Now that we've seen the impassioned blogs and op-ed pieces, the press critiques and the legal arguments, the next big thing had to be Intelligent Design: The Movie. So along comes the 90-minute documentary formally titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opening this week on a big screen a couple of blocks from the offices of the Seattle think tank where the idea has been gurgling for years.
While the film has been almost universally panned by the critics, it's still showing at some 1,000 theaters around the country. And that is very good news for Bruce Chapman, the former Seattle City Council member whose Discovery Institute has weighed in on lots of issues, but is best-known nationally as incubator for that ever-so-contentious idea called "intelligent design."
This is the argument that Charles Darwin erred – and so does virtually every scientist on Earth – by accepting the theory of evolution. Chapman and others argue that human life is far too complex to have evolved through natural selection, so it must have been designed by, well, a very smart designer-to-be-named-later. Chapman winces at such definitions, but his own would consume more pages than he's going to get here.
However it is defined, intelligent design, or "ID," has gained some traction across the nation, particularly among religious fundamentalists, so that godfearing creationists find themselves seeking intellectual guidance from godless Seattle, Land of the Liberal Democrats, home of the unchurched. In recent years, the idea has burst into school boardrooms, courtrooms, the halls of Congress, and the White House. It has been the target of editorial crusades in journals ranging from the The Stranger to The New York Times. And each seems to ask: How in the world did this notoriously unholy city become headquarters for a fundamentally conservative crusade?
The simple answer: Bruce Chapman. With an assist by a mild-mannered philosophy professor from an obscure Presbyterian college just across the mountains in Spokane.
But there is much more to this story. I bear witness to this, because I am a recovering Discovery fellow. For a few weeks back in 2001, I worked with Chapman and Co. – not on Darwinism, but on transportation. I also am a preacher's kid who graduated many years ago from that little Presbyterian college.
In Seattle, merely acknowledging my past association with Discovery is like confessing that I have failed to recycle my beer bottles. But more of that later. Here's what I've learned about the Origin of Bruce Chapman and the rest of his Species:
When I first met Chapman, he was not Chapman. He was P.C. Circleman, the pseudonym under which he wrote an engaging urban affairs column for the staid editorial pages of The Seattle Times. This was the late '60s, when I was a cub reporter in the Times newsroom, and Chapman was a bright, articulate, slightly geeky Harvard guy with black-framed glasses who wrote the kinds of things I yearned to write. We were newcomers to Seattle, each in his own way trying to figure out the chemistry of our adopted hometown.
Seattle in the '60s and early '70s was a nice, family-friendly city run by a benevolent clique of aging businessmen who ruled from the private confines of the Rainier Club, just up the street from City Hall. The city had well-paying Boeing jobs, good schools, and a fine university, roughly equal proportions of liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans, and a housing market where a twentysomething could buy a three-bedroom fixer-upper for $15,000.
"Seattle was a real city, but it was not finished," Chapman recalled years later. "It didn't have the ethnic divisions that plagued Eastern cities. It was open and honest and genuinely bipartisan."
It was also teetering. Boeing lost its supersonic jetliner deal, went into a tailspin, and laid off thousands. There were riots around the university and the Central Area over Vietnam and civil rights. And local government was shaken by police payoff scandals that reached into City Hall.
The climate was ripe for reform. And Chapman, an Illinois native who moved here in 1966, was eager to help. While at Harvard, he had visited the Bellevue home of his college roommate. Meanwhile, he had worked with fellow Harvardite George Gilder to found a magazine and a progressive Republican club called the Ripon Society. Later, they cowrote a book critical of the GOP's rightward shift. "We were pro-civil rights and opposed to the John Birch Society and the radical right," Chapman recalled.
Eager to put his ideas into action, Chapman became active in CHECC (Choose an Effective City Council), a group of young upstarts, mostly newcomers, bent on reforming city government. In 1971, barely five years after he moved to Seattle, he won a seat on the City Council.
So we meet again, Chapman as the young whiz kid at City Hall and yours truly as a Times reporter on the city beat. A radical he was not, but he certainly was a radical departure from Seattle's established order. While his older colleagues focused on balanced budgets and barking dogs, Chapman and fellow reformer (and Yale grad) John Miller pumped out a steady stream of ideas, small and not-so-small, for arts and parks, for open meetings and political term limits, for preserving Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. Some of those ideas raised hackles, particularly the proposal to tear down the ugly but functional Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Chapman was never a populist nor charismatic pol. He carried that Ivy League air of I-know-something-you-don't. And Seattle, in turn, had little use for tweedy intellectuals.
But something worked. By the mid-'70s, Seattle was America's hottest city. The ingredients had been here all along, but the turnaround was based in part on Chapman and other young leaders who had good ideas and plenty of federal dollars to spend on them.
When the opportunity arose in 1975, Chapman moved on to become secretary of state in Olympia. Ever the contrarian, he focused on eliminating his own job, one of several state offices he thought should not be elective.
In 1980, we met again. I was covering politics and Chapman was running for governor, this time on a very different platform. The progressive politics had been supplanted by a Reaganesque agenda: Crack down on crime, beef up the military, and pass a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
That campaign never took off, and he lost badly in the primary. His consolation prize was to move back East, where he joined the new Reagan Administration as director of the $250 million-a-year Census Bureau. "The finest bureaucracy I've ever seen," he said at the time.
The next time we met was in 1983, when I was in Washington D.C., covering Congress, and Chapman had been picked as a domestic policy advisor in the Reagan White House. At a chicken barbeque in his back yard, Chapman allowed that his politics had changed along with the Reagan Revolution. "I have grown more conservative on social issues," he said then, "as I have become more disillusioned with any aspect of the Great Society, the welfare state, or the endless parade of liberation movements as solutions to any problems."
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