An ACA Pitch From Woody Guthrie's Ghost

Long live our Oregon spirit. Long live the Oregon way. To care for each one, each daughter and son, live long in Oregon.
-- Laura Gibson

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- If you're going to try to convince the people of Oregon to back your large, federally involved project that they didn't necessarily ask for, just shoving it into their face and saying "take it" isn't going to work.

There's a certain subtlety that's necessary for pitching a large-scale public project here and, yes, sometimes that approach involves a song or two.

When it became apparent that the Affordable Care Act was going to be the law of the land, there were more than a few questions about how it would affect folks here. Those uninsured by their employers because of pre-existing conditions were covered here by the Oregon Medical Insurance Pool, which used a portion of premiums paid throughout the state to subsidize an available, but high-premium insurance plan. Is that going away?

If you're a part-time worker who isn't covered by an employer, will you qualify for federal subsidies that weren't always available on the state level? Most importantly, what will it cost?

The state's "Obamacare" exchange, Cover Oregon, had all of those answers, but not a whole lot of public recognition. While state agencies could point or link to it all they'd like, a federally funded health care exchange shouldn't be a well-kept secret.

In July, the state launched a $2.9 million commercial campaign including songs from singer-songwriter Matt Sheehy and hip-hop group The Lifesavas.

Perhaps the most effective, and affecting, is Portland artist Laura Gibson's "Live Long In Oregon" performed with the Portland Cello Project. Lauding Oregon as a place where she is "free to be healthy and happy and strong" and where "each student and teacher and neighbor and friend will live long" not only provided the arts-and-crafts-style information about how to contact Cover Oregon, but cast a wide net over the plan's beneficiaries without actually touting the plan itself. With the Oct. 1 deadline approaching, the ads have saturated radio, local television and even the locally targeted ads on streaming service Hulu -- giving Oregonians a bigger clue about how to navigate their health care exchange than some of their contemporaries in other states.

Obamacare opponents absolutely hated it, with The Daily Caller mocking the ads' "hipsters," conservative Web site HotAir.com calling the ads an "acid trip" and the National Journal turning the state's own name into a slur by derisively calling them "very Oregon." Even The Washington Post called them "twee" and "straight out of Portlandia," but The Portland Mercury didn't see that as such a bad thing.

Musician Ben Nanke even issued an anti-Obamacare retort bashing Gibson's Oregon imagery and noted that the earliest settlers "Facing snakes and bites and the mud and the rain/They just hiked up their boots and they pushed through the pain/They said 'oh, don't fence me in'." He added in comments beneath his video that "We take care of ourselves. No government mandates."

There's only one problem with that: The entire state is built on a government mandate. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's expedition that brought them to Oregon and helped build Fort Clatsop near what is now Astoria, Ore., in 1805 was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, with Congress approving federal funds. The first residents weren't poor, hardscrabble bootstrappers, but well-paid employees of the wealthy John Jacob Astor and his American Fur Company. His company, the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were the reason fur trappers came in the first place. However, when the Peoria Party started the first wave of emigration to Oregon in 1839, they did so with the intention of making Oregon a U.S. colony. Joseph Meek, who helped open the last leg of the Oregon Trail after a brutal passage, argued vehemently for Oregon's inclusion in the United States, saying when he settled in Hilllsboro, Ore., that "I want to live long enough to see Oregon securely American... so I can say that I was born in Washington County, United States, and died in Washington County, United States."

As the Cover Oregon singers seem to know, Oregon didn't come into being on its own. Also, contrary to Nanke's suggestion, "the Oregon spirit" and "a large-scale, federally-funded ad campaign" filled with music aren't mutually exclusive. Cover Oregon's songs aren't "out of Portlandia," but out of This Land Is Your Land-ia.

While we have Oregon's history books out, let's flip to 1941 and a 29-year-old gentleman by the name of Woody Guthrie coming through Oregon and drawn by the promise of work. The politically active singer, who'd already found success singing songs of the working man and countering Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" with his aforementioned, all-inclusive love note to the U.S., was hired to narrate a documentary about the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. When the filmmakers grew wary of Guthrie's political stance and narrowed his role in the project, the Department of the Interior hired him on to write songs about the Columbia River and the building of federal dams along it for the film.

The documentary didn't work out, but Guthrie walked up and down the Willamette and Columbia rivers and wrote 26 songs for it anyway, including "Roll On Columbia," "Grand Coulee Dam" and "Bonneville Dam." In the latter, he talks about enduring the Depression-era Dust Bowl and finding his way to Oregon's clear waters and verdant lands. Instead of giving himself a fine pat on the back for being such a resourceful fellow, however, he sings of better times ahead:

"I'll turn my stone and till my land/Waiting for the big Bonneville Dam/That Bonneville Dam is a sight to see/Makes that e-lec-a-tric-i-ty."

Does he bemoan the Grand Coulee as a monstrosity? No, to him it was "the greatest wonder in Uncle Sam's fair land" and vital for what laid ahead, especially for a man with a guitar bearing the warning "This machine kills fascists."

"Now in Washington and Oregon you hear the factories hum/Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum/And there roars a mighty furnace now to fight for Uncle Sam/Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam."

Now Guthrie's Columbia River songs didn't immediately fix every concern about the dams. Even the Grand Coulee Dam visitor center features a multimedia display that details how even seemingly minor decisions relating to the dam have major impact on salmon and sturgeon populations, irrigation, river commerce, the water recreation industry and land use. Debate about the dams continues, but they still light large swaths of the Pacific Northwest.

Roughly 72 years after Guthrie's trip to the Northwest, Laura Gibson's song for Cover Oregon follows a template similar to that of Guthrie's Columbia River songs. The soft, simple twang of her guitar, the vivid descriptions of Oregonian scenery and even the gentle, repetitive rhythm of the song itself couldn't echo "Roll On, Columbia" more loudly if it was shouted into the Columbia River Gorge.

Just as the power from Guthrie's rolling Columbia was "turning our darkness to dawn," Gibson's "Live Long, Oregon" focuses on the health care law's power to help her and those around her do just that. Each knew their audience and each realized that the best way to get their message across was also the most positive. In Oregon's delicate mix of progressive and libertarian ethics, that approach strikes the right note more often than not.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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