Jim Ellis on Warren Magnuson

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 1/18/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22647
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Along with Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman, Jim Ellis (1921-2019) worked closely with Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson (1905-1989) to secure federal funding for Seattle and King County transportation projects through the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. In these excerpts from Ellis's autobiography, Ellis writes about Magnuson's formative years in North Dakota, his rise to political power in Washington state and then Washington, D.C., and his leadership role in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Son of the Red River Valley 

[Author's note: For information on Warren Magnuson’s early life, I am indebted to Shelby Scates, author of the excellent definitive biography Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth Century America published by the University of Washington Press in 1997.]

On April 12, 1905, a baby boy was born in Moorhead, Minnesota, across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. Three days after his birth in a Moorhead hospital, the baby was given up by his natural mother for adoption by William and Emma Magnuson, owners of the Nickelplate Bar in Moorhead. On December 10, 1905, the adoptive parents christened their new baby Warren Grant Magnuson after his adoptive father. 

Warren never did learn the identity of his natural mother, although she was known by his adoptive mother Emma. She told friends that his mother was "an unfortunate farm girl turned waitress" from an unnamed town. Warren asked Emma many times without success to give him more information. He publicly acknowledged his debt to his adoptive mother in a formal campaign speech for Congress in 1936, saying, "I am an orphan ... That I received the care and attention of loving and kindly hands in my childhood is a source of constant thankfulness." Warren was devoted to his adoptive mother but was never close to his adoptive father. 

Emma was devoted to young Warren and to a one-year younger baby girl whom she and her husband also adopted. A year after Warren was born, Emma’s family was complete with one boy and one girl. She was never able to have children herself.

Emma was a large, strong Norwegian woman who had the physique to run the saloon by herself. The Nickleplate Bar was a successful business until it burned down in 1921. Warren was 16 years old. His adoptive father then deserted his family and drifted west, ultimately living in Portland, where he died in 1954.

Warren attended elementary and high school in Moorhead. He had a good record, became a superior athlete, and was the most popular boy in school. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, he believed that he was too short, but girls found him to be just right.

The largely Scandinavian population in the Fargo-Moorhead area shared a strong work ethic, to which young Magnuson added his own personal charisma and desire to succeed. Like most boys in the Red River Valley, he worked part-time to earn spending money and took seasonal jobs on nearby farms. This work developed physical strength to supplement his natural talent. Warren became a high school football star and was considered a university prospect.

As a part-time Western Union messenger, he delivered messages to North Dakota Bank in Fargo, where he developed a long-term friendship with the co-owner of the bank, Bill Stern. The Stern brothers helped Warren in his decision to attend North Dakota University and a year later transfer to North Dakota State Agricultural College in Fargo to live closer to Emma. The following year, with money he earned from Bill Stern, Warren bought a Model-T and drove to Seattle, where he enrolled at the University of Washington in the fall of 1925. Coach Bagshaw saw him as a promising football prospect and helped him get a job delivering ice. 

From the UW to Law School and Beyond

After graduating from the University, Warren Magnuson entered its law school. Throughout his school years, Warren was a handsome and personable young man with a unique ability to make friends easily. He was drawn to strong business leaders and political figures and was pushed by a strong desire to succeed in either politics or business, perhaps born of the insecurity of his adoption.

The young, good-looking Magnuson attracted many women, and in June 1928, while still in law school, he married the beautiful Eleanor Peggy (Peggins) Maddieux, who had been crowned "Miss Seattle" in 1927. Warren and Peggins lived in her downtown apartment, and she supported them during his school years by working at the nearby Sorrento Hotel.

Following graduation from law school, Magnuson worked as secretary of the Municipal League of Seattle from 1930–1931, where he met many of Seattle’s political and business leaders. Scott Bullitt, an idealist and leading Democrat, urged Magnuson to take a direct role in political activity. His first elective office was as a Democrat State Representative. After one term in Olympia he ran successfully for King County Prosecuting Attorney. He was elected to Congress in 1936, 1938, and 1940. During his third term, Magnuson campaigned successfully for the United States Senate, was elected, and began a long tenure. During World War II, he served as an Ensign and later as a Lt. Commander in the Navy. On his last tour of duty, he was stationed briefly on the carrier Enterprise in the Pacific Combat Theatre until recalled by President Roosevelt to resume his Senate duties.

As an easy going, poker-playing drinking companion, Magnuson established friendships with his Senate colleagues and Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson. He had a gruff, soft-spoken way of working with colleagues, and never held a grudge. His circle of poker friends became part of the "magic" which lubricated his long, effective role as Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. His mastery of Senate rules and respect for divergent views in his colleagues resulted in an unusually effective committee. Magnuson’s tenure as Chairman became the longest continuous committee chairmanship in Senate history (1955–78). More than 200 measures he introduced became law.

The success of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle illustrated the local impact of Magnuson’s national influence. Senator Magnuson had been instrumental in securing federal funding for the World’s Fair, including the strikingly beautiful Pacific Science Center building. He also encouraged organized labor to give a "no strike" pledge while the fair was being built. Seattleites enjoyed the fair and it surprised everyone by operating in the black.

The World’s Fair was a personal victory for Maggie, but it contributed to overconfidence in his re-election campaign of November 1962. His opponent was a politically unknown, 32-year-old Lutheran Minister Richard G. Christensen. Christensen’s campaign focused heavily on Maggie’s freewheeling lifestyle and called for family-oriented voters to make a change. Christensen organized a "Women on the War Path" campaign group which attacked Maggie’s well-publicized bachelor activities. The family values platform had more resonance with voters than Maggie had expected and produced a close election, instead of an expected runaway victory. Maggie won, but by a narrow margin of just 47,235 votes compared to his overwhelming margin of victory of more than 250,000 votes just six years earlier against former governor Arthur B. Langlie. The closeness of the 1962 election came as a shock to Magnuson and his close advisors and resulted in a complete reorganization of his Senatorial staff.

During the sausage-like process of making legislation, Ralph Nader was consulted, and a number of bright, young attorneys (known as Maggie’s Bumblebees) were added to his staff. These people included Mike Pertschuk (product labeling), Stan Barer (civil rights), Manny Rouvelas, and Lloyd Meeds. When Dorm and I first approached Maggie in 1964, he had already established his new staff of young and eager reformers and had changed his leadership style to permit greater delegation, while maintaining control of policy direction. The result was the development of an extraordinary flood of progressive initiatives by the Commerce Committee under the broad umbrella of consumer and public health protection and removal of obstructions to the flow of commerce between the states. Among the many consumer measures passed were regulations on flammable fabrics for children’s sleepwear, truth in packaging and labeling, generic drugs (to lower the cost of antibiotics), cigarette labeling and advertising, toy and auto safety, improved product warranties, packaging for poison prevention, and drinking water safety. These new initiatives gradually made Maggie a recognized legislative leader of public protection against unfair or misleading business practices.

Champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Important to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was the fact that Magnuson chaired the Commerce Committee. He was selected to carry the "entire load of hay" for Title 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because Kennedy and later Johnson had watched Maggie during their time in the Senate and believed that he was the only Senator who could persuade a sufficient number of Southern and conservative members of the Senate to avoid a filibuster.

Title 2 was drafted by Stan Barer, the new Counsel to the Commerce Committee. The Act dealt directly with a wide range of restrictions placed by states on people of color, based solely on race, to exclude them from public accommodations and services used in interstate travel. This was the most difficult part of the Civil Rights Act for Southern democrats and conservatives to accept. It meant changing long-entrenched Southern customs and removing the "white only" and "colored only" signs posted in hotels, restaurants, and public restrooms.

The strategy of assigning Title 2 to Maggie’s Commerce Committee was done to put the most controversial human rights issues within the orbit of obstructions to interstate commerce in violation of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In contrast, voting rights issues were assigned to the Judiciary Committee because they were directly protected by the Thirteenth Amendment. The obstruction of commerce rationale for cases relying on the Commerce Clause had been explained to Barer in his Constitutional law class at the University of Washington by law professor Robert Fletcher. Fletcher’s influence on Title 2 became significant when Barer was asked to write Title 2 as it was considered and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Title 2 was the most controversial new measure undertaken by Magnuson. Maggie managed the contentious and drawn-out committee hearings with great skill. In front of television cameras, he effectively defeated Governor George Wallace, Strom Thurman, and other racist Southerners on this issue. He culminated his effort with a four-and-a-half-hour speech on the floor of the Senate, delivered from notes – not read. His speech and answers to questions displayed a masterful grasp of the subject. The Bill passed the debate cloture hurdle with just one vote above the number needed to prevent a filibuster.

Along with Title 2, the Commerce Committee’s work during this period resulted in such legislation as the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Communications Satellite Corporation, Amtrak, Conrail, and the Department of Transportation.

Over the years, his Washington, D.C., and Washington state friendships became a key part of his political base. In 1964, when he married Jermaine Beralta in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson was the best-man. Warren and Peggins had divorced in 1934 but remained life-long friends, and the many women Warren knew as a bachelor in Washington, D.C., and California all spoke affectionately of him years later.

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