A Good Man Gets His Due

Let’s not talk about Florida and Bush and Gore. That story is stuck. It’s as if we’re all living in a big muted mosaic. The lawyer gesturing at the lectern on CNN is a piece, and the legal scholar commenting on the lawyer’s arguments on Fox is another. The headlines and cartoons and editorials are pieces, the rally with Jesse Jackson exhorting the crowd is a piece, David Boies with his wonderful calm-madman’s style is a piece, as are the e-mail jokes and the tapes of fat ladies singing. We’re struggling through the last days of a trauma that we all feel is over, know must be ending, can’t imagine continuing much longer. We are waiting for a big and final wave to come and wash the mosaic away in history’s tide.

While we wait, let’s think about something instructive and constructive that happened yesterday.

Candor broke out on Capitol Hill, and a few hearts got worn on a few blue pinstriped sleeves. Members of the U.S. Senate stood on the floor of their chamber and spoke, usually without text or notes and often at some length, about a man they admired. What they said offered a heartening picture of clarity, and maybe even of hope.

*   *   *

The Senate stopped in its tracks to honor and mark the departure of Slade Gorton, the Republican member from Washington state whose defeat by 2,229 votes last week erased the Republicans’ clear Senate majority.

Politicians of course like to honor people. There’s no downside to being moving and eloquent about a friend, or a foe, especially a vanquished one. There’s usually no price to pay for being generous. And you can use the formal honoring of another to honor yourself: If it weren’t for his constant encouragement I wouldn’t have been able to pass the major legislation I’ve authored and shepherded lo these many years . . .

But this was different. It was personal and passionate and bipartisan. Democrats stood to honor him, with moving words from Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Democrat Patty Murray, soon to be Washington state’s senior senator, spoke, and a letter from Joe Lieberman was read, praising among other things Mr. Gorton’s bipartisanship during President Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Republicans spoke with a sense of loss that seemed apart from the obvious blow of losing a majority.

Gordon Smith of Oregon read from the Bible and asked who now would stand for the loggers, the lumbermen and fishermen of the Pacific Northwest. Pete Domenici of New Mexico said Mr. Gorton “has to come out near the top of the list of influential senators in the conduct of occurrences of great significance in the United States Senate.” Mr. Domenici said Mr. Gorton had usually exercised that influence with blunt words behind closed doors, and that during Mr. Gorton’s 18 years in the Senate, few pieces of legislation had moved through it without his fingerprints.

Mr. Gorton’s colleagues invoked some of the great senators of history. New Hampshire’s Judd Gregg compared him to Daniel Webster. “As you look around this institution, you think ‘He reminds me of so and so . . .’ The highest praise for me would be ‘You remind me of Slade Gorton.’ I consider him one of the finest if not the finest senator I know.” Phil Gramm of Texas compared him to Sam Houston, “also voted down by the people of his state . . . yet he is among the most honored of our citizens.” Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called him “one of the great senators of the 20th century” and compared him to Arthur Vandenberg.

The speeches were so emotional, so much like eulogies, that the senators had to keep reminding themselves out loud not to use the past tense. But they couldn’t help it, any more than they can help feeling that when you’re a senator and you lose your seat you’re dead. But also because, as each made clear, they couldn’t stand the thought of losing all the experience, talent, shrewdness and seriousness that Mr. Gorton had brought to the chamber. That’s why when Mr. Dorgan, a Democrat, heard what was being said, he joined in. He said that often he would “get the glassy eyed look” from senators with whom he was trying to discuss the issues of the day. “But not Slade. He did his homework.”

*   *   *

“It was real, and so much of this town is not real,” Tony Williams, Mr. Gorton’s chief of staff, said later. “Gorton is—they call him E.F. Hutton because when he speaks, everybody listens. But what makes him unique among senators is they may not agree with his thinking on a subject but they all want to hear it. He’s one of the rare people in this town who can ‘stop traffic’—he can force people to put aside their agendas and listen. He is not a self-promoter and they know it, so they think, ‘I better put down the paper and listen to this guy.’ ” Williams added, “He’s the best senator that no one’s ever heard of.”

Over and over Thursday the speakers spoke about two things. Because Mr. Gorton was wise and calm and highly intelligent, he was listened to. And because he wasn’t a showboat, he was respected. He wouldn’t just pop off with a statement and hope to get credit for it. He was the last to run for the microphones, though he wasn’t above noticing who did. He spoke on the floor less often than some other senators; he spoke in private councils. He probably authored fewer bills, but shaped more law through advice and addendum.

In all of the praise you could hear the sound of an institution defining itself, showing through what it said what it values and honors.

I think it was saying this: In the clamor of big egos bumping into daily events that is Congress, we do notice who gets things done, who really works. Who really thinks, who contributes, who has a long-term historical view, who is a patriot, who doesn’t care who gets credit, who will quietly counsel and help you with your problem and not capitalize on it or use it against you, who stands not only for the party but the country and not only for the job but for the institution—the Senate, this august chamber, which can actually make a difference in people’s lives, and which is a strong and necessary element in our republic.

It is good when politicians define an ideal. It is good when they say they believe they’ve seen it, or something like it.

Maybe in the arduous year ahead they can go back and look at what they said about Slade Gorton, and remember what it is they admire and honor.

*   *   *

People who write for newspapers don’t really get to be very positive about people in politics very often. It’s sort of a sign of being a sissy. You get the best laughs, and you’re quoted most often, by putting someone down in a witty or interesting way. To do the opposite—to laud someone in politics—is like wearing a sign that says This Guy Fooled Me.

But it’s good to write about those you admire, and to explain why. It’s constructive I think. So now, inspired by the Senate, I’m going to do some more of it about Slade.

He has been famous in his 18 years in the Senate for several things, one being that he often called influential columnists, friends, and political operatives to lobby them in support of important pieces of . . . literature. He is a voracious and possibly compulsive reader of novels and history, and in the middle of meetings he will phone a friend to remind him to get A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” or Mark Helprin’s “A Soldier of the Great War,” or Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times,” or “Correlli’s Mandolin,” a novel by someone whose last name is De Bernieres, which I know because that’s what I wrote when I put Slade’s Post-It on my bookshelf two years ago.

I met Slade 10 years ago, when he wrote me after my first book came out. He asked specific and acute questions about writing and speechwriting. Soon afterward I met him in Washington and became a friend, which meant joining his informal book club and taking regular phone calls that tested the political and personal weather.

I want to say he is unusual for a political figure but actually he is unusual, period: a genuine intellectual who lives in the world of ideas and yet a person who is simply delighted to be alive. Everything he does is so much fun. This sounds corny, and sometimes is, but every stranger he meets is interesting and says the smartest things. Every hockey game yields up fascinating glimpses into his athletic young niece’s character. His constituents, especially the recent immigrants, are simply the most brilliant and hardworking people in the world. And his wife just said the most amazingly on-target thing about Al Gore, would you like to hear it?

He has zest. I have simply never known anyone who enjoys life as much as he does. He is 72 and has seen a great deal. He is now boasting that his doctor last week said he has the heart and lungs of a man in his 20s.

Among political figures, rarely have shrewdness and idealism been so intertwined. His career has been marked by the pursuit of progress within a framework of politics as the art of the possible, as they used to say. He has a conservative’s insights and a moderate’s instincts.

He is from an old eastern family, the Gortons of Gorton’s seafood fame, but he’s not at all high-hat, and is so approachable and easygoing that his staff calls him “The Nerdy Professor” and other names, some unprintable, and he thinks it’s a riot. When he tells me how his staff is fighting him, colorfully, on some issue, I am sometimes surprised. Once I said, “You let kids on your staff talk to you like that?” He said, “We pay them to talk to me like that. That’s why they’re here!” They are not allowed to call him Senator, only Slade.

It has led in his office to a creativity born of lack of fear. “We hammer him,” says Tony Williams. “ ’You’re gonna wear that out here? I don’t think so!’ He’s very easygoing. He looks formal but he’s not.”

*   *   *

What was saddest for his fellow Republicans about Slade’s cliffhanger loss was that it was only in the past five years that he came to be a leader. Before that he was a bright senator from the minority party and a not-too-important state. Also, he didn’t have a wonderful senatorial look, the way Jay Rockefeller and Fred Thompson do.

Slade is a thin and wiry man, a marathoner, with a large and longish head and big eyes, on which for many years he wore contact lenses, which often irritated his eyes, leading to a great deal of blinking. He looked like an intelligent light bulb going on and off. It put some people off. Then he got that eye operation that makes you see 20/20, and the blinking stopped. Before that the Republicans took control of the Senate, and that was the point at which he rose to become the closest advisor to the majority leader, Trent Lott.

I asked Mr. Lott about Mr. Gorton’s departure, and he said, “It means a great deal not only to me but to the Senate. He’s one of the most intelligent if not the most intelligent senator we have in this body. He’s become my closest confidante. He’s the best—solid, committed, working across the aisle. And when you ask for his advice, he doesn’t tell you what he thinks; he tells you what you need to know.”

All the talk of advice prompted me to call Slade and ask if he had a secret. He said it’s not so much a secret as a way of operating. You have to remember that the purpose of advice is not to make you look smart but actually to help the person seeking it. When someone asks you for advice, you don’t give it as yourself, with your needs and realities and views. You take a moment and put yourself in his shoes. “You try to put yourself in exactly the circumstances that that person faces, and you think of what would be best for them to do under those circumstances. Not necessarily what you would do yourself, but what they should do themselves. I try not to be Slade Gorton, with his philosophy and circumstances, but to be a particularly thoughtful Joe Shmoe.”

*   *   *

Slade was elected to the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980, lost his re-election bid in 1986, and then came back to win Washington state’s other Senate seat in 1988. I asked him what his biggest achievement was in those 18 years. “If I did one thing that had a profound impact on a significant number of lives that changed people’s lives it was after Tiananmen Square. It was the bill that allowed Chinese students and other Chinese nationals to stay in the U.S. and not be required to go home, to stay permanently if they wished.”

The bill passed in 1992, and it was tough getting it through the Bush administration, because they were trying to be nice to the Chinese government. To Slade it served a dual purpose. “America is a land of immigrants, and some of these students were in danger, and certainly deserved the right to stay here. But I like it when immigrants bring something to our society. They were a lot of the most brilliant people China has produced—physicists and physicians and engineers. They were not only a benefit to the United States but their loss was an appropriate punishment of communist China for the way in which it treated its people.”

The Chinese Student Protection Act directly affected some 45,000 students and professionals and their families. They’re here because Slade persuaded and led and pushed and built support.

*   *   *

The bad news is all that capacity for work and wisdom has been removed from the Senate, where it did a lot of good. The good news is that a new administration is about to begin, with many leadership appointments yet to be made. Mr. Lott’s loss could be President-elect Bush’s gain. The new administration will need respected nominees who will get a fair hearing in the evenly split Senate. “Slade was not just a member of the club, Slade was an admired member,” Mr. Lott told me. “I think he would be overwhelmingly favorably received for any position. Solicitor general—he’s got the demeanor, the experience. He could be an attorney general, a Supreme Court justice.”

Maybe that’s what they were saying Thursday morning and afternoon in the Senate.