Remembering Slade Gorton

Remembering Slade Gorton

The senator from Washington State and former Miller Center board member dies at 92

I cannot promise success, but I can promise a fight!

—Slade Gorton


The Miller Center at the University of Virginia mourns the passing of Slade Gorton, who represented the state of Washington in the United States Senate from 1981 to 1987 and 1989 to 2001. He also was a member of the Center's Governing Council from 2003 to 2018. 

“Slade Gorton was a public servant of the highest order," said Bill Antholis, Miller Center director and CEO. "In addition to his service in Washington State and in the Senate, his contributions on the 9/11 Commission and several Miller Center commissions, and as a Governing Council member, he always had the best interests of our nation at heart. More than that, he was a superb human being of the highest integrity and a great friend to me personally. I will sorely miss his sober counsel and I will miss his unbridled humor.”

Born in 1928, Gorton graduated from Columbia Law School, served in the United States Air Force, and began his political career in 1958. His years in the Senate saw him appointed to powerful committee posts, including Appropriations; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; and Energy and Natural Resources. He served as the chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee (1995–2001), the Commerce Subcommittees on Consumer Affairs (1995–1999), and Aviation (1999–2000). He was a member of the Republican leadership as counsel to the majority leader (1996–2000).

"Slade was a valuable resource for the Miller Center as we focused increasingly on the presidency and on deepening our understanding of how things get done in Washington D.C.," said former Miller Center Governing Council chair Gene Fife, who served with Gorton on the board. "He didn't pander like a lot of politicians do. When you tangled with Slade, you better have known what you were doing. He was a Republican, but he would as easily take on Republicans if he didn’t agree with them. Some of his good friends were from across the aisle. That's how government used to be."

Gorton began his political career as a Washington state representative; he went on to serve as state House majority leader. In 1968, he was elected attorney general of Washington State, where he argued 14 cases before the United States Supreme Court. In June 1980, he received the Wyman Award, the highest honor accorded by the National Association of Attorneys General.

Gorton also served on the president’s Consumer Advisory Council (1975–1977) and on the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (1969–1981). He was chairman of the Washington State Law & Justice Commission (1969–1976) and served as an instructor in constitutional law to public administration graduate students at the University of Puget Sound (1977).

In his role on the Miller Center's Governing Council, he served on the National War Powers Commission, among other projects and committees.

"Gorton was a devoted public servant practically his whole life, but what distinguished him even more was a remarkable balance of high ideals with sharp-eyed, practical insight about what was possible and about how to get things done," said Philip Zelikow, who served with him both at the Miller Center and on the 9/11 Commission. "Although his work on the 9/11 Commission was superb, I also remember a key point in the Carter-Ford Commission, which successfully recommended how to overhaul America’s entire election system after the Florida debacle during the 2000 election. In that 2000 election, Gorton had lost his Senate seat in an extremely close race. He recommended that our commission consider a Washington State innovation called 'provisional ballots.' This allowed people to cast their votes and have the disputes sorted out later. Gorton explained that, in his close election, provisional ballots probably made the difference—they were why he lost to his Democratic opponent. Yet he urged us to recommend it for the whole country. We did. Our recommendation was adopted in the Help America Vote Act, which passed by bipartisan majorities in 2002. And ‘provisional ballots’ are now cast in every county in America. Thanks to Slade Gorton, who was defeated by them, yet thought they were right for the country."

Read his full obituary at the Seattle Times.