Book Review: Governors of Washington

  • Posted 7/24/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20415

By George W. Scott
Civitas Press, 2012
Paperback, 504 pages
ISBN 978-1453568859

Washington state political junkies should get hold of George Scott's impressive compendium of gubernatorial biographies, Governors of Washington, published in 2012. Beginning with territorial days and concluding with Gary Locke, Scott has produced a first-rate guide to our former governors.

Scott is a rare professional historian who himself has served in public office. He is a former state legislator who served Seattle's 46th District for 14 years and chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee in the early 1980s. Outside of politics he has worked in academia, business, and public affairs. He has been studying the governors most of his life -- his doctoral dissertation at the University of Washington was about Governor Arthur Langlie. Scott's previous work includes a wonderful history/guide to the Washington legislature called A Majority of One.

Governors of Washington is a study of leadership styles and the effectiveness of those styles in relation to the citizens, the legislature, other state leaders, and the world. John Spellman's press secretary Paul O'Connor once said that in making a decision, the governor "nods his head, puffs his pipe, goes away and does what he wants." When Spellman campaigned for reelection in 1984 on the theme of jobs, Booth Gardner campaigned on his contrasting leadership style and won. Gardner quickly developed a reputation for being out and about to meet people and boost morale. In other respects -- their backgrounds as county executives, their basic introversion, their aversion to controversy and partisanship, their penchant for the details of policy -- Scott writes that "Spellman and Gardner were strikingly similar."

If gubernatorial personalities, dispositions, and talents cover a range, governorships follow a predictable pattern. "Executives seize or lose the initiative in their first biennium," Scott says. "In the second one, they try to round out their record and advertise it. The fourth-year speech to the legislature opens the campaign season."

For an aspirant to the governor's office, the campaign must begin long before campaign season. Booth Gardner's determination to become governor reportedly began when, at the age of 12, he saw Governor Rosellini arrive by helicopter on Vashon Island. Many aim their careers for the governor's office and only a few get the opportunity. In one of many oral histories on file in Olympia and available on the state legislature's website, the late State Superintendent of Public Instruction Frank "Buster" Brouillet remarked, "Timing is so important, but it is something over which you have no control. Things break right and you couldn't get elected. If I were in a state like New Mexico, where you can only run one term for governor, I'd have been governor of the state. Time would have come around; I would have had my chance."

For those who get the chance, ambition must be tempered with realism. For example, Scott advises, "Third terms are generally unwise, even for the ablest of governors. The core of the unfinished agenda is bills that have failed for up to eight years. Allies are overexposed or gone, enemies accrue, weariness besets an administration's stars, and the 'lame duck' syndrome sets in two years on, when cabinet members leave for their next career."

It was apparently because of Gary Locke's attention to these historical lessons that he declined to run for a third term. Locke's administration was marked by his modesty. As the late Democratic consultant Blair Butterworth once said of Locke, "He doesn't overpromise."

Moderation is the great virtue among the governors who made the strongest impact on the state. Arthur Langlie, Dan Evans, and John Spellman were moderate Republicans; Clarence Martin, Al Rosellini, Booth Gardner, and Gary Locke were moderate Democrats. Governor Langlie once said that Washington needed "a heart and a head. It must be both progressive and solvent." Of Langlie's Democratic rival Rosellini, Scott writes, "The tenor and unequivocal course of his administration suggests he might, under different circumstances, have been a Republican."

It was Republican Evans who built many of the state agencies and programs we know to this day, who set the state on a course of environmental protection, and who is as admired to this day by Democrats as by Republicans. And it was Democrat Locke who worked to implement welfare reform, reform agencies, and budget for efficiency through his "results teams" and "priorities of government" process.

For those who can't be categorized as moderates, there seems to be an alternative but related tradition: liberal governors who can get away with conservative policies, and vice versa. Though Mike Lowry was further to the left than most governors, he decentralized agencies, lobbied for liquor privatization, and pushed for reforms to state employment practices over the objections of the Washington Federation of State Employees, causing Democratic House Speaker Brian Ebersole to declare, "Only Nixon could go to China, and maybe only Mike Lowry can get this package through."

The tradition of biographical character sketches that draw out moral and political wisdom goes back to Plutarch, the ancient biographer/moralist of Greek and Roman statesmen. Richard Neuberger, the journalist turned U.S. Senator from Oregon, left behind a decent collection of profiles about Pacific Northwest politicians of the early- to mid-twentieth century, including Washingtonians like the tragic Seattle Congressman Marion Zioncheck and colorful Lieutenant Governor Vic Meyers. Like Neuberger, Scott has a knack for describing the virtues and vices of his subjects.

Scott concludes with an assessment of the governors from 1941 to 2005 on the basis of five criteria: leadership, administration, political and party impact, ethical profile, and legislative effectiveness. Scott rates the governors in each category on a scale of 1 to 5. Of the nine governors rated, Evans scores highest, with 23.5 out of 25, including perfect 5's in leadership, political impact, and ethics. Locke is second highest, at 18.5. Mon Wallgren (1945-1949) scores lowest -- 8 points -- with 1's for leadership and administration. Wallgren kept an official yacht, turned the Governor's Mansion into a bar, and achieved little during his term.

Dixy Lee Ray stands at 10.5, with her lowest score of 1.5 in the area of political/party impact. Scott captures her contradictions, high talents, and deep embarrassments: "Dixy Lee Ray was intelligent, articulate, self-assured, and as charismatic as any governor ... Ray was a professor out of a classroom where she was the expert, a spinster who never split the blanket, a misplaced person temperamentally unsuited to a world whose essence is negotiated agreements."

There was, however, an even worse governor than Ray or Wallgren prior to 1941, according to Scott. His name was Roland Hartley, and he served from 1925 to 1933. "The only governor to enjoy unchallengeable public and legislative majorities and an able legislative leadership wasted it all by taking on everyone else." Hartley's targets included public schools and the University of Washington. Visionary UW President Henry Suzzallo, whom Hartley removed by replacing the university regents, holds a more favorable position in Washington history than Hartley does. History teaches us that governors had best be good to the UW.

The literature of Washington gubernatorial history is small but growing. Credit for recent long-form biographies of Gardner and Spellman is due to John Hughes and the Legacy Washington project of the Secretary of State's office. Payton Smith's 1997 biography of Albert Rossellini is another important contribution. It was Edmund Meany, the distinguished UW history professor and Seattle civic leader of the early twentieth century, who wrote the first book of gubernatorial profiles, Governors of Washington: Territorial and State, in 1915. With the latest Governors of Washington, George Scott has given us a valuable and overdue update to Meany's work from more than a century ago.

By Hans Andreas Zeiger, July 24, 2017


Submitted: 7/24/2017

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You