The lore of local politics

The Kennedy funeral and a Seattle Pilots' anniversary stir memories of a crucial saga of red-baiting in Seattle.

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Ed Guthman of the <i>Times</i> won a Pulitzer in 1950 for clearing Prof. Rader

The Kennedy funeral and a Seattle Pilots' anniversary stir memories of a crucial saga of red-baiting in Seattle.

On the Mariners' pre-game show Sunday, broadcaster New York Vinnie was interviewing the M's announcer Dave Niehaus for their "Voices of the Game" segment and made an interesting observation. Having watched the the funeral of Teddy Kennedy, Vinnie said it seemed to him that that politics was a lot like baseball because the stories are so good and so important. Niehaus observed that political stories were indeed like baseball stories because half of them were true.

Vinnie is absolutely right: A huge part of baseball revolves around its lore, the sense that players and observers are all participating in a shared history. Vinnie also interviewed former pitcher Jim Bouton, who was in town for the 40th anniversary reunion of the Seattle Pilots. Bouton wrote Ball Four, one of the best baseball books ever, about a team that only lasted one year. But Bouton said that what made the Pilots special was that it was a team full of castoffs. Many were veterans fighting for a last season in the big leagues. What they lacked in talent they made up for in story-telling ability. It was a team of great characters, if not talent.

Seattle politics has never been a hugely popular spectator sport. Seattleites tend to be suspicious of professional politicians, and insider tactics and gossip are not the kind of shared public drama they are in many big cities. But Seattle does have some valuable political storytellers, people who remember stuff so you don't have to, writers like Joel Connelly, Shelby Scates, Ted Van Dyk, and Ross Anderson come to mind as valuable keepers of political lore.

One reason political stories are valuable is that they're useful. They don't always suggest that the past was a place where giants roamed. But past politics is often illuminating on how to deal with the present, with tales of people who faced adversity and overcame it. Or not.

I just finished reading one of Seattle's best and scariest political stories of the post- World War II period: Melvin Rader's False Witness, the first-person account of a University of Washington professor falsely accused of being a communist in the late 1940s and his crusade to clear his name and expose the state officials who bullied and lied in an effort to ruin his reputation. It's a compelling drama from a time when red-hunting shut down the Seattle Rep and spurred the University of Washington to purge its ranks of suspected communist sympathizers, pressured by a young right-wing rookie legislator in Olympia, Albert Canwell, who became the Joe McCarthy of Washington.

It's also a fascinating media story that illustrates the value of having two daily newspapers in town. The Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer was largely a cheerleader for the right-wing witch-hunters in Olympia, while it was the more establishment Seattle Times and reporter Ed Guthman that actually that did the Pulitzer-winning work that ultimately exposed the government-sanctioned fraud and perjury that ruined lives in the witch-hunt process.

It's a sobering tale of how difficult it can be to prove a falsehood wrong, and that it's no easy task to get people to believe the truth. In an era when politicians whip up fear and hysteria with falsehoods to shoot down health care reform with Nazi comparisons, the commie-hunting era offers an example of the power of big lies and the politicians who wield them. The truth does not win out on its own; it must have champions.

False Witness is a kind of Ball Four of Northwest politics of its era — an honest memoir with great characters — but it's also a story of great value and relevance for those who follow the political game.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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