Booth Gardner’s life was elevated by privilege, bookended by suffering, and dedicated to the greater good. As Washington’s 19th governor, he believed politics a noble non-vocation, a means to an end. Establish goals that dovetail with the public interest. Achieve those goals. Move on.
Were there only more Booth Gardners.
In 1984, Gardner, the fortysomething Pierce County Executive, wandered into the Snohomish County Democrats’ storefront headquarters on Hewitt Avenue in Everett. The gentle man with the impish voice, who was he? “Booth who?” quickly was recast into a campaign anthem.
Gardner, the Weyerhaeuser-heir stepson of Norton Clapp, had the personal wealth to underwrite a statewide campaign. His life was a mosaic, however, a tangle of tragedy and light. His mother and sister were killed in a plane crash when Gardner was a young teen. After two terms as governor and a stint as U.S. ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Gardner was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He tackled the diagnosis with grace and defiance, supporting a Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center in Kirkland and leading a 2008 ballot initiative to give Washingtonians the right to end their lives when diagnosed with a terminal illness (Parkinson’s didn’t qualify.)
Gardner never mastered the cosmetics of politics and that was his appeal. Repelled by show-horse politics, he was a real person in an unreal business. And yet Gardner thrived.
During his eight years in Olympia, he added meat to the “education governor” mantle, championing standards-based education along with stricter graduation requirements. In the flush 1980s, he matched higher expectations with higher funding. As Gardner said in his 1989 State of the State address, “We now have an economic imperative to help our people become well-educated, productive citizens.”
His achievements testify to his political vision, from the Growth Management Act to the Running Start program to establishing the Washington Basic Health Plan. He had the judgment to recognize and reward talent, from future Gov. Chris Gregoire to future U.S. Rep. Denny Heck. Not a saint, he was immensely human.
“He was a leader who had an incredible sense of self-deprecating humor,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell said. “He could take a 45-minute speech and turn it into mostly humor, but spend the last three minutes about education reform, the environment or job creation.”
Gardner was anchored by an uncommon wisdom. Stung by the battle over the spotted owl, he took the legacy view. Environmentalists make great ancestors, Gardner said. So, too, true public servants.