We can't all live at Walden's Pond. Even Walden left after only two years. -- Warren G. Magnuson, the outgoing president pro tempore of the Senate, voicing a cautionary note to environmentalists.
DURING HIS last campaign in Washington State, which Warren Grant Magnuson represented in Congress for 44 hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, syntax-chewing years until the end came Nov. 4, the senator decided to take the energy crisis head on.
The most clamorous local issue was Alaskan oil tankers, which most of his constituents wanted to keep out of the pristine waters of Puget Sound. On the stump, Magnuson came directly to the point. "There is absolutely no reason for us to accept these tankers," he announced to the home folks, "when they can hook up to any distillery on the West Coast." Furthermore, it was high time the federal government took a closer look at Sino fuels, especially gasoholics, to get us out from out from under OPEX denomination. He had some bills of his own that would ease the crisis. But first he had to get his bills implicated -- and make sure those doggone Washington bureaucrats didn't circumcise his intent.
All this was vintage Magnuson. Perhaps because he was so difficult to take seriously anywhere except at home, where he delivered carloads of federal bacon year after year, Magnuson probably is the least known of the powerful Democrats leaving the Senate next year. But Magnuson used the Senate's raw power the way a McGovern only dreamed, a Church only envied. He was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, third in the constitutional line of succession to the presidency -- and he could mumble a billion-dollar Mount St. Helens disaster relief bill past his more famous colleagues before they could utter "pyroclastic flow," a phrase Magnuson wouldn't even attempt to master.
On and off the floor, Magnuson fractured the English language in a way that made Mrs. Malaprop sound like a grammarian. Add this to a half-century career that evolved from early years of hell-raising and starlet-chasing into a mellowed-out, country-bumpkin version of a slightly eccentric granddaddy and Magnuson became something of an insider's legend.
Connoisseurs of the Damon Runyon side of politics consider him one of the Senate's classic sketches, collecting "Maggie" stories the way others collect bits on W. C. Fields.
Until 1980, the sketch survived well into the era of televideo senators with face powder, razor-cut hair and melodious nightly-news voices speaking in the flawless syntax of 30-second clips. Amid all this, Magnuson usually had the razor cuts on his face, hair that shed a Western dust storm of dandruff and, as for syntax -- well, he's against it. Everyone knows you can't legislate morality and placing a tax on it would be the height of foolishness.
Surrounded to the end of 99 newcomers who took the Senate's august nature far more seriously than he did, Magnuson still chomped away on his huge cigar, the ashes fluttering downward in perfect rhythm with the dandruff onto a $500 Garfinkel's suit so rumpled it looked like it came from No Label Louie's -- in a grocery bag.
Political legend has it that Andy Jackson, the Tennessee populist, invented the saying "OK." Asked what the initials represented, Jackson looked at his questioner as if he were an oaf. From the words All Correct, obviously. "Only a damn fool can spell or pronounce a word just one way," Jackson insisted. He would have appreciated Warren Magnuson, whose tongue constantly seems lost in some cavity long overlooked by his dentist.
Magnuson surely was not the Senate's first Appropriations chairman to confuse the balance of payments with the balance of trade. He may have been, however, the first to use them interchangeably.
Names were his biggest pitfall. At a Senate hearing Magnuson once introduced Avery Brundage, the late and somewhat self-inflated chairman of the Olympics Committee, as "the distinguished Mr. Average Brundy." When Lyndon Johnson was president, the senator's secretary regularly heard the same bark from his inner office. "Get me Cauliflower at the White House," Magnuson instructed. The secretary knew him well enough to ignore what sounded like a lunch order at the White House mess. The senator wanted to talk to Joe Califano, then a Johnson aide.
Magnuson may be the only Senate chairman who canceled hearings because he simply couln't pronounce the names. When Magnuson took on organized crime in the early Seventies, crime won hands down. The investigation ended abruptly after two days, the hearing record hopelessly ensnarled in a Sicilian pizza of Bonannos, Luccheses and Sciglitanos, unintelligible even to a Jimmy Breslin.
Still, misreading Magnuson's style was a grievous mistake more than one opponent, on and off the Senate floor, learned most painfully.
Once, when Sen. Mark Hatfield, the straight-arrow Republican from neighboring Oregon, announced he was voting against a Magnuson bill, a major Oregon public works project abruptly disappeared from an appropriations bill in the old pro's keeping. The project reappeared just as suddenly -- but not until Hatfield discovered a long-standing speaking engagement at an obscure North Carolina women's college precisely when Magnuson's bill was on the floor. Hatfield's absence gave Magnuson a one-vote margin.
Magnuson's absence next year will give Hatfield the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee -- an advance, perhaps, for the English language but the sad final passing of an era in the Senate.
Magnuson's style was carved straight out of the days when the bourbon-and-branch-water Southerners controlled the Senate with a mossback conservatism that frustrated liberals. His methods drove the purists into fits of apoplexy, and misled some of them into thinking the 75-year-old Democrat was as hidebound as the departed Southerners.
But Magnuson was a paradox, not easily read. Jack Anderson once called him the most powerful of the Senate's white shirts which, in Anderson language, translated into progressive good guys. Ralph Nader said he was responsible for more consumer-protection legislation than all 534 other members of Congress together. The consumer bills ranged from the Flammable Fabrics Act to legislation on auto safety, cigarette labeling and truth in packaging. He also was involved -- albeit as quietly as possible -- in some of the most historic civil rights battles of the past two decades, deregulation of airlines and the reopening of diplomatic and trade relations with China.
Magnuson calculated his anonymity -- everywhere except where the votes were counted -- the way most modern senators calculate the timing of their press conferences. An aide once complimented him on a favorable Times editorial. Magnuson brightened happily until the aide showed him the clipping from The New York Times. "The only Times I care about," Magnuson grumbled, "is the Seattle Times."
As a result, most of the product of his power funneled out of his far Northwestern state, which often seemed to have an open pipeline to the federal treasury. Vice President Mondale visited Seattle not long ago and informed Magnuson's constituents he had chatted with the senator about his awesome national responsibilities as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
"Maggie assured me that he has decided to be scrupulously fair with federal appropriations this year," Mondale said. "He has decided to divide them up 50-50 -- half for Washington State and half for the rest of the country."
Back in the days when South Carolina's Mendel Rivers ran the House Armed Services Committee, Capitol Hill joked that if Charleston got one more military installation it would sink into the Atlantic. Maguson's pork has a different taste. Seattle, until Magnuson's defeat, was on the verge of sinking into Puget Sound under the weight of his largesse. But Seattle was sinking under Magnuson-provided medical schools, cancer research centers, public housing projects and oceanographic stations.
Separating Magnuson myth from Magnuson reality is not simple. He is not above embellishing a good yarn -- even one that seems to be at his own expense -- and only a smug cheshire-cat smile hints that the malapropisms and one-liners may not be entirely accidental.
Magnuson was orphaned as a baby in 1905 in North Dakota. His campaign brochures reminded the voters of those humble beginnings election after election, never besmirching the Horatio Alger touches by mentioning that he was taken under the wing of a wealthy North Dakota banker as a child, late inherited much of the banker's money and now is a millionaire.
Still, he rode the rails to Seattle as a teen-ager and then worked his way through the University of Washington peddling ice to Seattle's waterfront whorehouses. It was a good ice route, both the big tips and certain other attractions being there. He graduated from Law school directly into the U.S. attorney's office and one of his early cases still is considered a courtroom classic.
The case involved a lover's triangle murder. Magnuson struggled in court to show that a young Indian woman, brought from Alaska by the U.S. marshal, was a reluctant witness, having been the lover of both the accused and the deceased. He reworded question after question to her, but she couldn't understand. Finally, in desperation, Magnuson tried one last approach.
"Isn't it true, miss," the young assistant DA intoned seriously, "that the federal marshal suh-peenied you to get you down here to Seattle?"
The witness broke into a broad grin of understanding.
"Ya, sure," she replied, "once in Hoohnah and twice on the boat."
Magnuson lost the case.
Shortly afterward he moved into Congress, a young rake who surrounded himself with Hollywood starlets, made all the gossip columns and played poker upstairs at the White House with FDR and Harry Truman. The voters in his still-pioneering state took it all in stride. It was 20 years before he was seriously challenged. Then, with Eisenhower's popularity cresting in 1956, the Republicans set their sights on the playboy senator. To mount the attack, they recruited Arthur Langlie, a church-going, teetotaling, three-term governor who seemed to be everything Magnuson wasn't.
Langlie ran, as one newspaper put it, with one hand raised toward heaven and the other lowered over the edge of the sidewalk. He was unrelenting about Magnuson's girlfriends -- especially a young Hollywood lovely named Toni Seven -- and used Hedda Hopper columns as evidence against the incumbent. Time magazine assisted with a Langlie cover story that described Magnuson, Time-style, as a "Cadillackadaisical Democrat" who loved to hear "the tinkle of ice water coming down a hotel hallway."
Magnuson and Langlie met just once during the campaign, coming together in a hall packed with Swedish fishermen. As magnuson walked in, he was handed a Langlie brochure describing the Republican in an endless list of wholesome adjectives -- God-fearing, family-loving, honest and above the temptations of strong drink. When Magnuson rose to speak, he started reading from Langlie's campaign profile, reeling off each adjective with deadpan drama.
"Now, I was just thinking," Magnuson said finally. "When you people elect a senator this time, you want him to serve a full six years, don't you? A full term in the Senate, back there representing you?"
The Swedes roared that they did.
"Well, then, I think you better take a close look at my opponent's brochure. With this many virtues, you aren't going to have a senator for six years. You're going to lose him at Easter time."
Magnuson won in a landslide. Toni Seven sent Langlie a telegram. "Double congratulations," the starlet wired. "You didn't win and you didn't have any fun, either."
Over the long, flamboyant years the playboy image wore gradually into its country-cousin successor, no one quite sure if either was more real than the other. Magnuson ended 59 years of celebrated bachelorhood in 1964, but even that event is not without a story. Word has it that the marriage came after a stern, election-year phone call from his old friend, Lyndon Johnson.
As president, Johnson, who arrived in Congress the same year as Magnuson, relished late White House nights of bourbon-drinking and tall tales with his old buddy. One night in 1964 Johnson invited Magnuson and his longtime friend, Jermaine, to a blacktie state dinner. Afterward, the story-telling wound so late into the night that Magnuson and Jermaine stayed over. The next morning, visiting VIPs watched a U.S. Senator in a rumpled tuxedo, accompanied by a striking blond in an evening dress, parade down from the sleeping quarters.
LBJ called that afternoon. "Maggie," the president said emphatically, "the time has come for you and Jermaine to get married." Johnson was his best man; Lady Bird the matron of honor -- a month before LBJ's landslide 1964 victory.
But by 1980, the years were taking their toll in other ways, too. Magnuson, whose spindly legs support his turnip torso in defiance of all laws of gravity, walked so slowly through the Senate in these last days that the pages referred to his gait as "the Maggie shuffle." The scrambled syntax that so delighted insiders was seen by otheres as a sign of senility, although few who watched him maneuver his Western-bound goodies through the Senate maze believed that.
Out home, Maggie the legend was beloved. But Maggie the senator was aging rapidly. Most folks, even die-hard Republicans, winced when the man who finally defeated him, Republican State Attorney General Slade Gorton, blurted out the observation that the senator "looks like he's been on death's door for 15 years." Most people didn't like to hear that said even if, down deep, they agreed that the man they were naming bridges and parks after did look pretty ancient.
So, down he went, victim, some said, of the revolt from the right; victim, others said, of the shuffle, the wrinkles and the garbled gerunds. But the fact was that Magnuson had outlasted his own era.
Still, the legend, reinforced by eight presidents, all with their own favorite Magnuson stories, does not yeild easily. None of the presidents did as much for Magnuson lore as John Kennedy, who visited Seattle in 1962.
"Most members of the Senate have developed the art of speaking with precision and clarity and force," Kennedy began his talk to a crowd of Magnuson contributors, who already were beginning to laugh at that thought.
"But the secret of Senator Magnuson's meteoric Senate career has been the reverse. In Washington he speaks in the Senate so quietly few can hear him. He looks down at his desk. He comes into the Senate late in the afternoon. He is very hesitant about interrupting other members. When he rises to speak, most members of the Senate have left. He sends his messages up to the Senate and everyone asks, 'What is it?'
"Senator Magnuson says, 'Well, it's nothing important.' And Grand Coulee Dam is built."
Grand Coulee Dam is considered the eighth wonder of the world in Magnuson country and it has been around a long, long time, preceding even Magnuson's arrival in Congress. But, days after Kennedy's Seattle speech, election-year billboards sprouted throughout the state. Foot-high lettering boasted, "Maggie Gets Things Done." A 10-foot Magnuson face smiled down benevolently. And in the background, of course, was Grand Coulee Dam. Eighteen years after Kennedy's visit, Republican opponents still were hard put to find voters who didn't think Magnuson built Grand Coulee and all the rest of the dams on the Columbia River.
In 1978, another president came to Maggie's home ground. It was a very special moment for the senator and, as Magnuson stood on the speaker's platform, an aide dusted him partly free of the dandruff drifting downward with the timelessness of shifting desert sands. For his own part, Magnuson hitched up the hopelessly rumpled trousers and buttoned the bottom of three buttons on his suit jacket in a doomed effort to obscure the bulging middle torso.
In front of the senator was Riverfront Park, a project for which Magnuson had wheedled a wad of federal dollars to doll up his state's second largest city, Spokane. Behind him was Jimmy Carter.
Crowded into the park were 20,000 citizens, voters all. Heightening the occasion still further was the announcement just arrived from the other Washington, that Magnuson had just become chairman of the Appropriations Committee and finally made it as president pro tempore of the Senate. That made him third in line to the presidency of the United States and Magnuson, about to introduce the man who already had the job, struggled for a way to tie all these momentous events together.
"Now, I wouldn't want anything to happen to the president of the United States," the senator began, "even if I am in some line of succession." Behind him, the rabbit-tooth grin of the honored guest faded slightly. Magnuson wrote off his own feelings about mortality years earlier by observing that if he had known he would live so long he would have taken better care of himself. Nevertheless, he tried to recover.
"It probably never will happen," the senator hastily assured Carter. Then he added, unable to restrain himself, "But it's kind of nice to think about anyway."
The New York Times -- that other Times -- recorded Magnuson's remarks as "a classic in political oratory." The aide in charge of dandruff control put it more in local perspective: "Damn. I wish Maggie's words had come out the way they usually do -- backwards."
Then the aide started worrying about far bigger problems. The next stop on Magnuson's road trip was the Hanford Atomic Works, always a political danger spot for the senator. At Hanford, Magnuson would speak about an experimental nuclear project known as the fast flux breeder reactor. That was dangerous ground, dangerous ground indeed, for a senator who circumcised the English language.
But it sure was fun to watch and, somehow, life in both Washingtons will never be the same again.