Gardiner: Tilbury House, Publishers

376 pp., $20.00

Summing Up

A memoir is a summing-up, an opportunity to get those things off your chest that you’ve always wanted to say, to set the record straight and, finally, to tell your own story. When Peter Cox retired from Maine Times in 1986, he told everyone he wanted to live on the shore, indulge his passion for gardening, travel and write novels. He did most of these things (the novels never appeared) and much more before he died last fall after a lengthy bout with esophageal cancer.

One thing he didn’t mention in his retirement punch list was this book — which may prove to be one of Peter Cox’s most enduring legacies. In considerable detail, it sums up his life, most of which was lived in Maine. From the 1960s until 1986, and then again in the early 1990s, Cox played a pivotal role in Maine Times, the weekly newspaper he co-founded with John Cole. “Maine’s Weekly Journal of News and Opinion,” they called it, and it represented the best of what came to be known as advocacy journalism: investigating corruption, ferreting out the stories behind the stories, reporting on topics other newspapers felt they could never touch, showing everyone (including the rest of the Maine press) how newspapers could serve the public good.

Understandably, much of this book has to do with Maine Times — how it came to be, how certain legendary stories came to be written, what personalities contributed to this vibrant enterprise. There are well-remembered Maine Times stories such as the problems with the Weld Telephone Company, the Pineland investigation, and of course what happened when the paper covered the inner workings of Rangeley Power (whose owner, a state senator, sued Maine Times for libel and lost). It’s Cox’s view of the whole thing, of course (there are other viewpoints too), but it’s fascinating to read. I found a lot of familiar faces as I read, including my own, but that’s another story.

Cox was perhaps best known for his association with Maine Times, but there was so much more to this remarkable person. He had a civic-minded side that simply wouldn’t quit — from his early days working in Frank Coffin’s congressional campaign to his time on the boards of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the Portland Museum of Art, Eco-Eco, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Wolfe’s Neck Foundation, he was deeply engaged in Maine’s public life. As he tells it, he was careful not to let these boards and affiliations get in the way of his journalism: he had a finely developed sense of propriety, including the need for journalists to avoid conflicts of interest.

Peter would expect a reviewer to speak honestly about his book’s shortcomings, so I will. It’s obvious that he needed to work out some “issues” concerning himself and his prominent father, Washington attorney Oscar Cox, author of Lend-Lease for the Roosevelt administration. While these father-son matters make interesting reading, it’s hard to justify the space allotted to them. Still, knowing Peter as I did, I am certain he needed to write about them, particularly how he learned, as he was growing up, that his father was Jewish and had concealed that fact from his own children and others.

He also has a few difficulties with facts, as in his quick — and inaccurate — conclusion that chemical spraying caused Maine’s outbreak of Spruce Budworm in the 1980s. The outbreak was a product of the even-aged forest created by earlier cutting practices and the forest fires of the 1920s. Widespread spraying didn’t begin until after budworm-related “salvage” cutting, when landowners wanted to convert their mixed stands to commercially valuable softwoods. The rush to print has left too many typographical errors: “Common Cause” where he meant “Common Good;” “Joan Payson Whitney” where he meant “Joan Whitney Payson;” and “356 Days” when the title of the book he’s referring to is actually 365 Days.

We all have our own stories, of course. Peter Cox’s story was clearly important to him — those of us who knew him have heard much of it before — and he needed, as he neared the end of his life, to write it down. He’s done so in the same straightforward, workmanlike manner as his innumerable editorials and columns over the years, and the result is a book of value and significance.

Why read this book? Peter Cox would answer that question by reminding us how individuals can change the world. His father shaped policies that led to Allied victory in World War II; Peter and his contemporaries — at least the public-spirited individuals he so loved to engage in debate and discussion — helped shape the values of Maine over a generation.

A former editor of Maine Times, David D. Platt is editor of Working Waterfront.