Booth Gardner, the nice guy who finished first

If Booth Gardner’s alchemy could be bottled, there’d be more kind and modest people in high office. Sadly, he’s taken his secret to the grave.

Washington’s 19th governor – and Pierce County’s first elected executive – may be the most unassuming politician to occupy either position.

Gardner had plenty of ambition, but it surfaced chiefly through efforts to make government work better and improve the lives of others. He was funny; he might have made a run of it as a wisecracking comedian – but the jokes were always gentle and often at his own expense.

He was soft-spoken, unfailingly polite and treated every soul as an equal. He inherited a Weyerhaeuser fortune as a teenager, but he’d had enough hard knocks by then to empathize with people born with the odds stacked against them.

The rest of the state will remember Gardner as a popular, eight-year governor, but Pierce County goes much further back with him. He was born in Tacoma and died in Tacoma. He lived in Lakewood as a kid and attended Clover Park schools.

He was elfin and charming in a quiet, self-effacing way. Somehow – and here was the alchemy – he managed to project that quiet charm to the back rows of the raucous theater of state politics.

When Pierce County’s government was ripped apart by a sordid racketeering scandal, Gardner won the newly created executive position and succeeded in it.

He had mixed success as governor. No back-room head-knocker, and he watched as some of his good-government proposals – such as merit-based evaluations of state employees – got shredded by hard-edged lawmakers or union leaders.

Give him his due, though. He pushed through important initiatives, such as Running Start and the Basic Health Plan, and challenged the Washington Education Association on school accountability. He laid the foundation of major education reforms that stepped up the pressure on the K-12 system.

Re-elected in a landslide in 1988, he chose not to run again in 1992 despite his continuing popularity. He could have achieved more had he been tougher and spent more of that popularity fighting for his goals in the Legislature. But he was Booth Gardner, not Rahm Emanuel.

On one occasion, he summed up his nice-guy approach to politics in a sentence: “Rudeness, bad manners, and personal insults are not an acceptable substitute for debate, nor cynicism and apathy for overdue action.”

That would make a good epitaph for him, and a good lesson for the rest of us.