Callaghan: With campaigns behind him, Gorton comes into focus

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Nothing boosts a politician's credibility like putting "former before the title.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton isn't any smarter than he was when he began appearing on Washington statewide ballots in 1968. His positions on issues are no less controversial. But since we know he wants nothing from us, has no need to spin or lobby or campaign, we can be more open to what he says about what he did. The political has become the intellectual.

After nearly 50 years in public life, he's making appearances to help promote a biography written by former Aberdeen Daily News editor John Hughes, Gorton might have his most receptive audiences ever.

There was barely a ripple last week among Tacoma's City Club members when Gorton took a stance many in the room likely oppose — that limits on campaign contributions haven't worked and infringe on First Amendment rights. Gorton suggested no limits but full and immediate disclosure. And while he suggested ways for voters to become informed, including the state voters' pamphlet, Gorton was permitted the cynical but likely accurate statement: "Every close election is decided by those who know the least and care the least."

The program was "Slade Gorton: A Half Century In Politics," and I was one of the people helping interview Gorton. In the book written with Gorton's cooperation, Hughes is gentle but thorough. Both successes and missteps are detailed. No sanitized biography, for example, would include chapters titled "Slippery Slade" for a nickname used by his enemies, "Trick or Treat" on the October disaster that may have caused his first defeat in 1986 or "Dump Slade, 2000" on his final campaign. "He's not a schmoozer," is how Sally Gorton described her husband to Hughes. He described himself in a similar vein: "You may have noticed that I'm not the world's warmest person."

So how did he win six statewide campaigns -- three for state attorney general, three for U.S. Senate? He certainly had good timing, especially his decision to challenge legendary Democrat Warren Magnuson in a year that would produce the Ronald Reagan landslide. But he was always one of the state's best political strategists, willing to play hardball but also knowing what issues and what strategies would resonate. One was to wonder why his hometown of Seattle drove so much of the state's agenda, often to the detriment of residents elsewhere. Still, it was never easy being a Republican in an increasingly blue state. Since 1964, only three Republicans have won the three big statewide offices -- governor and U.S. Senate. It's been 12 years for the Senate and 32 for governor.

'Trapped by labels'

Perhaps the most telling section of Hughes' book describes a profile in the Boston Globe in 1981. Over breakfast with a reporter, Gorton was trying to define his political philosophy. He was a budget conservative but one who believed that government played an important role. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment for women, was pro-choice on abortion and protective of the environment. "He felt trapped by labels," wrote Marguerite Del Giudice, "and inclined toward lengthy explanations."

And there's the problem with modern American politics and the reason why Gorton sometimes had political problems. Labels are the coin of the realm, and politicians are expected to stay within them -- conservative, liberal, Democratic, Republican.

His campaign opponents used labels to defeat him -- right-wing conservative, anti-Indian, anti-environment, backroom dealer -- even when his politics were far more nuanced. His own party was never sure of him, either. Seeing both wisdom and folly in all sides, being willing to compromise, being hard to label. Why, that's the kind of talk that will only get a politician accused of flip-flopping, of selling out, of not being pure.

Only now, with the campaigns long over and when he no longer seeks our votes, are people able to view him more clearly.