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Originally published September 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 5, 2008 at 12:39 AM

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Guest columnist

A lifetime worth of advice, carefully scripted with a red pen

Over the years, I searched for a mentor like most folks look for deals on eBay. I clung to Hunter S. Thompson's every drunken move when...

Special to The Seattle Times

Over the years, I searched for a mentor like most folks look for deals on eBay. I clung to Hunter S. Thompson's every drunken move when he showed up comatose at the Berkeley campus. After co-authoring the "Doonesbury Game" with Garry Trudeau, I begged him to get his nose out of his own book and blurb mine (he passed, saying he was too busy). And for several years I worked under Ralph Nader, hoping that some of his mad civic brilliance might rub off on me, only to find the consumer advocate goes through organizations, interns and ideas faster than Diddy changes nicknames.

Turns out there are two types of mentors in this world: ones you wish for, and ones who actually turn out to be invaluable advisers. Ed Guthman was the latter.

I first met Ed in 1989 as a staff writer for the Commission to Draft an Ethics Code for the Los Angeles city government. Superlawyer Geoff Cowan had been appointed to put together a tough new ethics package after Mayor Tom Bradley — and pretty much everyone else in City Hall — had been using the legislative branch to remodel their houses and buy Ferraris. Cowan's genius was in recruiting experts in various fields to help his staff come up with the best regulations possible. If you ever wanted something hard-hitting, honest, and well-researched, the guy you brought in was journalist Ed Guthman.

In 1989, I was a 25-year-old graduate of the Coro Foundation with no idea where to begin writing a code of ethics, much less my own moral code. Ed cleared that notion up in a hurry. "Ya get out there, talk to everyone you can, and sort the details out later. Now let me see your interview list." My list — made up on the spot — had the mayor, his chief of staff, and a couple of shady city council members I'd read about in the paper.

Well, these people were fine and dandy for background, according to Guthman, but only to cover yourself once City Hall found out how tough the new rules were going to be. Ed had our staff meet with the most corrupt lobbyists, real-estate tycoons and sleazy schmoozers in California, Republican or Democrat, in order to discover how the game was really played. Only then could you find a way to close revolving-door loopholes, "gift exchanges" and pay-for-play schemes being used by those in the know. Turns out, people love to talk, and better yet, will actually answer pretty much anything you ask them. Ed knew that, I didn't.

It wasn't until almost six months working with Ed that I found out — from my mother (who had watched him win a Pulitzer Prize at The Seattle Times) — about his amazing credentials. Not only did he stand up against McCarthyism in the 1950s (saving an innocent professor's career), but Captain Guthman was a decorated veteran (yes, a Purple Heart and, though he'd never show it to you, a Silver Star), RFK's press secretary at the Justice Department, and No. 3 on Nixon's list of enemies!

In addition to a wonderful social conscience, Ed had a warm heart, a huge laugh (always a pleasant surprise when dealing with an intimidating and gruff fellow) and a work ethic that would make an over-caffeinated mule look lazy. Unless you're dealing with Donald Trump clichés, professional wisdom often needs to be culled over time. Just once, I longed for Ed to say, "Son, let me tell ya how we broke the Watergate story wide open." But the man was too modest to tell tales of yore or give straight-on advice, so you had to dig for it.

Show him your work and ask for feedback, and he'd happily provide it, red pen and all.

One rule I learned from Ed was that the moment you'd finished your research and assumed the job was done was precisely the time to make another round of calls. There was always someone you'd forgotten to talk to, an item that needed clarification, or one more line of questioning that would surely arise after sitting on the info for a night and pondering the big picture.

Our Los Angeles ethics code was eventually packaged into a successful citizen's initiative, leading to the creation of a new watchdog agency. Ed served a term as president and was a board member on the committee from 1991-98. For Ed, the road was a rocky one; he had no patience for the infighting from council members. Luckily, he had another gig to distract him, teaching students at USC how to be journalists with integrity and a backbone.

When I moved back to Seattle, where Ed was born and raised, I picked his brain about whom I should meet with. "Everyone," was his response, and rather than give me names and numbers from a Rolodex, he spouted off the top dozen or so movers and shakers in the community. "Just call 'em up, tell them you want to talk about what's going on, and go from there."

Could I drop his name? "Sure, if you think that's really going to help." It did.

I soon found work on another citizen's initiative, attempting to create a Seattle Commons — sort of a central park funded by taxpayers. I knew the reasons I supported the plan (green space, anyone?), but didn't quite have a hook for our publicity campaign.

"Go walk the damn thing," was Ed's advice. "Have a look around, talk to a few people, see what's there now, then convince other citizens to do the same." The suggestion was classic Ed: simple, based on first-person investigation, and not reliant on spin or politics.

A few months back I met a young salesman at the Apple store. He recently asked me to look over a Web site he had created for the Seattle Symphony. "Where's the information about the musician's backgrounds?" I heard myself bark. "And make some calls to the two tenors who are still alive or somebody who'll endorse the damn thing!"

This kid may not be seeking out a mentor, but, thanks to Guthman, it looks like he's got one.

Edwin O. Guthman passed away last weekend at the age of 89, but his influence on me — and perhaps the next generation — is everlasting.

Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based writer, and author of "The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Celebrated, Notorious and Deceased Personalities in History" (Penguin).

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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