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AS state and national legislators slog into another season of tribal mud-wrestling, an aging group of political veterans will assemble this week in Olympia to recall a time when it didn’t have to be this way.

The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Gov. Dan Evans, a then 39-year-old Republican who won a gubernatorial election in an otherwise Democratic year, and went on to demonstrate how bipartisanship works.

Now 89 and as vibrant as ever, Evans will be there. So will many of his former staff, colleagues and admirers — Republican and Democratic alike. These are people who understand that one can’t go anywhere in this state without enjoying the legacy of Evans’ quarter-century of leadership — and especially his three terms (1965 to 1977) as governor.

Evans was, quite simply, the best governor in Washington’s history. His accomplishments remain evident from highways and bridges to community colleges and universities, from Pullman to the Pacific beaches, from Columbia Gorge to the North Cascades. With help from Republicans like Slade Gorton and some Seattle Democrats, he pushed through most of this state’s staunch environmental protections.

In the finest Republican tradition as he knew it, he also promoted the cause of racial minorities, children with disabilities, Vietnamese refugees, working women and much more.

And he achieved these things despite a deeply divided Legislature, and conservative GOP leaders who, often as not, considered him to be an ideological heretic.

For this and other reasons, Evans learned early on that, to get anything done, he would need to write off the ideologues in both parties, and forge coalitions of moderate pragmatists. As he put it then, “I would rather cross the aisle than cross the people.”

He was no weather vane, but rather an authentic Republican who admired Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and whose deep baritone dominated state politics for a generation. As Democrats, like former U.S. Rep. Mike Lowry, will attest, Evans won elections by playing hardball.

Once in office, however, his game changed. A few weeks after defeating Lowry in their 1983 U.S. Senate contest, the two were working together to craft a million-acre wilderness bill and shepherd it through Congress.

Evans understood that partisan differences are not about good and evil, nor right and wrong; they are about contradictory truths. Democrats who want to spend more money for good schools are right. Republicans who want limited government are right. And the political process is about forging coalitions to balance legitimate, but conflicting, political truths.

“This administration is not ashamed of the word conservative, and not afraid of the word liberal,” Evans said in his first inaugural address.

Later on he put it this way: “There are no Republican schools or Democratic highways, no liberal salmon or conservative parks.”

No, there is just the people’s business, and the people will rarely agree completely on what that business should be. For that, we need leaders.

So, when the right wing of his party abandoned him, Evans reached across the aisle for moderate Democrats who shared his values, and got it done.

He was not an early supporter of Ronald Reagan, but eventually learned to admire the president for his fundamental decency and integrity. Reagan, you see, also understood the meaning of bipartisan politics.

Evans’ advice to aspiring leaders is to “figure out what you are really for and go fight for it,” he told me last week. “You can’t make your mark by just saying no to the people you disagree with.”

Today, there are smart, skilled politicians capable of forging meaningful coalitions. Their main obstacle may be their own parties. A young Dan Evans today would raise the same red flags he did 50 years ago. The difference is that today’s opposition can unleash the forces of the tea party, the unlimited dollars of the National Rifle Association or the Koch brothers, and make heretics pay dearly for their pragmatism.

As a result, Evans could not do today what he did a half-century ago — there are too many rich and powerful interests who would rather cross the people than cross the aisle.

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter and columnist who now lives in Port Townsend.