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As Dan Evans turns 89, fascination with waiting for his nearly complete autobiography grows

It's been just over a quarter of a century since Daniel J. Evans stepped down from the U. S. Senate, ending a political career that included three terms as Washington governor, and setting off a wait for the expected autobiography of the man described as "one of the 10 outstanding governors of the 20th Century."

His story is the stuff of political legend: state's youngest governor when first elected in 1964 at the age of 39. The state's first and only governor elected for three consecutive terms (and might well have won a fourth had he tried for it). Created the nation's first state Department of Ecology, which became the model for Richard Nixon's environmental protection agency. Keynote speaker for the 1968 Republican National Convention, where he was talked of a possible vice presidential accompaniment for nominee and eventual president Nixon (but he refused to endorse Nixon, favoring the moderate Nelson Rockefeller). The only person ever to serve the state as governor and then senator (he was appointed in 1983 to replace Henry M. Jackson, who died on a heart attack).

But those are historical facts. What's missing are the details and personal recollections from the memory of the man who lived and shaped the events for what was likely the state's most tumultuous time. That's why the fascination with waiting for the autobiography of the man who turned 89 last week, although he retains an acuity and physical fitness of someone years younger.

Almost from the January day in 1989 when he retired from the Senate he complained of as beset by "bickering and protracted paralysis, he's been asked when his autobiography would be forthcoming.

Thus it's with some excitement of anticipation that many will be gathering at mid-day Thursday at the Rainier Club, plus a TVW audience, as Evans will be offering some observations and reflections that are being seen as a hoped-for preview of the autobiography.

Evans told me it won't be a preview, just some thoughts on "politics then and now, some history and discussing a couple of issues going on today."   As to the autobiography: "It's almost done," he said. "I have to finish a couple of things then the manuscript will be ready for an editor."

Regardless, the fact that a retired politician's thoughts about his life and times are as awaited as those from Evans perhaps says as much about the current state of politics and politicians and about the yearning for honesty and integrity as about the memories and recollections of the man himself.

Evans' 12 years as governor, from when he took office in January of 1965 through the end of his 12 years in January of 1977, were marked by the same political protests and racial unrest in Washington that were sweeping across the rest of the country but also by a Boeing bust that rocked the state's economy.

It was as a 26-year-old political writer arriving to cover Evans and the political scene a year after Evans took office that I got my ringside seat over the next five years to cover the history he would be making. He was the young governor to whose front door national political writers were beating a path that helped guide his selection to be keynote speaker at the 1968 Republican national convention.

Gov. Dan Evans and young political writer visit in 1969

The course of Evans' political fortunes was actually determined by Democrats as he became the beneficiary in 1963, as a young legislator, of the occasional internecine warfare called coalitions that Evans once told me are unique to Washington legislatures when disgruntled Democrats partner with Republicans to create a majority.

I've heard the story firsthand from Evans but students of state history and fans of politics deserve to learn the details of what will clearly be an intriguing retelling by Evans of the dark-of-night December meeting at a cabin in the woods near Olympia where the unusual political alliance was consummated.

The coalition, driven by a battle within Democrat ranks over public power vs. Spokane Democrats' desire to protect their investor-owned Washington Water Power thrust Evans, as the 1963 Legislature's House majority leader, into a spotlight he never otherwise would have occupied.

And when a year later Evans defeated Democrat Al Rosellini, who was seeking a third term, as Republicans nationally were undergoing political disaster as the presidential debacle of Barry Goldwater's overwhelming defeat by Lyndon Johnson washed across the landscape, he was destined to attract national attention.

It was at the end of the century when a survey of history and political science professors around the country, conducted by the University of Michigan selected Evans as one of the top 10 governors of the 20th Century.

Because Evans, a leader in a cadre of moderate Republicans whose views once dominated GOP leadership ranks, has evidenced his dissatisfaction with the rightward drift of his party, his autobiography is sure to provide the platform for his thoughts and thus attract interest from pundits and political observers nationally.

In fairness Evans hasn't sat around with writer's block waiting for his book to emerge, devoting his time to public and non-profit boards and an array of University of Washington involvements ranging from board of regents, the UW Foundation and what has become the Evans School of Public Affairs and numerous state and national causes.

So even if his 20 minutes in the limelight Thursday, with a TV audience looking on, doesn't turn out to be the unveiling of his autobiography, it may well serve to emphasize to Evans the broad desire to have him complete the work that will detail the events and people of what may well be the state's most important period of growth and change.

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