Our reporter-to-politician relationship was often rocky, so I was unnerved when former Sen. Slade Gorton marched me to a corner during a reception. He proceeded to unload on a big oil company, in fascinating detail.
Life with Slade Gorton could be a learning experience. Keeping up was often not easy.
Gorton had served on a company panel, chaired by ex-Secretary of State James Baker, charged with examining a lethal BP refinery explosion in Texas. It had probed company culture, with Slade having a memorable set-to with BP’s then- CEO Lord Brown.
What he had to tell me was that BP (or “Beyond Petroleum” as the company called itself) was a sloppy outfit waiting for a catastrophe to happen, which it did with the 2010 explosion and Gulf Oil spill.
Slade Gorton brought an aggressive intelligence to his every public endeavor. After being defeated seeking a fourth Senate term in 2000, he went on to serve on the 9/11 Commission President Bush was so reluctant to create. A high point of its investigation was Gorton’s meticulous cross-examination of an imperious Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.
The life of Slade Gorton was spoofed and celebrated some years back at the Westin Hotel, before an audience of loyal staff alumni and a political coat.
The event began with “auction” of a threadbare brown coat that Gorton for years insisted on wearing to the office. He stubbornly refused to let it go. One former aide remembered making the case for a new jacket, only to be diverted into receiving a brief lecture on split infinitives in memos, and how to avoid them.
The evening’s star speaker was Jamie Gorelick, top Democrat on the 9/11 Commission. She explained the bipartisan working relationship, and Gorton’s essential role in one of the most comprehensive, credible and lucid disaster assessments ever produced by a federal investigation.
Slade Gorton was first elected to the State Legislature in 1958 with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House and Sputnik circling the Earth. It was an era of brainy moderate Republicans in Olympia, pitted against what KING-TV pundit Don McGaffin characterized as “the sleaze wing of the Democratic Party.”
He would be elected Attorney General a decade later by a margin of fewer than 10,000 votes. Washington’s largest law firm, the AG’s office was among the first to hire the first large classes of women lawyers. Among them, future Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire. The Attorney General also took on oil companies over price manipulation during the 1973 Arab oil embargo.
Washington elected a new U.S. Senator for the first time in 28 years when Gorton unseated Sen. Warren Magnuson in 1980. He ran as a “skinny cat” who refused big PAC contributions. Maggie was slowed by diabetes, a fact emphasized by endless pictures of Gorton on his morning runs. In one TV spot for Magnuson, Rep. Al Swift argued: “We’ll concede the point. Slade Gorton has a great pair of legs. But Maggie gets things done for all of us.”
Gorton was part of a new Republican majority that took office in 1981. It was a strange term. He was a deficit hawk, and clashed with President Reagan as a member of the Senate Budget Committee. An agitated Gipper snapped a pencil in half at one White House meeting. He would later clash with environmentalists, but was an author of the million-acre Washington Wilderness Bill.
He lost his seat to Brock Adams in 1986 due to a bizarre sequence of events. Gorton wanted renowned Seattle lawyer Bill Dwyer named a U.S. District Court judge. Conservatives in the Justice Department balked. In order to free up the Dwyer nomination, Gorton voted to confirm minimally qualified South Bend, Ind., lawyer Daniel Manion to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Judge trading” became a hot issue, as did proposed conversion of a shut-down WPPSS nuclear plant at Hanford to a plutonium-making “bomb factory.” Appearing for Gorton in Spokane, President Reagan seemed unaware of what Hanford was. Republican Gorton suffered a shocking loss.
He bounced back two years later to win the seat of retiring Sen. Dan Evans. The Senate was different then. Gorton forged a lasting friendship with Democratic colleague Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. He could not abide Ted Kennedy – Kennedy came out here to campaign for Brock Adams – not Senator (later Vice President) Al Gore.
Slade fought the greens (and Judge Dwyer) over old-growth logging during his second Senate stint. But he also found money to rescue the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River from becoming a mountain slum, and fueled the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway.
Gorton made it a badge of honor that he had lost King County in his 1988 and 1994 Senate victories. He joined the Republican leadership as a kind of consiglieri under Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Tyrant bosses are a fixture on Capitol Hill, as well as offices where aides privately mock the Member. Gorton’s shop was the opposite. As AG and later Senator, he put women in executive positions, and later boosted their entry into the private sector. Aides were instructed to call him “Slade.” Punishment was inflicted only for split infinitives.
But Gorton could be abrupt, and hated stunts. A mob of old lefties from Washington Citizen Action descended on his Bellevue office in 2000, as part of a save-Social Security protest. Gorton ducked down the back stairs, an escape memorably photographed by the Seattle PI’s Paul Joseph Brown.
He was angry at the PI and KING-TV for showing up at a pricey PAC fundraiser, held at the Wolf Trap National Performing Arts park, during his 1986 campaign. Gorton walked through the Seattle press contingent. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyoming, was left with the task of speaking for Slade, declaring: “Slade Gorton is as independent as a hog on ice.”
Gorton was often difficult to love – unless you worked for him. But respect for the man, even grudgingly given, rose over the years.
Gorton would still show up at annual Republican gatherings, the Roanoke Conference at Ocean Shores and the annual Cascadian Conference in Leavenworth put on by Mainstream Republicans of Washington.
He starred in a “Beat-Slade-Gorton” contest on political trivia. Nobody ever did. He tried to run on the beach at Ocean Shores, once nearly blown down by the wind. The aides of long ago kept watch on him since Sally Gorton’s death.
A last encounter – trying to remember details – at another reception.
Gorton had been asked to join a corporate board. The company had a strategy for winning federal approval of some project. It was proudly presented by management, which turned to Gorton for reaction.
Gorton explained in detail why the strategy was half-baked, and why it would fail.