Way Out There 

Timothy Egan, The New York Times's eye on the West

Timothy Egan is happy to admit that he and a myriad of other marquee-name thinkers about the West were wrong about their home turf. That lack of hubris may be one of the reasons that Egan is still one of the more compelling members of the mainstream media writing about the West.

Egan, for years a Seattle-based national enterprise reporter for The New York Times, came to Boise this week to address the City Club of Boise and to sign copies of his 2006 book, The Worst Hard Time, a National Book Award-winning recounting of the Dust Bowl era. Egan began his career with the Times as a correspondent covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. He's been with the paper ever since, covering Western issues from his home in Seattle, but also in travel throughout the West. In recent years, he began writing books of essays about his home country, including 1991's The Good Rain about the Pacific Northwest, and 1999's Lasso The Wind.

These days, Egan is back in the pages of the Times, writing an online opinion column, "Outposts," that allows him to roam from pillar to post around the country, with a predictable emphasis on Western issues. He's also used the column to reach back to Pulitzer Prize-winning work he did for the Times about race in politics—writing that has become prescient in this year of Barack Obama's candidacy.

His talk at the City Club was titled "Enough of the New West: Bring On The New, New West."

The title of the speech, Egan said in an interview, was intended to "have some fun with my preconceptions," to note "how I've been wrong, and how others have been wrong."

Egan said he was just as wrong as anyone in the early 1990s who thought that a new sort of Western politics would emerge in the interior West. At least wrong on timing. Egan recalled speaking with former Arizona governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit, who predicted then that Democrats would control Western states because, he said, "environmentalism was ascendant."

Then came 1994's midterm elections, which Democrats have been trying to forget.

"They got clobbered," Egan said. The "Republican Revolution" of that year toppled many a Western Democrat's dreams. Western states seemed red to the core. GOP candidates ran on basic Republican issues: guns, god and gays.

Well, that was then, Egan said. Looking across the Western political landscape, Egan sees several Democratic governors in the West, recent turnovers of long-held Republican congressional posts and other advances from the party of the donkey.

"I think what Babbitt thought about the New West in the 1990s is sort of happening," Egan said. New Democratic politicians like Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer "take the gun issue off the table. They take the culture issue off the table," Egan said.

"We always thought, 'This is how the Republicans will win the West: on gays, guns and god,'" Egan said. "Schweitzer was the first to say, 'Wait a minute.'"

Egan himself was brought up short on the question of race in Western politics. In 2000, he was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of reporters for a Times series called "How Race Is Lived in America." In an article about former Washington State Gov. Gary Locke, who is Asian, and King County executive Ron Sims, who is black, Egan described many of the pitfalls and challenges that are now being faced by Barack Obama.

Sims struggled every day, Egan reported, with the dilemma of trying to succeed not just as an elected official, but also as a black man in a largely white state.

"The way to succeed is to be seen but not seen," Egan wrote then. "Flesh without color. What people want to hear from the second-highest-ranking elected official in the state are his views on property taxes, traffic, growth."

Sims told Egan that he leads a "dual life" between Ron Sims, the person, and Ron Sims, the public official.

"In the new century, in the New West, the expressed hope is that politics has shed its color barriers, and even its color consciousness," Egan wrote then.

Egan reconnected with Sims to talk about his cautions for Obama.

"He's got to stay away from race," Sims said, in an article that ran on The New York Times Web site in mid-January. "Race remains the one thing a black cannot talk about openly in a political campaign in this country."

So much for that.

Obama's recent speech on race, in the wake of the imbroglio over his controversial pastor Jeffrey Wright, seemed to go directly where Sims cautioned not to.

"All of the things he said you couldn't do, Obama is doing," Egan said in a recent interview on NYTimes.com.

The Web, Egan said, has been a boon to his work. Whether he's posting his "Outpost" columns or subbing in for other op-ed columnists from time to time, Egan said he's found the Web to be "the most valuable piece of journalistic real estate in the world."

"You get these fantastic responses from people," he said.

The "Outposts" online column, Egan said, is quick satisfaction. He was brought on to bring a Western perspective to the election news cycle. And in so doing, he may be one of the luckiest journalists working today.

"You get an amazing amount of freedom," Egan said. "After a while, the topics just start to pop up."

To listen to Egan's speech, check Boise State Radio listings for a broadcast at Radio.BoiseState.edu.

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