Remembering Crosscut contributor Peter Jackson

Fellow journalists pay respects to the lifelong Seattleite — a good friend and great writer.

Crosscut lost one of its foundational contributors this week with the death of Peter Jackson.

Peter, 53, died of cancer after a three-year battle that took him long past his predicted “expire date.” He exemplified so much of what Crosscut is, and hoped to be. He was smart, rooted in place, had a wonderful sense of humor and was never full of himself.

Peter Jackson, Knute Berger, and Rick Steves
The late Peter Jackson with Crosscut editor-at-large Knute Berger and travel writer Rick Steves in 2015. (Knute Berger)

Since our founding in 2007, Peter wrote hundreds of pieces for us, the last being in January of this year in a column that showed his keen political and historical perspective. It was about Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s visit to Seattle, with lessons for us in the time of impeachment.

Peter was the son of an icon of Washington state, U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, offspring of Norwegian immigrants who became a political giant. Peter grew up as a kid tagging along with his dad on presidential campaigns and other political jaunts, moments of which he later shared in his writing. Another memorable column for Crosscut, “My Brief Career as a Spy With John McCain in China,” was about the time a young Navy captain persuaded 12-year-old Peter to do a little surveillance work on a visit to China with his father.

Peter did some political speechwriting — but he was too independent, too much his own person to flack for anyone. His stories for Crosscut were often about politics and human rights and the environment. He was proud of his Nordic roots and used to tease me that I was a fake Norwegian because he had more Scandinavian genes than I did (he was right). 

We used to compare notes about the heaviness of the Nordic psyche we carried. We talked about our mothers who, before they died, were both family rocks, elderly and in assisted living. Peter got his diagnosis of cancer in the same hospital the day my two grandkids were born. I left the maternity ward to visit Peter in his room as he was taking in the bad news. Ever after he would ask how the kids were doing. He was keenly aware that, as he was facing death, they represented new life, and he felt a kind of ongoing connection to that moment of contrast of life’s phases. He delighted in hearing news of them.

He had a deep connection with his hometown, Everett, but could also be a critic. He was often frustrated by the city’s indifference to its own history and preservation. He wrote a beautiful essay for us about the closure of an old Elks Club in Everett—the kind of place most of us would pass by without a thought. It begins with this:

The windowed Lenin's-tomb-style architecture of the Everett, Wash., Elks is, well, serotonin-lowering. It's the kind of place that magnifies the natural radiance of the Northwest, because the impulse is to look away.

Peter knew the importance of this place in the fabric of the city’s life and history — and then he reminded us. How many lyrical essays are there about Elks Clubs? I think it must be truly one of a kind.

Father Scoop was an advocate for human rights, especially in the old Soviet Union. He passed landmark environmental laws and was a friend of labor and Boeing. He was a Democrat who attracted GOP and independent voters as well. Peter, in his own way, continued the legacy without the Cold War biases of old, and moved out of his father’s shadow to make his mark. He was editorial page editor of the Everett Herald, he was a big advocate for the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and the Jackson Foundation, which supports its mission. He was beloved in the Crosscut newsroom in the days when it was in a sunlit loft above the old Elliott Bay Book Co. in Pioneer Square.

Peter could be self-deprecating to a fault. He had a deep instinct toward fairness, for viewing things without putting his personal interest first. He once applied for the editorship of Crosscut. I was on the hiring committee and when Peter came in for the interview, he slowly talked himself out of the job, saying we could surely do better than he. I didn’t see that as a foregone conclusion, but Peter put us ahead of his own ambition.

Perhaps his most powerful column was one of his last, published in 2018 and called “A Love Story Rooted in the Unthinkable.” It was a Valentine’s tribute to his wife, Laurie, who found herself married to his diagnosis. It’s a beautiful way to remember Peter, and his beloved Laurie, in this moment—a great piece of writing by a guy who had an even greater heart.

— Knute Berger, Crosscut editor-at-large

'Hopefulness amid the absurdity'

Any article by Peter Jackson on Crosscut was almost exactly how he had written it. The extra rich, where's-my-dictionary vocabulary, the quickness to get to the point, the insight into public policy or life. And most of all the passion for human rights, for watching out for the interests of those with the least voice but the most need for decent leadership. Those were all his own; as was, to an unusual degree, almost every word, sentence and paragraph. 

There wasn't much an editor had to do with anything Peter wrote. It was carefully thought out and executed, the rare misspelling or grammatical glitch something he would spot — and berate himself for — long before the editing was complete. As his editor for many of his articles the past 10 years, I was sometimes a little jealous, almost always impressed by how well he wrote. And always grateful when he did. He was modest enough that, sometimes, after he came up with a story idea, he had to be assured that he could do it. 

Crosscut was lucky enough to be one of the places where, before Peter's death over the weekend, his gifts, hard work and smarts were on display. Behind the scenes, his kindness, modesty, geniality and sense of humor always made for a better day. In the office, over the phone or at an occasional lunch or coffee, he was always pleasant and, even if you knew him, the surprises were persistent — the depth of his knowledge about the Northwest, his wide-ranging friendships, the generosity of his judgments about people and, even when it seemed politics was at its worst, his hopefulness amid the absurdity.

He had also worked as a political speechwriter, memorably for Gov. Gary Locke, whom he described as being as kind and decent a boss — if demanding — as could be imagined. While he worked with Democrats, he was as respectful and appreciative of Republicans, saving any disdain for the few in each party who abused the public trust.

That came naturally from his father, U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson, who had worked in bipartisan fashion to craft landmark legislation on the environment, Native American empowerment and international human rights. He graduated from Georgetown University and did a stint as a VISTA volunteer in Port Townsend, which gave him a lifelong devotion to promoting its work and that of its international equivalent, AmeriCorps. But, he once wrote, it was his mother who early saw in him the making of a writer or scribe, as Peter would usually put it.

He would describe his years with Crosscut — during the publication’s early days as a bold online-only news pioneer, from 2007 to 2012 — as when he cut his teeth as a writer. True enough, though his talent had long been an open secret among Northwest journalists after Joann Byrd, the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had been blown away by a few op-ed submissions. She suggested to me, then working at the paper in Everett, that competition aside, we should both do anything possible to get him published more. (For one thing, she noticed he could be drop-dead funny, the hardest thing in writing.) In 2011 and 2012, he launched Crosscut’s daily news roundup, putting a sharp perspective on events around the Pacific Northwest. Just as Crosscut hit a financial dip, The Daily Herald in Everett had an opening as editorial page editor. His work there shone, and supported a crusading newsroom in its revealing coverage of the weaknesses of a county executive whom many saw as a future Democratic governor, senator or even president.

Outside of The Herald and Crosscut, Peter devoted much of his time to the Jackson Foundation and promoting the work of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, which he had played a key role in creating more than a decade ago. He left a request for donations to the Center for Human Rights to a new fund, established with his wife, Laurie Warner, to advance human rights within the United States. Given his modesty, I doubt that he had any idea how big the response from his friends and admirers will be.

— Joe Copeland, former Crosscut opinion editor

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.