“The best Senator that no one’s ever heard of”

Slade Gorton: 1928-2020

You don’t start the day expecting to end it on a last minute, 3-hour Zoom call with 80 people to record goodbyes to someone you love. You sure don’t expect that person you love to be a politician. Yet, that’s what happened the evening of August 11, 2020 as alumni of former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton’s staff gathered virtually from across the country to convey some final messages to a man whose like we will not see again. It was a powerful, emotional evening.

Slade was an introvert in a world of politics dominated by extroverts. He was a man modest in stature but, a giant in intellect. He was a long-time Republican elected official in a state that is now so very blue. He was a man often accused in politics of being cold yet, who could exude the most fabulous warmth and sincerity.

Those of us who worked for the man loved him. He set standards we still adhere to and aspire to today.

And it wasn’t just us. Nearly 20 years ago Slade’s fellow Senators gave him a moving, public, bipartisan goodbye after he lost his last run for office. It was the subject of a lovely Peggy Noonan column, including this riff from one of my great friends:

“But what makes him unique among senators is they may not agree with his thinking on a subject but they all want to hear it. He’s one of the rare people in this town who can ‘stop traffic’—he can force people to put aside their agendas and listen. He is not a self-promoter and they know it, so they think, ‘I better put down the paper and listen to this guy.’ ” [Gorton’s Chief of Staff Tony] Williams added, “He’s the best senator that no one’s ever heard of.”

Those were the days when Members of Congress governed rather than played “parliament of pundits,” looking more toward the next cable TV hit than finding consensus on the issues of the day.

The tour de force Seattle Times obituary for Slade had this great insight too:

Slade was the person who could somehow find a way to communicate and find common ground,” said Tom Daschle, a Democrat who represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1987-2005, serving as minority leader during Gorton’s third term and majority leader in 2001. “He was indispensable, he had an enormous ability to keep us focused on the most important thing.

“I only wish there were a few more Slade Gortons in the Senate right now, we need them, we need people who can communicate and are willing to compromise and be conciliatory and build consensus to get things done.”

Slade was indeed a great Senator, and yet much more. You should read Noonan’s column. Nearly two decades later her words still convey the essence of the man. Her insight gives a window into Slade’s humanity and decency and impact in a way that those of us who worked for him knew quite well…and wished more people could have seen also.

I have many tales of working for Slade, but one stands out as a pairing with Noonan’s words. On January 31, 2000 Alaska Airlines Flight 261 from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco plunged into the sea off the coast of California, killing all 88 souls aboard. That loss was a jarring event for Seattle-based Alaska and the community. In the days soon after Alaska held a large memorial service at the Washington State Convention Center to give space for their employees to mourn. Slade, as a sitting U.S. Senator, was one of the many prominent dignitaries invited to speak.

I staffed him for that event, writing the suggested talking points, handling the driving, and attending the event with him; all familiar tasks to a Congressional staffer. I was seated near the front while the speakers were on stage. At one point I looked up to see Slade singing along solemnly with the playing of “Amazing Grace,” a testament to the deep faith he almost never wore on his sleeve. Some other speakers were sitting there stoically. Slade, the lovable dork we on his staff knew well, was meeting the moment in his way. It was an endearing sight.

One of the next day’s Seattle newspapers had a picture of the service on the front page. Yet, the angle of the shot was such that Slade was obscured behind the speaker at the podium. Noonan would likely appreciate the irony of the scene: hidden from the view of the broader public, Slade was doing something beautiful and authentic.

And yet, Slade wouldn’t be one to worry about lack of recognition. Fame was not his goal. Showing up and doing right were.

What does that mean to those that worked for him? How you handle yourself can matter just as much as results; sometimes more.

In late 2008 I found myself preparing to depart Present George W. Bush’s Administration after serving as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Education’s Seattle office (an appointment I owe to working on education issues for Slade and the relationships I built working for him). An acquaintance in the world of politics, a former State Director for U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D), reached out across the aisle. We knew and respected each other, because that can be done in politics. He asked if I would be willing to meet with someone who worked on the Obama campaign. She wanted my job.

On odd request, perhaps. Yet, clear word had come down from W after the 2008 election that his team was expected to make every effort to support a smooth transition to the incoming Obama Administration. My time on Slade’s staff instilled the same expectations of duty and decency.

So, I found myself at a Starbucks near the Northgate Mall in Seattle one day, offering advice on obtaining a White House political appointment to someone who had just helped kick my party’s ass and who wanted the job I was soon to vacate. It was, actually, a good conversation. That’s easier than one might think between people of different beliefs who are in politics for all the right reasons. She didn’t end up in that job, but did land as an Obama Administration appointee in DC. We’re still connected today.

And as we parted she laughingly said she’d have to tell people she’d received more advice on becoming an appointee from a “Bushie” than anyone else.

A Bushie…and a Gortonite.

Slade would probably appreciate that tale because it was something done after working for him. His last speech to us on his campaign team after his defeat in 2000 exhorted us on the importance of what came next. Slade would also appreciate the tale for supporting one of his great professional legacies: empowering strong women to be successful.

No surprise that an abiding part of that Zoom call on August 11 was people who had worked for Slade, across the spectrum of his decades in politics and policy, sharing what they had been doing after working for him, and how being part of Team Gorton had very much influenced the rest of their life in deep, meaningful ways. It’s a shared bond that is difficult to put into words, but says a lot about the man we gathered to honor on short notice and in large numbers as his life was fading away.

In 2003, George Will wrote a column titled “A Beautiful Mind” remembering then recently passed Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Will, the good conservative, had exceptionally kind words and respect for Moynihan, a good liberal. A window into an era perhaps gone by.

A little later that year I had the fortune to introduce Slade as the main speaker at a political event. I cited Will’s column and parlayed it into my own take to introduce my old boss as one of our nation’s most beautiful minds. The conversion from recognizing Moynihan to Gorton in such a way didn’t take much effort. I’ll not soon forget that grinning handshake as I welcomed him to the stage.

Slade was more than someone whose decades of public service included the impressive expanse of being a state legislator, Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and 9/11 Commissioner. He was a man whose achievement, intellect, passion for life, dignity, and love infected those around him in a unique way. The ripples of that impact will be felt well beyond the arc of his life well-lived and the hour of his death.

On August 19, 2020, our nation lost one of its most beautiful minds. Those of us that knew him well lost Slade.

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