The Magazine

Two Good Men

A pair of names to remember when thinking about Congress.

Aug 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 44 • By CLAUDE R. MARX
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Sam Rayburn famously divided lawmakers into two categories: workhorses and show horses. In an era when the most dangerous place to be is often between a lawmaker and a television camera, it is refreshing to read about two members of Congress who have made considerable achievements outside of the spotlight.

Slade Gorton at a public hearing of the 9/11 Commission, 2003

Slade Gorton at a public hearing of the 9/11 Commission, 2003

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Former senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va.) both have good hearts and the political skills needed to translate their noble intentions into concrete results. And while neither lawmaker is a household name, their political careers are worth knowing about.

Slade Gorton’s career is chronicled in considerable detail in John Hughes’s biography, and, though the author points out Gorton’s flaws (such as his aloofness and discomfort in crowds), the book generally shows its subject in the most favorable light. 

Frank Wolf’s memoir, on the other hand, describes his efforts to fight for the freedom of citizens of some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.  

While Gorton and Wolf specialized in different issues, they share common traits: Both are moderate-conservative Republicans, both made their careers in places that they moved to as adults, and both are respected by their colleagues.

Gorton grew up in the Midwest, venturing east for college and law school. He wound up in Washington state on something of a whim, became active in local Republican politics, and was one of a group of young moderates who sought to modernize the state party. 

As a state legislator and a popular and effective attorney general, he worked on a range of consumer and environmental issues and sought to strike a balance between serving business interests and protecting consumers and the environment. In 1980, he entered what some perceived to be a long-shot senatorial race against veteran Democrat Warren Magnuson. Gorton successfully depicted Magnuson as old and out-of-touch, which, combined with Ronald Reagan’s coattails, brought him to Capitol Hill. 

As part of the new GOP majority, Gorton had considerable input in shaping the budgets that passed Congress. He teamed up with Washington’s other senator, the legendary Democrat Henry Jackson, to push for support of his states’s major employers, thus forming both an alliance and a friendship. Gorton was well-respected by colleagues and wasn’t afraid to take on his party’s more conservative members. He angered environmentalists by strongly defending the timber industry during the dispute over protection of the spotted owl—an experience which, Hughes contends, radicalized the usually mild-mannered moderate. Hughes also argues that Gorton’s greatest contribution was his post-Senate work on the 9/11 Commission. Gorton brokered differences between factions—the executive director later said that Gorton “raised the level of everyone’s game’’—and labored to strike a balance in a “free society with a short attention span .  .  . [one that] demands to be safe but bristles at full-body scanners and wants its boys back home.’’

While Slade Gorton was a first-rate legislator and strategist, Frank Wolf has taken a different approach to getting things done. Wolf, who has represented a Northern Virginia district for 31 years, has made his mark as a moral advocate and prodder, a modern-day William Wilberforce. 

Wolf grew up in Philadelphia and came to the nation’s capital for law school, making it to Congress on his third try. He developed a strong interest in human rights and scored an early victory when he led the effort to persuade the Reagan administration to lift Communist Romania’s “most favored nation” trade status because of its egregious human rights violations. Ronald Reagan “stuck to his guns over the objections of the business community and members of his own administration,’’ Wolf writes. “He believed until the end of his days that tyranny would one day be conquered across the globe.” A supporter of the Iraq war, Wolf worked to ensure that government and private aid groups helped those ordinary Iraqis who were often collateral damage during the fighting. 

Wolf was one of the loudest voices in Congress to persuade the Bush administration to do more to resolve the Sudanese civil war and genocide, and, while the situation in Sudan is still volatile, those efforts did result in some progress. Wolf also criticizes Barack Obama for not providing residents of Christian-dominated South Sudan with an air defense system that would protect them from attacks by Sudan’s Muslim-dominated government. “The question,” he writes, “is how vigorously will we respond—assuming we care enough to respond at all?’’

Claude R. Marx is a writer in Washington.