Warren Magnuson’s Legacy is Instructive: The US Senate in 1970 Versus Now

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Henry Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson, February 17, 1969 Courtesy UW Special Collections (UW19599)

On August 1, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a Washington, D.C. gala celebrating the 50th Anniversary (delayed two years by COVID) of enactment of the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), a program under which 20,000 health professionals of all types are currently providing medical and dental care to needy people in underserved rural and urban communities.  NHCS alumni number 66,000 and the patients the NHSC has served now number in the many millions.   The gala was put on by the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved, a surprisingly vast and laudable organization with which the NHSC is thoroughly intertwined. 

The law creating the NHSC was authored by Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D-WA).  The idea was brought to him by Dr. Abe Bergman of Seattle, then a 37-year-old physician at Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington.  I was the 21-year-old legislative assistant that the late Stan Barer, then Magnuson’s top aide, assigned to write the bill and help Magnuson shepherd it to passage.

The NHSC bill turned out to have such a truly extraordinary legislative odyssey that afterward I recounted it in a book, The Dance of Legislation, which became a unexpected best-seller in 1973 and remains in print.  I signed a hundred copies at the August 1 gala.  (I donated all royalties long ago to the Magnuson Endowed Fund at the UW Library.)

I’d been asked to speak at the gala because of the book, and because no one else of the more important people involved in the NHSC’s creation (other than Bergman, now 90) is still alive.  If you’re going to speak at the 50th anniversary of something you participated in, it helps to have participated when you were very young.

The gala organizers wanted me to provide a flavor of how different the Senate of 1970 was from the Senate of today.  I borrowed a construction of what he called “Deep Time” by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote: “If I had to summarize this book in a single sentence, it would be: ‘The summit of Mount Everest consists of marine limestone formed at the bottom of the sea.’” Reframing this, I said that if I had to summarize in two sentences the difference between today’s Senate and that of 1970, it would be: “Despite the Nixon Administration’s opposition, not a single Republican in the Senate voted against the NHSC. Moreover, the bill had numerous Republican co-sponsors and through a quirk, the Senate floor manager for the bill was Peter Dominick of Colorado, the most conservative Republican in the Senate.”  (Dominick, a Lee Marvin lookalike, co-sponsored the bill and in Magnuson’s absence did a great job as floor manager, guiding it to a unanimous recorded vote.)

I also pointed out that Dominick, as the Senate’s great Republican conservative, voted for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Supreme Court nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first Black justice.  There, in a nutshell, you have the Senate Republicans of 1970.  (Pregnant pause….)

The entire evening of the gala, and particularly the spectacular success and longevity of the NHSC, got me thinking about Magnuson and about the recently deceased Slade Gorton, the man who defeated Magnuson in 1980, when Magnuson was 75-years-old and stretching for a seventh Senate term. 

Some years ago I was interviewed by a university professor doing research on the defeat of incumbent senators.  The professor managed to speak with many of those senators and the ones who’d defeated them, but Magnuson had died in 1989 and so – in addition to interviewing Gorton – the professor interviewed me, as a sort of surrogate

Over the years, thanks to his graciousness, I’d developed a cordial relationship with Gorton; despite everything, we managed to get along fine and, I think, enjoyed one another’s company.  But still, I was curious.  I said to the professor, “When you talk to Gorton again, ask him why he ran against Magnuson.”  I wasn’t close enough to Gorton to ask him the question myself.  But as a Magnuson loyalist, I naturally if unreasonably thought Magnuson should have been allowed to serve as long as he wanted.  The professor promised to let me know.

Some years passed before the professor called me back, wanting to do some follow-up.  In the course of our discussion, I asked whether he’d ever asked Gorton that question, and if so, how had Gorton responded.  Ah yes, the professor said, he had remembered to ask.  Gorton had replied, the professor told me, that Magnuson had been just a pork barrel and local interest politician, known for bringing money home to his state, but that Gorton wanted to do something more significant than that, namely accomplish works of national significance.

I had that explanation in mind for my speech at the gala, because I tried to place the NHSC among the legislative accomplishments of which Magnuson might feel most proud.  I’d mentioned quite a few in the course of my remarks:  the Bergman-inspired Flammable Fabrics Act, Poison Prevention Packaging Act, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Then the National Cancer Institute (the first of the National Institutes of Health), the National Science Foundation, the Communications Satellite Act.  Also: the Ports and Waterways Safety Act (making oil tankers safer), the Airport and Airways Development Act (under which airports nationwide are funded), the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (originally just Magnuson’s; Alaska’s Ted Stevens, a Republican admirer of Magnuson, camped on it later).

In my speech I went on to mention that in his retirement Magnuson’s former staff used to fete him at occasional luncheons, essentially as roasts.  On one occasion, I got to tease him that thanks to his Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals and sea lions had proliferated to such an extent that Great White sharks had moved up the coast and begun biting surfers in Oregon.

At the same luncheon, another ex-staffer, having looked up all the famous “Maggie Amendments” – the Senator cleverly got a lot of his work done on the Senate floor – mentioned that even the federal law banning the interstate transportation of push-button knives has its own Maggie Amendment:  an exception for people with only one arm.

I told the audience that probably Magnuson’s most important legislative accomplishment remains the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would certainly have died had not Magnuson used all his ingenuity to get it out of committee and onto the Senate floor.  But I said that if Magnuson could see the NHSC today, he’d definitely consider it among his finest accomplishments – he’d smile, give a little laugh, hide a tear from being genuinely moved, and then say, “Let’s get them some more money!”

(For his part, when Magnuson in retirement was asked privately by Stan Barer what he considered his greatest accomplishment, he smiled and replied, “My greatest accomplishment was crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner with two women, each of whom thought the other was my sister.”  Not something he’d ever say in public, and presumably not even in private today.)

Later in the evening of the NHSC gala, I thought back to what Gorton had told the university professor, what he’d said about Magnuson being a local politician and Gorton wanting to accomplish things of national significance.  I’d snorted when I’d heard this the first time, from the professor.  I snort again every time I think of it, and particularly that night, a celebration of the National Health Service Corps.

Gorton was a decent person, a Republican who would have felt comfortable with Peter Dominick and other Senate Republicans of that bygone era.  But remind me, please, what things of national importance Gorton will be remembered for?  Okay, he certainly deserved credit, although he still receives obloquy, for his futile effort to head off some abuses made possible by Indian gaming legislation.  (Gorton is the leading figure in Donald Craig Mitchell’s book Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gaming and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire.) 

But seriously, for what will Gorton undoubtedly be most remembered?  For saving the Seattle Mariners, of course.  It’s not national legislation, it’s a purely local monument to his prowess as a senator.  But despite the irony, in this particular moment of this particular baseball season, it surely deserves a tip of the hat – and a box of Cracker Jack – in memory of the man who styled himself “Washington’s Next Great Senator.”

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Eric (Ric) Redman, a Seattle lawyer and climate consultant, is the author of the nonfiction bestseller, "The Dance of Legislation," and the forthcoming murder mystery, "The Bones of Hilo."

9 COMMENTS

  1. Eric, another difference between Magnuson and Gorton was how they handled themselves in a restaurant. One would know everybody quickly – the other would wait to be acknowledged.

    • Very true. I think Gorton would have liked to have been the sort of warm and friendly person that, for some reason, he just found himself unable to be.

  2. Gorton and Maggie shared one admirable trait. They hired very good staffers, treated them well, heard them out when they disagreed with the boss, and looked out for their post-staff success. That may be the surest measure of a politician’s effectiveness.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Ric. Clearly there would be no National Health Service Corps if Sen. Magnuson’s 21 year old staff assistant not been tasked with drafting and skillfully guiding the bill into a law. But I do not agree with the shots you take at Slade Gorton. I disagreed with many of his positions, but admired him as a person. Some reasons:
    1. His solicitous treatment of his defeated opponent, Sen. Magnuson, visiting him regularly at his Magnolia home.
    2. Testifying in support of John Goldmark, a victim of a vicious anti-Communist smear campaign, at his trial in Okanogan in 1963.
    3. When lobbyists for the National Rifle Association asked Slade to stop funding for the Harborview Injury Prevention Campaign in the late 1980’s because of the Center’s firearm-related research, he kicked them out of his office.
    4. In the many road-races we both entered in the 70’s and 80’s, I never came close to catching the lithe Gorton.

    • Those are all fair points. As I said, Gorton was a decent man and I ended up getting along with him quite well. And he was a better runner than me, too. But anyone who suggests to me that Magnuson was only a local politician who brought money home to his state and didn’t have national accomplishments is bound to trigger a response from me — especially, as I said, on the night when the NHSC was being celebrated for 50 years of service.

  4. Some of the funniest comments about Maggie were published in the Seattle Times on his death. My favorite involved the story of his early years as a courthouse attorney. In one telling, he recounted how in cross examining a young woman, he asked if she was subpoenaed to appear where she eventually replied, “yes, once in Hoonah and twice on the boat.”

  5. Excellent remembrance.
    It was a bipartisan Senate then, and that is unlikely again.
    The communications revolution has been positive in many ways; negative in others.
    Spawning both “liberal and news cable television stations” to speak for their “tribes,” and in the process help drive many local newspapers close to extinction.
    How would Maggie and Scoop be recognized?
    Could they even be nominated?
    One built the Grand Coulee Dam that decimated salmon, and the other was a “war
    mongerer”
    RIP two of Washington’s finest.

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