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One Politician Whose Character Counted

The apartment on Seattle’s First Hill was nice, though modest, like its occupant, but it also had an inspiring view out over the city Joel Pritchard treasured. He said last recently, “Almost every place with the most meaning in my life is within sight,” and that surely included Queen Anne Hill and Bainbridge Island, lands laden with childhood reveries. These were the places whose contours were shaped in his memory by people who first influenced his character and tutored his judgment.
The “almost” qualifier in his description left room for other places that he likewise held in affection; namely, Olympia and the rest of Washington State, and Washington, D.C. A sentence of terminal cancer this past year gave him incentive to make many of the former rounds while he could. He showed up in offices in the US Capitol, where he served for a decade in the House, to say goodbye, dignified and yet a bit awkward. (When it comes down to it, how do you tell someone you won’t see them again; how do you say thanks and it’s been good to know you?)

In the summer he humbly attended the re-dedication of the state library building in Olympia as the Joel M. Pritchard Library. “It’s the state library,” he’d correct a friend who mentioned it. “Yes,” the friend rejoined, “but it’s called the Pritchard Library.” “State library” Joel insisted. That was the old school talking. He had been taught by his father not to boast, not to take credit.

Some politicians are remembered mainly for the offices they held, and they may have derived their own satisfaction that way, too. A few leave great legislative acts carrying their name. Joel Pritchard, in a 32-year career, had a number of those, too–the offices and the acts, as reports on his life have chronicled. But they were not mainly how Pritchard sought to make his persuasion count, or why so many hundreds of people showed up yesterday at his funeral in the University District. What Joel cared about, and what he conveyed, were the dignity and priceless worth of popular government. He would have said it in a more down-to-earth manner, but this commitment to good politics was his true passion.

Never preachy, always cheerful and fun-loving (every Pritchard campaign was a fun campaign), Joel still educated other legislators, his own staff, supporters and friends on what it means to be, truly, an honest politician. He had strong views, but respected different views in others. What mattered was how you expressed those views.

In a hundred little morality tales, many of them lived out himself on the floor of legislative bodies, he gave instruction on the homely virtues of keeping your word, working together, loyalty, building good personal relationships to achieve goals, taking the long perspective, keeping hard feelings out of policy making, and, of course, of not taking too much credit.

Joel was trusted so much–maybe more than any other legislator in Congress or the State Legislature during his time–because deep down he was exactly the person he appeared to be in public. Imagine writing a television ad for a candidate who really was all those good things that campaigns claim, only this time it really was all true–that was Joel Pritchard.

He was around for us in Watergate days twenty years ago when we needed a model of statesmanship. He also witnessed the tawdry, scandalous scene of the ’90s. His own ethics were never in doubt; he backed reasonable reforms, yet he never played the puritan scold. In private he looked down on sanctimonious demagogues almost as much as he did on political trimmers.

Joel made his points about life even as he neared death. He would not complain, and between chemotherapy treatments he found time to tutor little kids in the inner city how to read and a convention of elected officials how to get along. He flew to Southeast Asia to support human rights and land reform and to Washington, D.C. to advance a Capitol history project. He produced a paper for Discovery Institute–a kind of swan-song–on “The Ten Habits of Highly Effective Legislators.” Joel never stopped giving: That, too, was one of his unpreached political sermons.

There is so much phony piety and manufactured heroism around. Instant communications have brought instant bouts of mass hysteria and mass enthusiasm in politics and culture alike, and these rocketing public moods just as quickly ricochet off the opinion polls and roll away.

Nothing is left but popular cynicism and ennui.

Thankfully, we still have before us a few models of real civic virtue, steady figures whose lives are carved with self-control and a fine sense of balance. Joel Pritchard is one such that will always come first to my mind. His conversations were as current as the morning paper and as steeped in old Seattle as the Salish words–like “skookum” for smart, and “tillicum” for friend–he sometime used and that were familiar to his father’s generation.

But the material of his character was the eternal marble of honor, decency and truth that is always quarried best from the deep veins of liberty.

Joel Pritchard, at 72, spanned the old times and the new, and died last week in a similar way–in hospice care, at home. Colleagues and friends will remember him as the fellow who made the system work. His legacy is the personal example of how to preserve that system.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.