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Joe Cannon is defined by optimism, enthusiasm

Published: Sunday, Sept. 26 2010 12:36 a.m. MDT

Even as he's leaving the day-to-day operation of the paper, Cannon's head teems with an open-ended world view of the evolving landscape of news media.

"Good journalism still has a First Amendment mission regardless of the format," Cannon said. "The good news is that technology can spread journalism much further today than our forbearers in journalism ever imagined."

As he cedes his corner office and takes a seat on the editorial board, knowing Cannon's backstory is integral to understanding the improbable tale of how a lawyer with no journalism background not only helped Utah's oldest newspaper stay alive but actually grow amid the most tumultuous season in the history of newspapers.

After graduating from BYU Law School in 1977, Cannon embarked on his career with only one general, guiding goal: Get a job in Washington, D.C.

His affinity for all things Beltway stemmed in part from the positive experience he enjoyed during an administrative internship he did with the U.S. Supreme Court as an undergraduate.

Mirroring the 1964 cross-country bike ride, Cannon was beginning his professional career with a broad goal in mind but nary a notion of how to realize and sustain it. In short order, Cannon exceeded his own expectations.

He worked first on George H.W. Bush's 1980 presidential campaign and later Ronald Reagan's 1980 bid. He parlayed that experience into a place on the Reagan-Bush transition team responsible for filling political appointments during the time between election and inauguration.

The job Cannon really wanted was to work in the White House Counsel office. But that didn't pan out; what did come his way, though, was a job he didn't feel remotely qualified for — policy administrator at EPA.

His underlings at EPA initially regarded Cannon with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. Despite negligible experience in environmental law and zero management background, he had been installed as acting associate administrator for policy and resource management, responsible for supervising more than 300 people.

Years later, the Washington Post would recollect the following about his arrival at EPA, "Cannon's tenure at EPA may be extraordinary simply because his appointment was so improbable. … Cannon prefers to think of it as 'serendipity,' but from all appearances it was political patronage, pure and simple, that got him his job at EPA."

Cannon earned respect and support by endearing himself to the various political factions. He successfully navigated a complicated minefield of office politics including career civil servants, neoconservatives and strict Reaganites — not to mention the often left-wing journalists who had him on speed dial.

Cannon, in fact, became so respected at the EPA that he was the only political appointee to survive a 1983 purge of the agency.

The same 1985 Washington Post article that riffed about the improbability of Cannon's EPA appointment went on to elucidate how Cannon not only survived but even thrived.

"Joe Cannon may be the living proof that, even in Washington, nice guys don't always finish last. Slightly rotund, unpretentious and unfailingly cheerful, Cannon acts more like a Good Humor man than a buttoned-down lawyer."

The EPA years marked the most critical period of Cannon's professional life because they set him up for everything that came after, by branding him a leader and affording him the mastery of environmental regulations he'd utilize immediately thereafter in his private law practice and later at Geneva Steel.

"Joe had experiences at the EPA that gave him an understanding that he actually could be influential in a much larger (setting) than he would've imagined before he got to EPA," said Chris Cannon, Joe's younger brother and the former six-term congressman. "Coming from Utah or from Sun Valley, Calif., like we did, you have some friends that are pretty bright. But you really don't know what it's like in Washington, D.C. Once you realize what the competition is, after you realize that you can do well, then life actually really opens up. That's what happened for Joe at EPA."

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