To describe Rep. James Weaver as a pessimist would be to understate matters a little.
The Oregon Democrat tells anyone who will listen that the nation's economy is about to collapse, that the day of fiscal reckoning is upon us. In an institution where hedging bets is a way of life, the maverick, six-term congressman seems to enjoy staking his reputation on the most dire predictions.
In the coming year, Weaver says, "The world will go into a deep depression that will make the '30s look like a garage sale . . . . There will be one last surge of inflation when the foreigners call in their paper and the dollar crashes . . . . Within a year Ronald Reagan will be one of the most unpopular presidents in our history."
Writing recently in The New Republic, he continues:
"The real estate crash will be the worst. Farm-land prices, now falling sharply, will go for undreamed-of prices . . . . Those $300,000 Georgetown houses may go for $40,000 once all the Washington lawyers and lobbyists abandon their homes after being called back to the hinterlands by depressed corporations."
Does he know something that the experts don't?
Weaver says he is merely voicing what other high officials discuss only in whispers. "All I'm doing is saying the obvious."
The 57-year-old liberal is no extremist, although his rhetorical fire is often aimed from the hip. Weaver has been making these sorts of bleak pronouncements for years and carefully cultivates an image of brutal candor. This, he cheerfully admits, plays well with the folks back home.
Perhaps that's why his economic forecast has not sent people running for cover in Oregon's 4th Congressional District.
"People out here are accustomed to hearing Jim Weaver speak his mind on all subjects," says Jim Klonoski, former chairman of the Oregon Democratic Party. "A lot of people ignore his doomsday predictions."
In a legislative body where politicians go along to get along, Weaver is an outsider whose name on a bill can send colleagues scurrying in the other direction. He proudly claims to have conducted the only filibuster in modern House history, offering 112 amendments to a Northwest power bill in 1980. The bill passed anyway, and after that, the House adopted "the Weaver rule" to limit such tactics.
Lunch with the gentleman from Oregon brings forth a steady stream of Weaverisms:
* On his journalistic arch-enemy, The Oregonian: "The rottenest, most vicious paper imaginable."
* On the environment: "I believe we're destroying the world, burning up all our resources. It's madness."
* On a fellow member of the Oregon delegation: "He's been bought and sold in a package with a bow."
* On the big timber companies that dominate his district: "They bought timberlands and just raped them. It's just rape-and-run."
Weaver's bombastic style is not universally popular.
"He is far and away the most liberal member of our delegation and is historically considered one of the least-effective members of Congress," says Robert Landauer, editorial page editor of The Oregonian. "He is often so far out. By and large he's futile."
The paper recently ran a cartoon depicting Weaver in a straitjacket after he made some controversial remarks about a salmonella outbreak in a small Oregon town that was traced to eight salad bars.
"It's very clear that the town was poisoned," Weaver says. "It was sabotage." But, he says, "I said again and again I had no evidence. I probably went too far."
Despite such occasional missteps, Weaver's stubborn style is right at home in Eugene, Ore., which regards him as heir to another native son, the late Republican senator Wayne Morse. The liberal college town is surrounded by rural logging country that makes up most of Weaver's district.
Weaver is not above playing to the conservative loggers. He supports a 200-mile fishing limit on environmental grounds, for example, "But my rhetoric is, 'Let's get the goddam commies off our coast.' "
There are a few chinks in Weaver's ideological armor. He dismisses Congress' efforts to cut the $200 billion deficit as "a farce" but didn't hesitate to boost federal spending by pushing through a bill to bail out the major timber companies. "My people got to eat," he explains.
A self-described supporter of Israel, he nevertheless votes against all foreign military aid. A relentless critic of the local press, he married the first reporter that he felt gave him a fair shake in The Oregonian.
A frustrated playwright, Weaver also is trying to publish a book called "Genobabes," which classifies politicians as genetic types such as "retaliatory dove" and "chicken hawk."
Weaver loves wrapping himself in the prophet's garb. For years he was a lonely voice railing against construction of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), predicting the nuclear plants would bankrupt the region. When the project collapsed in the largest municipal bond default in history, Weaver's fiery warnings were vindicated.
This may be part of a family tradition, for Weaver's grandfather and namesake was the 1892 Populist candidate for president.
Weaver was a year old when his farm family went bust in 1928. A year later, the rest of the country followed suit. It appears that his childhood memory of breadlines in Iowa shapes his grim vision of the future.
Weaver says that previous depressions have followed a collapse in the farm economy and that each one -- 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1929 -- came in the year after a presidential election.
The former developer says harbingers of a crash are visible in depressed Oregon. The value of his farm, he says, has dropped by two-thirds in the last five years.
Weaver says that Latin American countries will trigger the next depression by abandoning any pretense of repaying their massive loans from U.S. banks. And, he says, the nation, which has been living on borrowed money, will be rocked by a wave of foreclosures and bankruptcies, followed by the dollar's collapse.
Weaver's apocalyptic rhetoric brings him some abuse. "It's not easy to be called an idiot day after day, year after year," he says.