McDermott, Jim (b. 1936)

  • By Brad Holden
  • Posted 2/06/2020
  • Essay 20961

Jim McDermott was a titan in Washington state and national politics for nearly 50 years. An Illinois-born doctor who served in the U.S. Navy as a psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, McDermott made his first foray into politics in 1970, when he was elected to the Washington State House of Representatives at age 33. After a failed run for governor two years later, he won a state senate seat in 1974, held it until 1987, and then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988. A liberal Democrat representing Seattle's 7th Congressional District, McDermott championed universal healthcare, was an architect of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, and staunchly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He suffered perhaps his biggest setback in 2008, when a federal judge ordered him to pay more than $1.1 million to fellow Congressman John Boehner after Boehner sued McDermott for releasing the contents of an illegally recorded cellphone call. When he retired in 2016 after 14 terms in Washington, D.C., McDermott was saluted by President Barack Obama as "a much-needed voice for the nation's most vulnerable."

Illinois Born and Raised

James Adelbert McDermott was born on December 28, 1936 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, William McDermott, worked as an underwriter for an insurance company, and his mother, Roseanna, when not busy raising a family, worked as a switchboard operator for a telephone company. McDermott was raised with three siblings in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. As a boy he had a strong intellectual curiosity about how things worked; once he discovered something interesting, he wanted to examine and understand it from all angles. This inquisitive drive would stay with him, as would the moral code from his early religious teachings. His parents were devout members of the Independent Fundamentalist Church of America (IFCA), and the family regularly attended service at the Southtown Bible Church. McDermott credits this strict religious upbringing with shaping his progressive worldview, as his interpretation of the scriptures centered around helping the poor and downtrodden (Brad Holden interview).

McDermott graduated Downers Grove High School in 1954, and was the first person in his family to attend college, at Wheaton College in Illinois, followed by the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where he earned an M.D. in 1963. During these academic years, he married Virginia Beattie (b. 1938) in 1961. McDermott, always fascinated with the human mind, earned a degree in psychiatry after completing a two-year residency at the University Of Illinois Research Hospital.

In 1966, he and his wife moved to Seattle after scouting out other cities. He was attracted to the cultural ambiance of Seattle, as well as its surrounding natural beauty. As he recalled, "It was a vibrant small city" (Holden interview). The McDermotts established their new home, arriving with their 1-month-old baby girl, Katherine. They would later welcome a son, James, in 1968. During this time, McDermott pursued fellowship training in child psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical Center, which he completed in 1968.

After his fellowship training, McDermott was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He served as a psychiatrist in the Navy Medical Corps from 1968 through 1970. This was during the Vietnam War, and McDermott was assigned to the Long Beach Naval Station in California, where he helped returning soldiers deal with combat-related trauma. This experience, seeing firsthand the mental and physical toll the war was taking, hardened McDermott's antiwar stance. This sentiment emboldened him: The day after being honorably discharged from the Navy, he promptly filed for political office, and thus began the next phase of his life. 

Early Political Career

McDermott had long been inspired by such political figures as Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) -- the Canadian politician who introduced the continent's first single-payer, universal health care program -- and was determined to help make a positive difference in people's lives (Holden interview). He made his first run for public office in 1970, and was elected to the Washington State Legislature as a Representative from the 43rd District, becoming the first Democrat to win this particular seat. Post-election press releases celebrated his upset victory by exclaiming, "There's a fresh breeze blowing in Washington -- Jim McDermott. And he has never heard of the word 'can't.'"

In March 1972, McDermott announced his candidacy for governor. He acknowledged his underdog status, but as he stated at a news conference, "To me and others, this is not an impossible dream" ("McDermott Enters ..."). He adopted the slogan "Not For Sale" and campaigned heavily against his opponents seeking the Democratic nomination, including former governor Albert D. Rosellini (1910-2011) and state senator Martin J. Durkan (1923-2005). In the end, Rosellini would clinch the primary to become the Democratic nominee against Republican incumbent governor Dan Evans (b. 1925), who would go on to win re-election.  

In 1974, McDermott once again placed his hat in the political ring when he ran for state senator in the 43rd District. He handily won this election and would hold his seat for four successive terms, until 1987. During his time in the state senate, he crafted and sponsored legislation that would become known as the Washington State Basic Health Plan, the first such program in the nation to offer health insurance to the unemployed and the working poor. He was the author of the Basic Education Act, and worked toward reforming the nursing-home industry and making improvements in mental-health programs.

In 1980, while a state senator, McDermott ran again for governor, defeating incumbent Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) in the Democratic primary. He would later lose the general election to Republican John Spellman (1926-2018). In 1984, McDermott made a final run for governor when he ran on his so-called "APPLE Agenda" -- an acronym for Affordable health care, Promotion of jobs, Protection of natural resources, Life with hope and without fear, and Excellence in education. He lost the primary to Booth Gardner (1936-2013), who then defeated Spellman in the general election.

After the loss, McDermott left politics and returned to medicine, becoming a Foreign Service medical officer based in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and providing psychiatric services to Foreign Service and Peace Corps personnel in Africa from 1987 through 1988. 

The Liberal Lion of Seattle

Upon his return from Africa, McDermott, motivated by a desire to create a national healthcare system, decided to re-enter politics. He ran for Washington's 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives when the seat came open in 1988 after incumbent Mike Lowry (1939-2017) gave it up to run for the U.S. Senate. McDermott won the election with 71 percent of the vote. He would go on to win re-election 13 times, firmly holding his seat until his retirement in 2016. During his tenure in Congress, McDermott served on the Budget Committee, the House Ethics Committee, and was a ranking senior member of the House and Means Committee. He founded and chaired the Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS, sat on the Medicare Commission, and was a member of the House Progressive Caucus.

In 1990, during his first term in Congress, McDermott authored the AIDS Housing Opportunity Act, which provides local governments with resources to meet the housing needs of those with AIDS. In subsequent years McDermott would be the primary author of several other bills enacted into law. These include the Medicare Beneficiary Enrollment Improvement Act; the Restoration of Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 2010; the Worker, Homeownership and Business Assistance Act of 2009; the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2008; the SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act; the Cedar River Watershed Land Exchange Act of 1992; and H.R. 5302, which designated the United States Courthouse located on 5th Avenue in Seattle as the "William Kenzo Nakamura United States Courthouse." 

McDermott said he was particularly proud of the Cedar River Watershed Act, which allowed Seattle total control of its primary water source and was one of the last laws signed by President George H. W. Bush before he left office. Other bills that he authored into law include the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade policy that assisted African countries, and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act -- the first law to recognize the needs of foster children who were aging out of the system. Being a longtime advocate of a single-payer healthcare system, McDermott was one of the chief architects of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (commonly known as Obamacare).

The Gingrich Tape

In January 1997, McDermott found himself at the center of controversy when an illegally recorded phone call was leaked to several media outlets, including The New York Times. At the time, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was under investigation for giving inaccurate information to the House Ethics Committee regarding his use of tax-exempt funds. During the investigation, a married couple from Ft. White, Florida claimed they had picked up a cellphone conversation on their police scanner, which they then recorded on a hand-held recorder. The phone call included a discussion between Gingrich and his attorneys in which they could be heard strategizing about how to undercut the Ethics Committee's case against the speaker. Two other Republican politicians could also be heard on the phone call, including Representative John Boehner (b. 1949) and House majority leader Dick Armey. The Florida couple, John and Alice Martin, decided that the call might be important for the Ethics Committee and handed a recording of the call to McDermott, the senior Democrat on the committee. McDermott forwarded the tape to his fellow committee members, though the material on the tape was refused at the direction of Republican chairperson Nancy Johnson and was instead forwarded to the U.S. Justice Department. Charges were then brought against the couple for violating the Communications Privacy Act. 

Two days later, on January 10, 1997, a transcript of the tape appeared on the front page of The New York Times and McDermott was later revealed to be the source. Republicans demanded an investigation into the leak and the matter was brought before the Justice Department. No legal charges were ever brought against McDermott, prompting Boehner to file a lawsuit in March 1998, in which he sought punitive damages from McDermott for disclosing an illegally intercepted call under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

The ensuing legal fight would last a decade as the case was dragged through various courts. In the end, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan ruled in favor of Boehner, and McDermott was ordered to pay legal restitution to Boehner. McDermott appealed, arguing that his actions were allowed under the First Amendment. A total of 18 news organizations, including CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, The Associated Press, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, filed a joint legal brief backing McDermott. Despite the widespread support, the appeals court ruled in favor of Boehner. McDermott continued his efforts to appeal the decision, with the case eventually making its way to the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case. On March 1, 2008, with his legal avenues exhausted, McDermott was ordered to pay Boehner more than $1 million in legal costs, plus an additional $60,000 in damages.     

In a statement to the media after the final decision, McDermott stated that the legal fight was worth it and that "while the amount of damages assessed in this case is significant, I submit that defending the First Amendment is beyond measure and worth every penny" ("Taped-Call Case ...").

Weapons of Mass Destruction

In 2002, while Congress debated a war resolution act authorizing the use of force in Iraq, McDermott gained national attention when he proclaimed that President George W. Bush was misleading the country about Iraq's nuclear weapons arsenal, the presence of which was being used by the White House as pretext for launching an invasion. In addition to his comments, McDermott voted against the Iraq War, causing political opponents to nickname him "Baghdad Jim." The country eventually went to war. Years later, international intelligence reports would conclude that while a few random chemical weapons were found, no biological or nuclear weapons were discovered in Iraq, supporting McDermott's original claims.

McDermott maintained his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and curated an ongoing photo display outside his office showing Washington state soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He titled the display, "Washington Faces of the Fallen," saying its purpose was to make sure they were not forgotten. Every time a soldier from Washington died in combat, he would add their photo. By the time he left office in 2016, there were more than 150 of them.  

Pledge of Allegiance

On April 28, 2004, McDermott again found himself at the center of controversy when he omitted the phrase "under God" while leading the House of Representatives in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Two years earlier, a decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was unconstitutional to have school children recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class because it included the words "under God." In response, the Republican-led House of Representatives had overwhelmingly approved two resolutions expressing outrage over Circuit Court ruling. McDermott's omission of the two words was seen as an escalation of the issue. 

The words "under God" had first been added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, during the height of the McCarthy era when Congress passed a bill that was signed into law. McDermott, who was a high school senior in 1954, maintained that his version of the Pledge was what he learned in school and was the one he accepted personally.

'A Much-Needed Voice'

On January 4, 2016, McDermott announced his retirement, stating that he would not be seeking another term. When interviewed by the local media he explained, "I've seen people leave Congress in handcuffs. I've seen them die. I've seen them defeated. And then there's a few who walk out. And I thought to myself, 'That option seems like a better option'" ("Political Pack Rat Boxes Up ...").

Upon hearing of McDermott's decision to retire, President Barack Obama praised McDermott saying that he'd been "a much-needed voice for the nation's most vulnerable." House minority leader and former speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded McDermott's accomplishments, stating, "Whether in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps during the Vietnam War, as a foreign service medical officer, or as a champion of single-payer healthcare, Jim made it his life's work to ensure quality healthcare is available to every American, not just the privileged few." In his farewell speech, McDermott told his colleagues they'll face "a dark and difficult road," but he urged them to confront a "menacing wave of nativism, misogyny and racism that is raging in our country." 

Drawing on his 46-year political career, McDermott spent part of his post-retirement life teaching a foreign policy course at the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies. The school was always in McDermott's district, and teaching there seemed fitting. He and Virginia divorced in 1989, and a second marriage, to Therese Hansen, ended in 2011. McDermott enjoys working on Japanese ink wash paintings in his spare time, in a style known as Sumi-e. He also enjoys traveling; he purchased a rural house in the Bordeaux region of France, where he spends part of his time writing a book that he explains will serve as a manual for aspiring politicians to "better understand the system" (Holden interview). 

McDermott navigated "the system" for 46 years with an autodidactic approach to understanding the world, combined with political idealogies picked up from the New Deal Democrats he admired. While he suffered his share of defeats, he also helped to define Seattle's political identity for decades. Part of his worldview is explained with a quote from the character Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It is a quote McDermott used in his retirement speech, and which he still references today

"It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule" (Tolkien, The Return of the King).


"Candidates File for State, County Posts," The Seattle Times, August 1, 1970, pg. 9; "Municipal League Considers Candidates," Ibid., August 30, 1970, pg. 86; Richard W. Larsen, "Labor Endorses Republican, 19 Democrats," Ibid., October 6, 1970, pg. 5; Richard W. Larson, "McDermott Enters Governor Race," Ibid., March 21, 1972, pg. 25; Richard W. Larson, "Peculiar New Political Winds Leave Evans Camp Uneasy," Ibid., September 24, 1972, pg. 10; "Candidates Start Filing," Ibid., July 30, 1974, pg. 30; Richard W. Larson, "Spellman, In Late Surge, Wins Governorship," Ibid., November 5, 1980, pg. 25; Richard W. Larson, "All That Conventional Political 'Wisdom,'" Ibid., December 28, 1980, pg. A19; "What Makes Politics Downright Delicious," Ibid., May 31, 1984, pg. 13; Dean Katz, "Gardner Maintains Lead in Fund-Raising, Ibid., August 28, 1984, pg. 1; "Q&A: Spellman, Gardner, McDermott," Ibid., September 9, 1984, pg. 20; Doug Underwood, "Steamrolled Liberals Seeks Solace in Reagan Era," Ibid., January 20, 1985, pg. B1; Eric Pryne, "Out Of Africa, McDermott Hits the Ground Running," Ibid., March 30, 1988, pg. C1; Susan Gilmore, "McDermott is Raising Money Fastest -- Finances Disclosed for 7th District Race," Ibid., July 19, 1988, pg. B1; David Schaefer, "McDermott Plans Health Care Bill," Ibid., August 13, 1988, pg. A11; Susan Gilmore, "McDermott's Taking No Chances in 7th," Ibid., November 2nd, 1988, pg. H1; David Schaefer, "McDermott Seeking U.S. Aid to Fight AIDS in Africa," Ibid., August 28, 1990, pg. E2; Dick Lilly, "Watershed's End Run Worked," Ibid., August 25, 1993, pg. B2; Danny Westneat, "Civil Suit Against McDermott Over Leaked Tape Gears Up -- Rep. Boehner Says His Privacy Was Violated," Ibid., May 19, 1998, pg. A10; James V. Grimaldi, "McDermott May Have to Break Silence -- Judge's Ruling Could End Mystery of Leaked Tape," Ibid., July 18, 1998, pg. A1; Erik Lacitis, "Let Hawks Screech; Many Back McDermott," Ibid., October 3, 2002, pg. C1; David Postman, "McDermott Accuses Bush of Plotting to Become Emperor -- Back Home, He Renews His Attack on War Plans," Ibid., October 7, 2002, pg. B1; Jim Brunner and Alex Fryer, "McDermott Leads Pledge in House, Omits 'Under God' -- Gap in Recitation Raises Republican Heckles," Ibid., April 29, 2004, pg. A1; Matthew Daly, "Taped-Call Case Ends With Payment," Ibid., April 29, 2008, pg. B2; Emily Heffter, "McDermott Again Appears Untouchable," Ibid., August 14, 2008, pg. B10; Lance Dickie, "The GOP is on the Wrong Side of the Nation's Health-Care Debate," Ibid., November 13, 2009, p. A14; Danny Westneat, "Liberal Lion Worked Across The Aisle," Ibid., January 6, 2016, pg. B3; Nicole Brodeur, "Political Pack Rat Boxes Up The Memories," Ibid., December 6, 2016, pg. B1; Lisette Alvarez, "Congressman Sues a Colleague Over Disclosing G.O.P. Talks," The New York Times, January 15, 1997, pg. 2; Jerry Gray, 'Florida Couple Are Charged in Taping of Gingrich Call," Ibid., April 24, 1997, pg. 5; Edwin Chen, "McDermott Will Quit Panel Over Speaker Flap," Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1997, pg. 5; Charles Pope, "McDermott Defends His Patriotism," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 2, 2002, pg. 4; Mike Romano, "The Unbearable Lightness of Jim McDermott," Seattle Weekly, October 9, 2006; Various facts from (, (, (, (; Brad Holden Interviews with Jim McDermott; various one-on-one talks at McDermott's residence between December 14, 2019 and January 18, 2020.

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