The yearning for a strongman

Seattle's post-election blues rekindle a desire for bigger government, run by a big boss. But we've done very well without either, thank you.
Crosscut archive image.
Seattle's post-election blues rekindle a desire for bigger government, run by a big boss. But we've done very well without either, thank you.

Every time the Puget Sound region's powerful are thwarted, the cry goes out for a strongman. Would that someone could lead us out of the Valley of Confusion and Consensus! Our process is broken, our future grim, the villagers are running amuck and consorting with that damnable Tim Eyman again. The voters just don't know what's good for them!

It reminds me of that old joke about the guy who asks a group of marching people how he can get to the head of the parade. "They need me up there," he says, "for I am their leader!"

Strongman talk is rampant in the wake of the Proposition 1 failure. The power-players are pumping the creation of a region-wide uber-agency that would take charge of the transportation "mess." Why this new uber-agency would be any more successful than all the "old" regional entities (Sound Transit, RTID, Metro, the counties) is unclear, but there is certainly a belief that no one is in charge around here.

Flash back to a power luncheon at the Olympic Four Seasons Hotel in the mid-1990s. Somehow, I was seated near the powerful lawyer Judy Runstad. The name of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was mentioned and Runstad swooned. "Norman Schwarzkopf for president!" she burbled, apparently giddy at the the idea of Stormin' Norman whipping America into shape just like he'd chased the Iraqis back to Baghdad. (A Schwarzkopf motto: "When in command, take charge!")

She hasn't been the only civic leader attracted to a he-man.

The argument goes that most of our regional transportation players aren't up to taking control: King County Exec Ron Sims flip-flops, Gov. Chris Gregoire wallows in the quagmire of Seattle politics, gubernatorial wannabe Dino Rossi avoids specifics, developer Kemper Freeman is old-school and too self-serving, Mayor Greg Nickels mimics strongmanism but doesn't have the chops – if he did, he wouldn't have failed on the waterfront tunnel and ducked on 520. Speaking of chops, House Speaker Frank Chopp is powerful but he can't be trusted – he's a closet populist, you know.

What we need is someone to come in and knock heads and make the trains run on time. A Rudy Giuliani, a Robert Moses, a Richard Daley, an Arnold Schwarzenegger, a – just what is Norman Schwarkopf up to these days?

Such yearnings defy our history. The development of Seattle and Puget Sound has always occurred on a complex battlefield. Power has always been suspect and authority decentralized at every turn. Political machines have been weak or short-lived, the people have ruled with initiatives, ballot measures, advisory votes. Yes, it's frustrating sometimes, but it's us.

In Seattle, visionaries clashed: R.H. Thomson, the engineer who built roads, sewers, and washed away hillsides, fought tooth and nail with John Olmsted over parks, boulevards and the shape of the city to come. The voters backed them both at different times. Both visions made Seattle what it is today. One man made the toilets flush, the other infused the modern city with nature and beauty.

We've voted on freeways only to see them stopped in their tracks (R.H. Thomson Expressway); we've opposed roadways through parks (Woodland), then seen them built them anyway (not unlike some stadiums). We've elected and recalled mayors and we relish changing our minds. We rejected light rail, then passed it, then rejected extending again; we passed the monorail, then rejected it, too. When Metro was first proposed, it was seen as a regional octopus strangling the suburbs with its tentacles. We voted it down, then voted for it, then merged it with King County, then created Sound Transit and the RTID, and now there's talk of yet another incarnation.

A cascade of decisions and revisions. Fitting for a wet place, we're fluid, not fixed. It may look like chaos – it may even be chaotic at times – but it hasn't stopped growth or progress or prosperity. Our process, such as it is, has resulted in one of the most loved, cherished, most desirable, most habitable metropolitan regions in the country. The questions are: How do we take care of it? How do we continue it? How do we improve it?

Part of the answer lies in our "flawed" processes. We've thrived by giving no one too much power, by never ceding anything we can't take back, by approving and disapproving every step of the way. By resisting the strongman urge.

Our leaders aren't all weak. I think they represent a people whose strength is not being too sure of themselves.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.