A chronicle of Slade Gorton’s political life

  • Thu May 31st, 2012 4:23pm
  • News

By Scott North

Here’s one for your summer reading list, particularly if you’ve got a hankering for a political history of Washington since the late 1950s, with color provided by one of the state’s most enduring — and at times enigmatic — figures.

“Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics” is a biography that may reveal as much about this state as it does the complex man at the center of the story.

The former U.S. senator has been a fixture in public life since he joined the Legislature in 1959 as a scary-smart, moderate Republican pressing for government reform.

Hard work kept Gorton almost continually in elected office as a legislator, then state attorney general, and finally U.S. senator for 18 years. That ended in 2000 when he lost a bitter contest to Democrat Maria Cantwell. At the time, Gorton was said to have lost touch with evolving political sensibilities, particularly related to environmental protection and respect for Indian treaty rights.

The Gorton described in the book, written by state historian John C. Hughes, is nearly a dozen years distant from the corrosive atmosphere of political campaigns. He’s still scary-smart, still comes across as somebody at risk of being described as aloof. But the portrait of Gorton that emerges from Hughes’ careful reporting is of a life spent standing up for principle and pragmatism. It’s easy to see why there was a time when “Slade Gorton Works For Me” bumper stickers were as likely to be found on log trucks grumbling through timber towns as they were on luxury cars rolling down I-5.

Full disclosure: Hughes, former editor and publisher at The Daily World in Aberdeen, hired me to my first daily newspaper job. He’s one of my heroes. Regardless, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

It’s all in the details, many no doubt little remembered. Gorton at times was a maverick, long before a former Alaskan governor appropriated the label. In the early 1960s, he angered some in his own party by testifying in support of John Goldmark, a Democratic legislator and cattle rancher from Eastern Washington whose politics were so left of center that opponents branded him a communist sympathizer and hounded him from office.

Gorton later said he had expected to not only disagree with Goldmark on just about every political issue but also thought he wouldn’t like him very much.

Only part of the prediction proved true, Gorton said, “because it was from John Goldmark that I learned the most important political lesson of my entire life … That the character and the courage of the individual within our system counted for far more than anything else.”

“Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics” can be purchased or downloaded from the Secretary of State’s office. It also is available at Sno-Isle Regional Libraries and can be ordered for a fee as an e-book from Amazon.com.