The new biography of Booth Gardner is Booth Who? The title refers to Gardner's campaign slogan of 1984 when the then-Pierce County executive made light of his lack of statewide name familiarity, a problem he was able to solve with aggressive campaign spending. For a while, "Booth Who?" signs were ubiquitous, even cropping up in the deserts of Eastern Washington. As the book reminds us, the deep-pocketed Gardner, a scion of Weyerhaeuser wealth, was able to buy his way into public consciousness.
The title also reminds us that in Washington, political memories are rather short. Politicians rise and fall, machines are dismantled, reformed, or overwhelmed, often, by outsider candidates and populist initiatives. As a Western state that thrives on immigration and youth, there are likely many people who have never heard of Booth Gardner, Washington's mostly popular two-term Democratic governor who served from 1985 to 1993. As a subtitle on the book's cover tells us, Gardner was "Washington's charismatic 19th governor."
Now suffering from Parkinson's disease, the former governor's most recent foray into politics was 2008's Death with Dignity campaign. It says something about the arc of a career that our one-time youthful "Education Governor" who had a knack for working with kids (he was a young Jimi Hendrix's football coach) made his most recent crusade the so-called "last campaign" promoting the right to die. Political life, is fleeting, even for those who are long-lived like former governor Al Rosellini, who has passed the century mark, but was voted out of office in his prime in 1964. Rosellini has been sidelined nearly as long as Barack Obama has been alive.
Booth Who? (Washington State Heritage Center Legacy Project, $25) by John C. Hughes has gotten some nice notice, including from Joel Connelly, our one-man institutional memory machine. I have a few brief observations about the book.
It reads a bit like an "official" biography, but it also covers Gardner's warts. It's an appreciation, but no whitewash. Nevertheless, Gardner remains a bit of an enigma.
It's hard to say what makes him tick. Son of wealth, a businessman-turned Democrat, a reformer backed by establishment figures, a charmer with an elusive, aloof quality that makes him hard to pin down. Gardner is a public man whose parts don't quite add up. There's a there there, but he keeps some of it to himself.
Gardner reminds me a little of Obama: a relative rookie in politics whose Illinois was Pierce County. He emerged with a high-hope factor, as someone with charisma and a desire to reform education and health care. In contrast to his successor, Mike Lowry, and his competitor for the gubernatorial nomination, Jim McDermott, Gardner was more pragmatic, more a neo-Dem than true liberal believer.
He brought to Olympia a desire for bipartisanship, a disdain for the legislative process, a head full of ideas for how to manage things better. He literally rolled up his sleeves and took to the cubicles of Olympia to get to know the state workers who really run things. He applied the principles of In Search of Excellence and used "management by walking around."
It sounded great, and promised much, but wound up delivering less than expected. A virtual shoe-in for a third term, Gardener walked away, tired, frustrated, depressed, perhaps even showing the early signs of his disease.
A couple of things come into focus while reading Booth Who? One is that Gardner, while not perfect, was a good governor, and better, a smart and well-intentioned one. Booth Who? made me miss the man who tilted at Olympia's windmills.
The rap against him was that he was too nice and compromised too quickly. But he also tried to govern the whole: work with Republicans, reach out around the state, solve systemic problems. He did manage to get the Basic Health Plan for Washington passed; he did take on education reform by raising teacher's salaries, but also pushing for merit pay and accountability. He did advocate tax reform.
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