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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,142

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This is the grave of Warren Magnuson.

Born in 1905 in Moorhead, Minnesota, Magnuson was adopted. It seems this both his parents died shortly after his birth and that the authorities didn’t know what else to do. Or maybe his mother put him up for adoption. Anyway, his birth records are sealed so it’s unclear. Anyway, a couple who owned a bar in Moorhead adopted and named him. Young Magnuson was a star athlete, starting QB for the high school football team, all that jazz. He graduated in 1923 and headed to the University of North Dakota. But he was a lot more footloose than this very classic background would have you suggest. Maybe he was bored, maybe he was unhappy. But he only lasted at UND for a year, transferred to what is today North Dakota State for a year, then dropped out and started riding the rails around Canada working on farms.

Young men taking some time on the rails was hardly uncommon in these years, if not exactly respectable. And Magnuson wasn’t really going down that road permanently. He had a girlfriend who wanted to move to Seattle. So he joined her. In 1925, he enrolled at the University of Washington. Now a little older and more experienced, he got serious about his studies and supported himself delivering ice as a Teamster, making him a union member and developing a solid working class identity in him. He received his bachelor’s and then a law degree from UW in 1928.

Magnuson was already interested in politics as a youngster. He was a Democrat and he got involved in the party out in Washington pretty quickly. By 1928, he was working for the Democratic ticket both at the state and federal level. The mixture of the law and politics has always been a powerful one and Magnuson embraced this. He passed the bar in 1929, got a job with a good Seattle firm, and became secretary of Seattle Municipal League in 1930.

Magnuson, or “Maggie” as people who knew him called him, first ran for office in 1932, a good year for Democrats as the nation rejected the Republican Party. He won a seat in the state legislature on the platform of unemployment insurance. As soon as he got into office, he pushed for this as a bill, which became one of the predecessors to the Fair Labor Standards Act. He also led the fight to overturn Washington’s prohibition laws. Not bad for a first term legislator. He also knew how to take care of his friends, getting a bill legalizing betting on the ponies in Washington, allowing his buddies to open a successful race track. He served one term there and then won election to be King County prosecutor.

In 1936, Magnuson shoved the weak congressman (though wonderfully named) Marion Zioncheck into retirement by announcing he would run in the primary against him. In fact, Zioncheck committed suicide before his term ended, not because of Magnuson but because of the clear depression that led to Manguson’s challenge to begin with. Actually, he had been institutionalized during his term in Congress. Sad story. In any case, Magnuson managed to get the support of both the significant Communist Party presence in Seattle and the city’s business community. The guy was a good politician!

In any case, Magnuson was immediately a force in Congress. His first big victory was leading the charge to pass the National Cancer Institute Act, which he introduced into the House and which is now part of the National Institute of Health. He became good friends with Lyndon Johnson and remained close to him through the latter’s presidency, helping to make him a powerful man in Washington. He worked hard to bring some of the sweet military money into Washington during his time and he’s the main reason for the naval base at Bremerton that remains, along with Fort Lewis, the biggest military complex in the Northwest.

During World War II, Magnuson immediately volunteered for the military. In fact, a lot of congresscritters did. In late 1942, FDR, seeing how politicians were cynically using this to advance their careers (cough cough LBJ), ordered all members of Congress immediately discharged from the military to do their job. He was also a notorious party animal. His first marriage fell apart because he was cheating on his wife all the time. He was a legendary drinker and gambler too. No wonder he was good at politics. No one could put on a party like Maggie.

In 1944, Magnuson decided to run for the Senate and won. Homer Bone had taken an appointment to the Ninth Circuit and so Maggie got the interim position after Bone resigned so his state would get a jump in the seniority line. He became known as both a liberal and a consensus builder. He was close to Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield during the 60s and worked with both Mansfield and Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed through combining the public accommodation sections of that with some corporate giveaways in a communication satellite bill that the South supported and liberals hated in the Commerce Committee, which he headed. Magnuson was a major supporter of organized labor through his years in the Senate. He was a big pork politician and made sure Washington got its share of federal projects. This was basically a prerequisite of being a successful western senator in the postwar years.

This was Maggie’s dream. He wanted to be a powerful senator and he made it happen. He was such a personable figure and he never held a grudge, which was his mantra. It’s hard to imagine a figure like this succeeding in the Senate today. There’s plenty would who like to be this way, but the world is just different than it was in the 50s. He was a frequent poker buddy with Harry Truman and of course he and Johnson hung out all the time. When Maggie finally got married again in 1964 (after which he actually stopped sleeping around and partying), LBJ was his best man.

Magnuson kept that sweet military-industrial complex money flowing in too. Yeah, Scoop Jackson was the Senator from Boeing for good reason, but Maggie was right there with him, if less aggressive about wanting to use that military power. As Walter Mondale once quipped, “He is scrupulously fair with federal funds; one half for Washington state, one half for the rest of the country” It was a fair charge. He moved an absolutely boatload of money to the University of Washington and got federal support for World’s Fairs in both Seattle and Spokane. He also got federal money to renovate and save Pike’s Place Market, the iconic Seattle monument. Good thing he did too, that was nearly lost as was so much in our decaying cities during the early 70s.

But Maggie wasn’t just about Washington. He really did have strong feelings about a lot of issues. Going back to the beginnings of his political career, he was a major mover on health care and he helped establish the National Institute of Health while in the Senate, in 1948. He was a long time activist for fighting cancer as well. He sponsored the bill creating the National Health Service Corps in 1970 to get doctors into poorly served communities. Magnuson was one of a bunch of western senators (including Frank Moss and Scoop Jackson) who worked closely with Ralph Nader to sponsor the pioneering consumer protection legislation of the period. That includes the Safe Drinking Water Act, Fair Credit Advertising Act, and Door to Door Sales Act. That also includes the legislation to require safety in automobiles, cigarette warning labels, and warranty enforcement legislation. He was a major player in creating public television, in creating Amtrak, and in the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age to 18. He also long pushed to normalize relations with China, well before Nixon did so.

But wait, there’s more! The Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act expanded American claims in the oceans to 200 miles offshore in order to conserve fisheries from Japanese and Soviet boats, a real threat in the 60s and 70s. Magnuson also drafted the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Another huge issue in the Northwest in the 1970s was the potential to build depots to process Alaskan oil. People in the Puget Sound freaked out. The strange proto-Trump governor of Washington, Dixy Lee Ray, was all for it. Magnuson led the opposition to it and made sure it did not happen by including a rider in the renewal of the MMPA in 1977 banning new construction of oil facilities in the Sound east of Port Angeles. Ray responded by calling him a “dictator.” Maggie did not care.

In the end, Magnuson fell as part of the 1980 Republican wave. It’s literally astounding how much of this was related to how right-wingers were able to gin up fury over the treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama. We usually think of this election as what brought Reagan to power and as a rejection of the inflation and instability of the Carter years and this isn’t wrong. But any deep dive on this election will demonstrate just how central the Panama Canal was to it. Sometimes, Americans can be really stupid. But by this time, Manguson was old. He was starting to decline physically. It was time to go and let someone with energy run. But he wasn’t having it. The incredibly awful Slade Gorton defeated him in 1980.

Magnuson died in 1989 of heart failure. He was 84 years old.

Warren Magnuson is buried in Acacia Memorial Park, Seattle, Washington.

If you would like this series to visit other senators elected in 1944, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elbert Thomas is in Salt Lake City and Elmer Thomas is in Lawton, Oklahoma. Wayne Morse is theoretically buried in Eugene but despite multiple attempts, I have never found it and it annoys me a lot, not so much because I can’t find it per se but because I have a lot to say about Morse! Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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