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Saturday, May 25, 2024

Remembering The Cool Intelligence Of Slade Gorton

Slade Gorton (Image: CSPAN)

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.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

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  1. Nice obit Joel. Two Slade stories:
    1.He was a swift runner. I could never get close to him in 10K road races
    2. More consequential: The Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center was (and is) a pioneer in research on firearm injuries. A delegation from the NRA came to Slades office to request that he join in cutting off funding for firearm research in general, and Harborview in particular. A staff member told me that Slade kicked them out of the office.

  2. Joel, only you could share these precious episodes that characterize this legendary man. I served with him and we squared off in the 1992 senate race, back in the days when civility was the norm. Two days after my defeat (you interviewed me in the Westin Hotel), Slade’s wife wrote Carolyn a sweet note.. Yes, highly respected by everyone who had the privilege of working with him, even Democrats.

  3. Thanks, Joel, for this piece. Like you, I interviewed and wrote about Slade many times over 30 years of political journalism. He was not an easy guy to interview; the room temperature tended to drop five degrees or so — due to his blue-blooded roots and sheer intellect. But if I came prepared, his interviews were also rewarding. He would walk logically through an issue, dissect the opposing points of view, and explain how he arrived at his stance. He spoke in complete sentences. He could digress, but then faithfully return to his original argument.
    I learned to judge office holders, especially senators, by the quality of their staff. Senators deal with a vast array of issues, and need good staff to cover the territory. And Slade consistently surrounded himself with the best — especially women. Like their boss, they could be chilly, but they returned phone calls and answered questions.
    Even when I disagreed with his stances, I was forced to rethink things based on his analysis.
    I only wish we had a few more like him to help us through today’s political wilderness.

  4. One of the things that eluded us scribes about Gorton is how fundamentally conservative he was. Very pro-business (back when most Northwest leaders were, especially those tied to Boeing), quite (though quietly) religious, fiscally stingy, and pretty deeply estranged from Seattle’s “full urban roast.” I used to wish the mightily talented Slade had started off on the city council and so imbibed more of the Seattle mystique. One of his political legacies was to think Republicans could win statewide by running “against Seattle,” assembling grievance communities. Gorton could pull this off a few times, but lesser political talents have adopted the recipe to their grief. Another downside of the formula is now we have virtually no Republicans elected in Seattle or close-in suburbs. The result is a permanent-minority GOP that is tilted too far to the rural and small-town mentality.

  5. The religion reference evokes a memory. I arrived late for Easter Sunday eucharist at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island. Gorton was angry at my pieces on efforts to “reform” Endangered Species Act. One open seat visible in church. It was besideGorton family, including daughter who used her married name to excoriate me in a letter-to-editor. The greeting of peace in our pew lived up to moniker God’s Frozen People.


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