts us in the midst of these "ordinary situations" and, as a result, gives us the opportunity to do that "good action."

In running for sheriff – and holding office – there is a rubbing of shoulders that becomes a rubbing of minds. We are forced to move out of our walled-off neighborhoods and mentally gated communities and on to Main Street. The supposed luxury of isolated judgment is replaced by the embracing clamor and call of human interaction – democracy, or at least representative government in action.

So we have to keep doing this. Not just every generation, but every election somebody's got to run for sheriff, notwithstanding the abysmally low rates of voter participation, the awful savaging that people get at the hands of irresponsible media and opponents' attack ads, the pain of the campaign and the threats to one's soul. And if we don't have the constant renewal of each new generation, we might as well pack in the notion of representative government. Because…to return to my title song, what goes around DOES come around—something Mr. Sam knew better than most some 48 years ago.

1 Voted the "Distinguished Paper" for 2007-08. Revised, ©May 25, 2008.

2 The accuracy of the quote was verified by a call from my assistant, Jim McChesney, in August, 2005 to a librarian in the Sam Rayburn Library Museum in Bonham, Texas.

3 M. Walzer, "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands",: in M. Cohen, T. Nagel & T. Scanlon, eds, War and Moral Responsibility 62-84 (Princeton: 1974)

4 The Hero In History p. 22 (1943, Beacon paperback, 1955).