What would Miss Manners say?
At barbecues and parties all over the city this summer, Jim West’s predicament created endless potential for etiquette disaster.
He’s gay, which he didn’t want us to know, he’s been pursuing our high school kids online for sex, which he really didn’t want us to know, and now he’s undergoing a third round of cancer treatment and facing a prognosis even he doesn’t want to know.
In a city that prides itself on niceness, this trio of dinner party topics — sex, politics, and disease — inspires more shivers than a National Weather Service warning bulletin.
And did I mention he’s found religion? That makes it four.
This summer, as the initial shock wore off over the stories the newspaper broke in May, I’ve heard people tiptoeing courteously around the messy details, carefully changing the subjects at dinner parties or avoiding the topic altogether. And this summer, after I heard West had resumed chemotherapy for colon cancer, even I began to feel a wave of Miss Mannerly reluctance to share my opinions about the mayor any further. A CT scan showed he has lesions on his liver.
Human though that impulse may be, though, I’ve come to believe it won’t resolve the deep damage West has done to the city. We’ve too long been caught in the spell of a mayor who trades machismo for wisdom and swagger for heart.
These days, even West himself downplays his illness. And when he tackles it, he displays his usual blend of bravado and denial.
When I contact him by e-mail this week, he writes back, “Most people with stage 4 colon cancer don’t live as long as I have but then as you may have noticed I’m not most people. I’m a survivor, Jamie, and as one of my lawyers said to me, ‘one tough guy.’ “
He invites me to visit his office to talk about his health — and watch him in action.
The morning arrives. West walks into his daily cabinet meeting promptly at 8 a.m., tall and haggard. He looks 20 years older than he did the last time I saw him. His hair has turned gray. Bald patches of his scalp now show through the thin strands.
He sits down, then begins to cough harshly. He strides back out the door.
“God dang it,” he exclaims.
When he returns, he says he’s thrown up the donut and tea he’s just eaten.
“That tea’ll kill you,” someone exclaims. The department heads laugh.
Then West leads a vigorous hourlong session — covering everything from the city’s dismal budget picture to the opening of Pig Out in the Park.
After the meeting, he invites me back to his office. He says he’s just eaten too quickly — the chemotherapy had nothing to do with his nausea this morning.
“For some strange reason, I feel fine,” he says. He visits Rockwood Clinic every other weekend for chemotherapy. The drug drips into his veins through an IV for four hours, and then he wears a pump until Sunday. He’s says he doesn’t know what drug he’s on — or even his prognosis.
“I never asked that question, and I won’t,” he says. “I really don’t want to know.”
In June, he heard the news that his doctors found lesions on his liver.
“At first, it was like a slap in the face. It’s like ‘Oh, my God,’ ” he says.
But now he’s cavalier. “So what if you got cancer and you die?” he shrugs. “It’s tragic, but it happens.”
I ignore the voice of Miss Manners echoing in my brain and ask him what he’d do if his doctor told him he only had six months to live.
“You don’t cross that bridge until you come to it,” he says. “I haven’t been a person who plans for the future very far.”
He declines to let me talk with his doctor or to say if his lymph nodes have been affected.
West says he trusts his doctors, drinks a lot of green tea and admires Lance Armstrong.
“He was not going to lay on the floor in a fetal position and wait until he died, and neither am I,” he says.
West describes minimal effects of this round of chemotherapy. He feels some fatigue on chemo days, and his voice wanes right after treatment.
“The recall has nothing to do with my cancer,” he says.
The cancer diagnosis primarily affected his spiritual life, he says. “I got closer to God. Probably not as close as I should have. But closer.”
Actually, not nearly close enough. Between that initial diagnosis in 2003 and now, the mayor trolled the Internet for sex with local teenagers. He’s proposed city internships to young men who interested him sexually. He even offered a political appointee $300 to swim naked with him.
“I think you go through life, and God sets up some interesting trials,” he says. “He’s like a loving parent who cuffs you alongside the head. I’ve been cuffed up side the head on a couple of things. I’ve been hitting the guard rails of life.”
These days, as West listens to the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell’s sermons on Sunday mornings, and finds solace in the acceptance of a church congregation back in the old Grant School neighborhood of his childhood, the rest of us must struggle to figure out what action to take ourselves.
West has chosen to pursue spiritual forgiveness rather than a resignation. So it’s up to the citizens of Spokane to figure out how to set these earthly wrongs right.
No longer can the most deferential among us say, “It’s up to a judge to decide.” State Supreme Court judges have decided there’s sufficient reason for a recall to proceed.
Last week a petition drive began, and Spokane residents quickly began to sign. They know this man has made too many poor choices to be mayor of our city. Forget a politics of niceness — his troubling behavior demands an answer.
As the citizens of a democracy, we voters must be the ones to decide the fate of West’s political future as mayor.
“I’m not dying anymore than anybody else around here is,” he says.
We have to take him at his word.
We can’t let our sense of sympathy about his illness or any well-mannered reluctance to intrude sway us.
The sooner we can wrap up this segment of our city’s history, the better. The sooner we vote to recall him and set to right what’s he’s made so wrong, the healthier Spokane will be.
We do Jim West — and the city itself — no favor by trying to avert our eyes.
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