‘Close to the Flame’: the rise and fall of Gordon Walgren
Gordon Walgren’s memoir “Close to the Flame” tells the disgraced politician’s story, from his first run for political office in Kitsap County to his work as majority leader in the Washington state senate. Walgren’s downfall came when he was convicted of racketeering.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Close to the Flame’
by Gordon Walgren and Peter Lewis
Gordon Walgren, 289 pp., $30
In 1980 the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Olympia, John Bagnariol, and the majority leader in the Senate, Gordon Walgren, were arrested in a corruption case called “Gamscam.” It sunk the political careers of the two Democrats and sent them to prison. That November, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, Gamscam was another reason Republicans won the governor’s chair in Olympia, an event that has not been repeated.
Now Walgren, 80, has self-published an autobiography (available at www.gordonwalgren.com). The title, “Close to the Flame,” is from a comment by Bremerton Sun columnist Adele Ferguson; it means “close to the line.” He claims in his book that he never stepped over the legal line, though that is left for the reader to judge.
“Gamscam” was a sting. Two FBI agents, “Hal” and “Vic,” pretended to be California businessmen who wanted Washington to open up gambling. This was public anathema in 1980. Writes Walgren, “The squeamishness around gambling in that era seems downright quaint when you look at how widespread it is today ... ”
In exchange for Bagnariol’s and Walgren’s machinations, Hal and Vic offered them each a 6 percent interest in the profits, laundered through an offshore bank. Another 6 percent was offered to a lobbyist.
Whether federal authority should have been baiting a hook with such a proposal is a question left to the reader. Its prosecutor claimed in court that the three of them had taken the bait. The FBI had Bagnariol and the lobbyist on tape, but not Walgren, and Bagnariol had received money in a men’s room. Walgren says, “I took no money,” though he admits talking with Vic and Hal numerous times and that he had a “propensity to walk up to the edge.”
He had that propensity in some small ways, too. At 25 he ran for his first political office, Kitsap County prosecuting attorney, without having courtroom experience. He says he had to “puff up my qualifications, pushing them to the edge but otherwise defensible.” While serving two years in federal prison for racketeering, he landed a job as a typist by claiming he could type 150 words a minute. “Of course,” he writes, “I didn’t actually know how fast I could type.”
Walgren was a politician of interests, not ideas. His book is about the political life, of pals and rivals, of deals made and sunk. He loved being a legislator: “A special parking spot. Being addressed as ‘Honorable’ and later, ‘Senator.’ Chivas Regal in a Christmas stocking.”
There is a good deal of honesty in this book, and students of politics will find value in it. His ghostwriter, former Seattle Times reporter Peter Lewis, has interviewed not only his subject but his political enemies, and some of their thoughts are in it, too.
The narrative is neither analytical nor literary. Much of it reads as if the old politician was seated right there, a tumbler of Chivas in his hand, telling stories of the movers and shakers of that time, of governors Dan Evans and Dixy Lee Ray, of legislators Sid Snyder and Augie Mardesich and Bagnariol, and most of all, of himself.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.