Governor Booth Gardner died last Friday, after enduring the long relentless assault of Parkinson’s Disease. He was 76 years old, and he’d fought the progression of his illness valiantly for more than 20 years. From 1985 to 1993 he served as governor of Washington and delivered much of lasting value to its people. In 2008, contemplating his own mortality, he brought them an aid-in-dying law and empowered them with the comfort of choice and control over needless suffering.
From September 2006 to November 2008 Booth led the Washington state campaign to pass a Death with Dignity law like the one in effect in Oregon since 1997. I remember well how his leadership emerged.
We had begun to think seriously about launching a Washington campaign for aid in dying in early 2006. With polling, focus groups and brainstorming we had begun to shape a proposed law and name it. We thought we were the logical leaders. We were veterans of two successful campaigns and three intense years defending Oregon’s Death with Dignity law from the state legislature, Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice and litigants in federal court. Twice we had brought the argument all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. We felt seasoned and successful.
Unbeknownst to us, Booth Gardner was also thinking about aid in dying, and starting to talk with his advisors and friends about a law to expand end-of-life choice. He thought this could be his final act of public service, and a lasting legacy to the people of Washington.
When we became aware of each other’s efforts, we met in the Seattle office of Compassion & Choices of Washington. Booth had not yet received the brain procedures that would later reverse some of his Parkinson’s symptoms and it was sometimes difficult to understand his speech. Nevertheless, he projected unwavering confidence and abiding good nature. He looked at us, the supposed “experts” seated around the table. Then he jabbed his thumb back over his shoulder with absolute authority, and said, “We’re going to have a campaign, and I want you all to get in line behind me.” So we did.
Booth was a strong and compelling campaigner. In September 2006 he spoke candidly to attendees at the Annual Conference of Elder Law Attorneys:
Many of you know that I have been struggling with Parkinson’s Disease for the past 15 years and some may think that my interest in an Aid in Dying law is because I’m tired of dealing with it.
Well, it is discouraging at times but I have a lot of plans for the future involving new initiatives in education, new woodworking projects, more trips to watch a grandson’s baseball games and a chance to make new friends – just to name a few of the things that I look forward to in the years to come.
Just the same, my struggles with this disease remind me of my mortality every day. I understand suffering differently now than I did before my Parkinson’s symptoms began. I can more clearly imagine myself in the place of people who know they will not get better – that their end is very near – and whose only quality in life is misery.
So, I understand better now why an Aid in Dying law is so important both for people who might use it and for those who look on with compassion as loved ones suffer intolerably through their final days.
Working with Booth on his campaign was a joy and a privilege. His energy never flagged; his spirits never wavered. He never persuaded the anti-choices folks to see things his way, but his good heart did persuade them of his high regard and good wishes.
He was as principled as he was kind, telling audiences, “While we respect other beliefs, we need to make it clear that we are bringing this proposal because of our own deeply held beliefs that it is the right and compassionate thing to do.”
Thank you, Booth, for your vision, your leadership, and your kindness.