FEEDING AT THE TROUGH

Feeding at the Trough
Feeding at the Trough

I took the call from my maiden Aunt Leona.  Uncle Myron and his idiosyncratic wife Marjorie—Republican activists and occasional pranksters—were piloting their black Cadillac limo to the Utah Governor’s office from Leona’s home in Ogden.  “Expect their arrival at the State Capitol momentarily,” Leona announced resolutely.

My octogenarian aunt and uncle were pre-World War II transplants to Los Angeles, from Utah.  They didn’t fit any of the Utah stereotypes.  Myron’s first career was as Headmaster of the little public school in Morgan, Utah.  He was a lapsed Mormon.  Marjorie was a lapsed Catholic.  Together, they were on their second marriage to one another.

I had learned about their antics through Aunt Leona’s recitations.  As their nephew, I began to wonder.  How had I been chosen to become their target?  Was I about to be “drug under the bus” by one of their melodramas?

On the outside I remained confident.  I felt vulnerable on the inside however, at the age of only twenty-six.  Perhaps they viewed me as little more than collateral damage.   Perhaps what they wanted was the really big fish, Democratic Governor Calvin Rampton.

LIBERAL UTAH?

Looking back, I marvel at some of Utah’s liberal-leaning political outcomes, although these occurred before Ronald Reagan’s ascent to power in 1980.  Nearly unbelievable to some, Utah majorities chose Democrats over Republicans in five successive presidential contests between 1932 and 1948.  Decades before that, Utah had been one of the stars of America’s Progressive Era.   As the State’s fourth governor, Jewish immigrant Simon Bamberger became not just a popular leader but also, only the second Jewish governor in the entire United States.  Cal Rampton followed Governor Bamberger’s progressive model.  Rampton had been elected by his fellow governors and served as Chairperson of the National Governor’s Conference.

Within minutes, Myron and Marjorie were making their grand entrance into Governor Rampton’s outer office.  Marjorie was squat and “dressed to the nines.”  Uncle Myron, by contrast, was tall, dapper and never without sunglasses, even in the evening.  They were a “Mutt and Jeff” duo.

A PRECOTIOUS YOUTH?

Myron frequently traveled solo and in the 1950’s, he could be mistaken for crime boss and Las Vegas casino magnate Meyer Lansky.  I remember being Uncle Myron’s relief driver from Ogden to Las Vegas, at the mere age of sixteen.  Then, we spent Saturday night casino-hopping across Las Vegas with Myron’s randy brother LeRoy, owner of the Blue Dot Pie Shop North of the City.  About 4 am, the brothers put me on a Greyhound bus bound for Ogden.  “Don’t talk to anyone,” they admonished.  “Don’t get off the bus unless your parents are there to meet you.”

My hours in Las Vegas were weird, but what an interesting night it was!  Monday morning at Ogden High, I said nothing to friends about how I had spent the weekend.  I assumed no one would believe that my family could be so crazy.

“Just stick with me,” Uncle Myron directed, “and don’t ask questions while I’m placing bets.”  Close-lipped, I tailed my uncles as we moved quickly from one casino venue to another, by foot or by taxi.  I’d belly up to the crap tables to observe how they played the game, then moments later we’d be out the door and on to the next venue.

Looking back, our threesome acted as though Myron “owned” each of the casinos we entered.  Security guards looked at me quizzically but remained at bay.  As a believable Meyer Lansky double, Uncle Myron led me deftly through each venue, then we’d be out the door before his ruse could be detected.  Surely it wouldn’t be replicated, however.  Things now are different in Las Vegas, I’m told.

Next and without introduction, Myron and Marjorie “landed” in the Utah Governor’s outer office.  What followed however, I could never have imagined from Leona’s cryptic phone call.  Rather than greeting me, they stepped past me instead, then began dancing about while chanting:  “Feeding at the trough! Feeding at the trough!”  No doubt, their antics were intended to humiliate.

A couple of minutes later they were gone, without even making eye contact.  Now it was becoming clear.  They had come to create a mini demonstration aimed not just at humbling their nephew, but at humiliating Utah’s Democratic governor as well.  As luck would have it, Rampton was not in his office at the time.

A SALUTE TO GRANDFATHER

The animal trough they visualized was government, of course.  This was their message.  As their nephew, I had become little more than a common farm animal, slopped with other farm animals each payday.  The subtext?  Government wastes hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  Taxation to pay for public programs such as the ones I oversaw is little more than legal confiscation.

I grimaced but tried to chuckle as they slipped past me into the corridor.  Then a coworker asked: “Who are those people?  They didn’t even say goodbye to you?”

“Just some of my interesting relatives,” I chortled.  Then everyone went back to work.

What Myron couldn’t have known or wouldn’t have appreciated, is what was actually happening in that dynamic little office.  Just weeks before, for instance, the Utah Governor’s Office had solidified a pivotal role in the Internet’s founding.  The Internet was the creature of well-spent U.S. Government research dollars.  A consortium had collaborated to demonstrate what then were almost unimaginable possibilities.  Four state universities came together at the genesis.  Three were in California, and the fourth was the University of Utah.  Without the guiding influences of governors in California and Utah, this brilliant research coalition would never have happened.

Under the Ronald Reagan presidency, unfortunately, like-minded souls with Uncle Myron curtailed funding for economic development projects like the one my colleagues led that birthed the Internet.  What a huge mistake Myron and Marjorie made, about the appropriate role for government in the economy.

There’s an afterthought to this narrative, also.  I wasn’t the first in my family to work in government, at the Utah State capitol building.  The first?  Myron’s father and my grandfather.  Charles Condie was founding director of what today would be known as the Bureau of Standards.  His title was Director of Weights and Measures.  Grandfather reported through administrative channels to—perhaps you’ve guessed it—Governor Simon Bamberger.

~ Jim Sawyer