Slade Gorton, former Washington US senator, dies at 92

SEATTLE — Slade Gorton, a patrician and cerebral politician from Washington state who was among the few senators to be voted out of office, only to return a few years later, died Wednesday in Seattle. He was 92.

Mr. Gorton was the Chicago-born scion of the Gorton’s of Gloucester fishing family. His 40-year political career began when he won a legislative seat within two years of arriving in Seattle as a freshly minted lawyer.

He went on to serve as state attorney general, a three-term US senator, and a member of the 9/11 Commission.


Mr. Gorton was known for his aggressive consumer-protection battles as attorney general; his defeat in 1980 of the state’s legendary Democratic Senator Warren Magnuson at the height of his power; and his work on the GOP inner team in the US Senate.

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Former Republican governor Dan Evans called Mr. Gorton an intellectual giant who was always the smartest person in the room and a strategic thinker who helped define the GOP in Washington state during a time when the party could still prevail in major, statewide contests.

Mr. Gorton, runner-thin to the point of being gaunt, struggled with an image of an icy, aloof Ivy Leaguer. He was sometimes compared to the frozen fish sticks his grandfather once sold, and he squired under the nickname “Slippery Slade.” At the 2000 state Republican convention, he acknowledged that he wasn’t warm and fuzzy, a tough move for a politician in an era that valued personality and charm.

“I’ve always been different — I’m not a good politician like Bill Clinton,” Mr. Gorton said.

“I’m more comfortable reading a book than working a room . . . and my idea of fun is going to a Mariners game with my grandkids, keeping score, and staying to myself.”


Mr. Gorton chalked it up to Yankee reserve, not disdain for people.

Calling himself a “passionate moderate,” Mr. Gorton soon established himself as a contrarian. He won a seat on the Budget Committee and backed Reagan’s programs to cut taxes and social-welfare spending and to support a military buildup. But he broke with the president by endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment and favoring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions for poor women.

His vote against a rise in Social Security benefits rankled voters, and critics said he failed to dispel the impression that he had not been forceful enough in challenging the federal government when it was considering using the Hanford nuclear power plant in southeastern Washington state as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. In 1986, he lost his reelection bid to Brock Adams, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of transportation.

Saying he was retiring from politics, Mr. Gorton resumed his law practice in Seattle. But he ran again in 1988 when Washington’s other senator, Evans, the former governor, decided to retire.

Mr. Gorton’s closest allies said if he didn’t knock off his aloof behavior, they were through campaigning for him.


Chastened, Mr. Gorton made it a point to listen better, set up sounding boards across the state, and bone up on his people skills, said former top aide Tony Williams.

Back in the Senate, Mr. Gorton became known as “Senator Microsoft” for his support of that Seattle-based technology giant. He also became a leading advocate of timber interests in the West, and of Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Airborne Express, and other Washington aviation interests.

When the Senate voted on articles of impeachment against Clinton, Mr. Gorton voted yes on the obstruction-of-justice charge and no on perjury.

Thomas Slade Gorton III was born and grew up in the Chicago area, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth, got a law degree from Columbia, and served in the Army and Air Force. He picked Seattle so he could enjoy sailing and skiing nearby — and break into law and Republican politics easier than in clubby, Democratic Boston.

He quickly landed a top law job, married former Seattle Times reporter Sally Clark, and within two years won a seat in the state House.

Mr. Gorton began his political climb in 1968. First came three terms as attorney general, during which he broke with fellow Republicans in publicly calling for President Nixon’s resignation. In 1980, he won a coveted US Senate seat by knocking off Warren G. Magnuson, appropriations committee chairman and Senate president.

Mr. Gorton was a youthful 52. Magnuson was mentally and politically agile but shuffled, mumbled, and looked older than his 75 years — a difference that Mr. Gorton played up.

Aided by President Ronald Reagan’s landslide, Mr. Gorton pulled off his upset. Within three years, he was writing the federal budget, working on Social Security and budget reforms, and winning a reputation as one the best of the new crop.

But a funny thing happened on his way to fame and glory: He lost the next election. Brock Adams, former congressman and Jimmy Carter’s transportation secretary, edged him by 26,000 votes.

Mr. Gorton retreated home, assuming he was washed up in politics. But within a year, Evans decided to vacate the other Senate seat, and Mr. Gorton launched his comeback, narrowly defeating liberal Democratic Representative Mike Lowry in 1988.

Mr. Gorton easily won a third term in 1994. He rose in Senate seniority and was appointed to the leadership circle by then-majority leader Trent Lott, who praised Mr. Gorton’s “wise counsel.”

By 2000, Mr. Gorton was 72 and looking at a challenger 30 years his junior.

Democrat Maria Cantwell borrowed a page from Mr. Gorton’s playbook. She said: “It’s not about age,” but what she called “a 19th-century view of where we need to be.”

He later served on the 9/11 Commission and on the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, as well as numerous civic boards and campaigns.

Material from The New York Times was used in this obituary.