“You may have noticed that I’m not the world’s warmest person,” Slade Gorton quipped one afternoon in 2010 as we wrapped up an oral history interview. We both laughed.
“He’s not a schmoozer,” was the way his wife, Sally, a former Seattle Times reporter, put it. “When he plays pickleball, he always aims for your toes. He hates to lose.”
That he did.
The former U.S. senator, who died Aug. 19 at 92, was witheringly bright, complicated and as competitive as they come. A self-described lifelong “baseball nut,” he relished hardball. Detractors called him “Slippery Slade” and “living proof that not all cold fish comes in a can.”
In truth, the man accused of being humorless was spontaneously mischievous. He liked to quote Shakespeare’s adage that “brevity is the soul of wit.” I spent three months researching Gorton’s 14 appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court, laboring over that chapter in his biography to ensure it was nuanced. When I asked him to review it for accuracy, he emailed back 30 minutes later: “Good summary.” J. Vander Stoep, Gorton’s former chief of staff, said I’d just received an A+.
With his lean frame, tall forehead, angular chin, toothy smile and bespectacled eyes, Gorton was a cartoonist’s dream. For a roast, Gorton’s admirers commissioned a Bobblehead by David Horsey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who now works at The Seattle Times. Decades later, when Gorton declared there were at least “a dozen actions” by President Donald Trump that warranted his impeachment, Horsey skewered lock-step Republicans. He featured Gorton in a Times cartoon captioned: “Republicans: They don’t make ’em like this anymore.”
It wasn’t Gorton’s first profile in courage. In 1974, when he was Washington’s attorney general, Gorton made national headlines as one of the first major elected officials in America to call for Nixon’s resignation. Summing up the evidence that Nixon had sanctioned the Watergate break-in and “stonewalled” the investigation, Gorton declared that the president, if not a crook, was at minimum unfit for office. Nixon had withheld evidence from the Department of Justice and Congress, urged the IRS to harass his enemies, solicited illegal campaign contributions and countenanced, as Gorton put it, “the two-time selection as vice president of a man who turned out to be a common extortionist.”
During another long afternoon of reminiscing, Gorton recalled the day when his conscience told him he must, above all, be true to himself. Right-wingers had engineered the defeat of a liberal Democrat Gorton admired — State Rep. John Goldmark from Okanogan County. They charged Goldmark with being “the tool of a monstrous” Communist conspiracy. When Goldmark sued his attackers for libel, his attorney, the formidable Bill Dwyer, asked Gorton to be a character witness.
“I knew that if I said yes it would cost me. And I knew that if I said no I’d be a coward,” Gorton remembered. “Looking back, that may have been the pivotal moment of my career in politics. There had been no incident in those first three terms in the Legislature that had really tested my character. I said yes.” Gorton paused for a few seconds, cleared his throat and recited from memory a stanza from James Russell Lowell’s poem, “The Present Crisis”:
Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side …
“The unintended consequence was that it took me out of being just another young state representative,” Gorton remembered. “I became someone The Seattle Times and other media would pay attention to.”
Gorton and I sharply disagreed on the validity of his decision to challenge the 1974 “Boldt Decision,” a landmark victory for Northwest treaty tribes in the volatile debate over fishing rights. I had covered the Quinault Indian Nation and believed then, as I do now, that the treaty tribes were entitled to up to 50% of each run of fish that passed through their “usual and accustomed” places, as Judge Boldt put it.
The tribes’ anger over Gorton’s stand played a key role in his cliffhanger loss to Maria Cantwell in the 2000 U.S. Senate race. Many who branded Gorton a racist then, and doubtless still believe it now, will denounce this piece and the outpouring of admiring obituaries as hagiography. Yet neither Al Ziontz, one of the most respected attorneys in Indian country, nor Ron Allen, a former president of the National Congress of American Indians, believed Gorton was a bigot. “He was our toughest opponent,” Allen told me. “He made us better, smarter and more savvy. I don’t think Slade hates Indians. He just has strong opinions based on his review of what he considers the facts. He has always been a great lawyer, an insatiable reader with an incredible intellect. He can debate anything — constitutional law or scripture, for that matter. He cared about the salmon and the environment and said the tribes should play a role. But when it came to sovereignty issues, we collided time and again. …”
Gorton was in countless collisions during a long, remarkably eventful political career. At the end of our last interview for the biography, I asked if he had any final thoughts. He smiled broadly and instantly declared, “I’ve had an absolutely marvelous life!”