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Editorial: Growing moral vacuity

The Daily Astorian, Oct. 1, on Dave Frohnmayer and Big Tobacco:

The prominent public figure who loses his way has become a staple of the last decade. Perhaps it is because we know more about our public figures. Perhaps it’s because their careers are running longer. Perhaps it’s because temptation looms larger these days.

Dave Frohnmayer is the latest Oregon politician to surprise us. Willamette Week reported last week that Oregon’s former attorney general was compensated by tobacco companies to be their witness in their case arguing they should pay less to the state of Oregon. To anyone familiar with Frohnmayer’s history over the past three decades, this news prompted a double-take and a response of “Huh?”

WW described Frohnmayer as “the star witness and paid expert for Big Tobacco against the state of Oregon.” It happened during a closed arbitration panel in Chicago. The newspaper obtained Frohnmayer’s testimony through a public records request to the state Department of Justice. It reported that Frohnmayer assisted “tobacco firms trying to get out of making payments to the state of Oregon under the tobacco settlement reached more than a decade ago.”

The Portland lawyer Bob Stoll was asked by WW to examine Frohnmaher’s testimony to the arbitration panel and comment. Stoll said: “It’s disappointing that somebody with such a stellar reputation would use that reputation for money from such a reprehensible industry.”

One way of understanding Frohnmayer’s assistance to Big Tobacco is that the Eugene law firm he joined has represented Philip Morris. But he had the freedom to say “no” to Big Tobacco’s request.

The arbitration panel ruled in Oregon’s favor, despite Frohnmayer’s assistance to the enemy.

An insightful response to this story was delivered by a WW reader named Nathan Zebrowski. “Greed, yes, but it’s more than greed. A kind of moral vacuity grows in those who move in the circuits of wealth and power. This is not to say that they become evil or that they fail to do good. Instead, they become part of a system of thinking and acting that is very different from the ordinary world the rest of us inhabit.”

It is disappointing that Frohnmayer doesn’t get why WW and other lawyers find his role in the tobacco arbitration panel puzzling and disappointing. But as Zebrowski suggests, there is a sense of financial entitlement in the highest circles of the business-political culture. This culture of self aggrandizement is summarized in Barbara Grizutti Harrison’s comment about celebrity. “Celebrities need one another - they ratify one another’s myths. They are one another’s truest fans.”


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