Scoop Jackson never forgot his roots

My father. When he was a boy, Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who later became a U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate, watched a Fourth of July parade as an actor dressed like an American doughboy pitchforked a caricature of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Scoop was someone who survived smallpox. He was someone who first learned to navigate Everett’s washboard roads in a Ford Model T. (He even got to see Roald Amundsen, the famed polar explorer and pride of Norway.)

It’s ancient history, yes, but history just a lifetime removed.

On May 31, he would have turned 100. His example, work, and legacy rest with the city he loved.

In the 1920s, Scoop spent his teen and pre-teen years delivering the Everett Herald to speakeasies and brothels. He made friends that lasted generations, memorizing their addresses only to rattle off street names to their incredulous descendants decades later. All the while, Everett was a town, poet Gary Snyder wrote, “where shingle weavers lost their fingers in the tricky feed and take of double saws.”

Today we recognize a certain gravity to place, especially in the American West. It shapes our values, cuts our attitudes, and defines our politics. Life in Everett in the 1920s and ’30s was hardscrabble, but it was also anchored in a spirit of community. The city of smokestacks became Scoop’s version of Norman Maclean’s Missoula. To paraphrase Maclean, the world is full of bastards, the number increasing the further one gets from Everett, Washington.

Writer Tony Hiss calls the transmission of ideas and experiences through generations “the great span.” The span has a telescoping effect, a reminder that the post-colonial American West is still very young.

Everett was Scoop’s touchstone, the city of his birth and his death, the city with dirt under its nails. Scoop never bemoaned Everett’s dishwater skies or the throat-sting from the pulp mills. Everett and the Pacific Northwest were always, for him, a radiant place.

I still picture him in the flat light of an Everett winter, legs braced like a gunslinger, chatting up every millwright, legionnaire and housewife strolling down Colby. He’d gesture in the sky with an imaginary pen or rattle off the street address of someone’s uncle or aunt, a number memorized during his paperboy days.

As a U.S. senator, he emphasized constituent services to such a degree that for years after his death in 1983, Everett-ites would knock on my mom’s door, asking for help with a Social Security check or a military-academy appointment. Mom would invite them in, serve them coffee, and gently explain that Rep. Al Swift’s office would be delighted to help.

My mom, Helen Hardin, was the linchpin to Scoop’s success. She was as animated and funny as he sometimes was not. She demanded that he smile and wear clean shirts. She breathed life into his unfinished work when, less than a year into his sixth term, he suddenly died.

My mom saw, as we all did, that Scoop’s often complex political vision was rooted in a kind of Lutheran realism, a belief in the permanence of human nature and the impermanence of politics. For Scoop this translated into a uniquely consistent vision: Haranguing oil executives (liberals made happy, conservatives irked) while bashing the Soviets and the Fidel Castros of the world (conservatives made happy, liberals irked).

Implicit with tackling the big ideas was the notion of a long, twilight struggle. Political dividends don’t yield returns for years, or decades even. Scoop shared President Kennedy’s belief, borrowed from Dante, that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

Scoop was a believer in the primacy of ideas — big ideas. Over his 43 years in Congress, as faith in government whipsawed from New Deal optimism to Reagan-era mistrust, Scoop never yielded on government’s progressive mission.

This meant big dams as well as big parks. In the process, he would embrace causes that upset or delighted a variety of interests, but he didn’t weathervane or rely on a swarm of consultants to navigate his way.

Over time, Scoop became a politician and a statesman. Politicians measure their lives in getting re-elected. Statesmen measure their lives in getting things done. He managed both.

When Scoop, a nickname given him by his sister in honor of a Tom Sawyer-ish cartoon-strip character, was born in Everett in 1912, Everett was barely 20 years old. Both of his parents had emigrated from Norway. Pieter Gresseth, who changed his name at Ellis Island, was born three years after the U.S. Civil War. Scoop’s mom, Marine Anderson, was slightly older.

For a time, along with Swedes and Germans, Norwegians were the vanguard of Washington’s post-colonial settlers. The Norse were weaned and influenced by the Jante Law, a sense not that everyone is equal per se, just that no one is better than anyone else. Suck it up. Don’t be a braggart and accept life on life’s terms.

My paternal grandparents were part of the great Norwegian diaspora which, unlike other ethnic dispersals, never quite made sense. There was no political or economic disaster to flee. My grandparents received the promotional brochures brandishing the American West, and they bit. They discovered a near-identical climate and a land that blended nature with labor. After a time, they happened upon Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Everett and the stolid Rev. Karl Norgaard, who conducted his sermons in Norwegian. For them, the Pacific Northwest was Norway, only more so.

As a kid, I remember watching as my dad waved at ghost buildings downtown and conjured what stood before. He pointed to the pavement at Colby and Hewitt avenues and said that is where his father, a newly minted Everett cop still trying to master English, picked up drunks by the scruff of their work shirts and pitched them onto the back of a horse-drawn police wagon.

Many of us play the ghost-building game today. We point to the veined marble that hems Union Bank and say, “that’s the old Friedlander’s Jewelers.” We point to the corner of Broadway and Hewitt and long for Sam’s Western Wear.

From the time he was a Herald paperboy to his 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Scoop demonstrated that in life each of us can enlarge or diminish our roles. But to diminish the public sphere is to commit an injustice, a sin of omission.

Scoop was also a human being, and he’d laugh at any mattress-sale heroizing. Imagine an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things because of hard work, the vagaries of life, a supportive community, identifying good mentors, and marrying well.

Of course, there were things that as a son I never told him. I never told him that I was proud that he put the kibosh on Norman Vincent Peale’s anti-Catholic bigotry in 1960. I never told him that I was grateful for his sponsorship of the North Cascades and Redwoods National Park Acts. Like many of his elbow-throwing constituents, I was skilled at highlighting his real or perceived missteps.

Decades from now, kids who stare vaguely (or end up pitching snowballs) at the newly unveiled Scoop bust at Grand Avenue Park don’t need to know his name. Memories cloud and history falls away. All they need to know is here was a local kid, a child of immigrants, who worked hard, stayed true to his principles, and did his best to make his community and his country a better place.

They can do the same.

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