Magnuson, Warren G. (1905-1989)

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/14/2003
  • Essay 5569

Warren G. Magnuson ("Maggie" to constituents, Warren to family and friends) represented Washington in the United States Senate longer than anyone else and used his seniority and persuasive skills to enact legislation that profoundly affected many aspects of American life. Adopted at birth, Magnuson grew up in the Midwest and moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. After serving in the state legislature, as King County Prosecutor, and in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected to the Senate in 1944, serving six terms (36 years) before his 1980 defeat. Magnuson led the way for major increases in federal funding for health care and research. Before Ralph Nader was a national figure, Magnuson initiated the public interest revolution in Congress with ground-breaking consumer protection legislation. His love for the marine environment of his adopted state led to landmark bills protecting marine mammals, conserving American fisheries, and making Puget Sound off-limits to supertankers. Magnuson and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) served together in the Senate from 1952 until 1980, using their legislative skill and seniority to win Washington an unprecedented share of federal funds. Magnuson secured appropriations to build dams and highways that changed the face of the state, launch two World's Fairs, preserve Pike Place Market, replace the West Seattle Bridge, and provide disaster relief after Mount St. Helens erupted.

Midwest Boyhood

Warren Grant Magnuson was born in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he grew up as the adopted son of William and Emma Magnuson. Magnuson's birth date is given as April 12, 1905, but the actual records of his birth are sealed. He apparently never knew his birth parents, and many accounts state that they died within a month of his birth. However, several people close to Magnuson told his biographer that Warren's natural mother was a North Dakota farm girl working as a waitress who was a friend of Emma Magnuson. The Magnusons, who in addition to Warren adopted a girl named Clara, ran a bar in Moorhead. Warren had a distant relationship with William, who left the family when Warren was a teenager. But he adored his adoptive mother Emma, whom he supported and moved to Bainbridge Island to live near him.

Handsome and likeable, Warren was popular with classmates at Moorhead High School, where he had many girlfriends -- a pattern that continued much of his life. The nickname "Maggie," by which Magnuson became known to generations of Washington politicians and voters, was first used when he quarterbacked the Moorhead football team. Although recognizing it as a badge of popularity, Magnuson never particularly liked the nickname. His family and close friends called him Warren.

During high school, Magnuson delivered newspapers and telegrams in Moorhead and in neighboring Fargo, North Dakota, where he met banker Alex Stern and his family. Alex's son Bill, 15 years older than Magnuson, became a lifelong friend. The connection provided Magnuson's introduction into the worlds of business and politics. Although Bill Stern was a prominent North Dakota Republican leader, he supported Magnuson's decision to enter politics in Washington as a Democrat. Stern helped pay Magnuson's way when he attended college in North Dakota, and aided his move to Seattle.

Move to Seattle

Why Magnuson left the Midwest for Washington is unknown, although romance played a role, as he followed a high school sweetheart. Magnuson enrolled at the University of Washington on October 2, 1925. He completed his undergraduate degree the following year and entered the UW School of Law. While in school, Magnuson worked delivering ice as a member of the Teamsters Union organized by legendary labor leader Dave Beck. Magnuson's Teamster connection proved advantageous in Democratic Party politics, and Magnuson and Beck became close allies.

Magnuson began his political career under the guidance of Scott Bullitt, a Democratic leader who ran for governor in 1928. (Bullitt was the husband of Dorothy Bullitt, who after his untimely death in 1932 founded and ran King Broadcasting Company.) Magnuson campaigned across the state for Bullitt and for presidential candidate Al Smith, both of whom lost. Also in 1928 Magnuson married for the first time, wedding Peggins Maddieux, the "Miss Seattle" of 1927. Magnuson was not ready for monogamy and the couple soon separated, divorcing in 1935.

State Legislator, County Prosecutor

After graduating from law school in 1929, Magnuson landed a job as the secretary (director) of the Seattle Municipal League, which enabled him to establish close relationships with Seattle business and civic leaders, many of them Republicans. He first ran for office in 1932, winning a state House of Representatives seat from Seattle. Magnuson joined a tide of fellow Democrats in Olympia as the party reversed the long-standing Republican dominance in state offices.

Magnuson formed close alliances with other emerging Democratic leaders, especially newly elected Senator Homer T. Bone (1883-1970) and his campaign manager Saul Haas (1896-1972). Following Scott Bullitt's death, Bone and Haas became the most important influences in Magnuson's early career. Bone was a pragmatic populist known as the "father of public power," a cause that Magnuson also embraced. Haas, a newspaperman and political activist, played an important role in Magnuson's early campaigns and became a good friend. With Magnuson as an investor, Haas founded KIRO radio in 1935 and went on to a prominent career in radio and television.

In his single term in the state legislature, Magnuson demonstrated the legislative skill he later used in the U.S. Senate. He supervised passage of a bill creating a $10 million bond issue to hire unemployed workers on public works projects -- one of the nation's first unemployment relief acts.

An unapologetic "wet" like his mentor Scott Bullitt, he was also a leader in the 1932 repeal of state laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Washington had adopted Prohibition in 1914, five years before the nation went dry with passage of the Volstead Act and ratification of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Magnuson was elected as a delegate to the 1933 state constitutional convention that approved the 21st Amendment and voided the Volstead act, and he supported legislation to establish the public alcohol monopoly of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

As throughout his career, Magnuson was careful not to neglect the interests of his businessmen friends. He got the legislature to pass a bill that authorized pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, paving the way for his good friends Joe Gottstein and Bill Edris to establish Longacres Race Track. Magnuson also participated in the establishment of a major national corporation, serving as a lawyer and lobbyist for Northwest Airlines, which Bill Stern and another Fargo businessman, Croil Hunter, were organizing.

From the Legislature, Magnuson moved on to become King County Prosecutor, winning a post that had long been held by Republicans, with the support of his Seattle business contacts including prominent Republicans. He served only two years, 1934-1936, before another opportunity arose.

On to Congress

Marion Zioncheck (1901-1936), a law school colleague of Magnuson's who had held Washington's First District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1932, was showing signs of serious mental instability. With Zioncheck vacillating on whether to run again, Magnuson entered the race. Two days later Zioncheck announced he would not seek re-election; within the week he committed suicide by jumping from his office window. Magnuson likely felt some guilt; he delivered an emotional speech in his friend's memory. With strong union backing, Magnuson won the endorsement of the Washington Commonwealth Federation (WCF), a left-wing alliance of liberal Democrats and organized labor that included many Communist Party members. At the other end of the political spectrum, his campaign was aided by much of Seattle's conservative business establishment. Supported by left and right, Magnuson easily won the Democratic primary and the general election.

Magnuson won assignment to the Naval Affairs Committee, where he secured millions of dollars in appropriations for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, at the time the state's largest employer. Magnuson served eight years in the House, easily winning reelection in 1938, 1940, and 1942. In that time, he sponsored bills that created the National Cancer Institute and the Alaska International Highway Commission. During World War II, Magnuson served for several months on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, seeing heavy combat in the Pacific until President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1881-1945) ordered congressmen to return from active duty.

While serving in the House, and for much of his subsequent Senate career, Magnuson combined hard work and legislative accomplishment with a flamboyant bachelor (some said playboy) lifestyle. He was known for his hard drinking, which rarely seemed to affect him. He frequented racetracks and poker games. He lived in first-class hotels, the Olympic in Seattle and the Shoreham in Washington, D.C., and spent time in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York City. And he enjoyed the company of many women. He had a serious 15-year, although non-exclusive, relationship with nightclub singer and B-movie actress Carol Parker, and was linked romantically, and in newspaper gossip columns, with various other Hollywood starlets. It was not until the late 1950s that he began to settle down with a single companion. Magnuson met Seattle native Jermaine Peralta (1923-2011), a widow with a young daughter, at the Olympic Hotel, where she worked in a jewelry store. They soon became constant companions and married in 1964.

Senator Magnuson

By 1944, Representative Magnuson was one of the leading Democratic politicians in Washington state. When Roosevelt appointed Magnuson's mentor Senator Homer Bone to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Magnuson ran for the open Senate seat. He defeated Republican Harry P. Cain (1906-1979), who won the Republican nomination while on active duty as a paratrooper in Europe. Cain originally entered politics as the liberal Democratic mayor of Tacoma. He enlisted when the U.S. entered the war and remained on duty while running against Magnuson. Bone waited until Magnuson won the election, then resigned his seat before his term ended so that Magnuson could be appointed ahead of other newly elected senators and gain crucial seniority.

In his 36 years in the Senate, Magnuson achieved a record of legislative accomplishment matched by few who served in that body. He did so while rarely drawing attention to himself. Although a fixture in Washington state politics, he was never a household name nationally. Unlike Senators who sought national headlines and higher office, Magnuson's greatest ambition was to be a power in the Senate. He succeeded in part because his long tenure came during an era when seniority and chairing committees carried enormous power. Magnuson chaired the Commerce Committee for many years, and was a key member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, which he eventually chaired.

It was Magnuson's personality, however, that was key to his remarkable ability to move legislation smoothly through the often-contentious Senate. Unlike many politicians, he lived by the rule "Never hold a grudge" (Scates, 6) -- today's opponent could be a needed vote tomorrow. His Senate colleague Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) said in 1971, "Maggie is the most loved man in the Senate" (Scates, 217). Magnuson sought results, not attention; he was, in terms that were often attributed but probably not original to him, a Senate "work horse," not a "show horse." He explained his success by saying, "If you want to get something done, give someone else the credit" (Memorial Services, 3).

Magnuson's power in Washington, D.C., was enhanced by his close friendships with many of the eight presidents he served under. He regularly played poker with Roosevelt and his successor, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). The night before John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was inaugurated, Magnuson was the only guest of the newly elected president and his family -- neither man revealed what they discussed. Magnuson was closest to Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). They were friends and allies from the time they served together on the House Naval Affairs Committee. Even after Johnson became president, Magnuson addressed him as "Lyndon," and Johnson took time from his presidential duties to be Magnuson's best man at his 1964 wedding.

With his Senate legislation, Magnuson changed the face of Washington state. Even before entering Congress, he supported construction of dams on the Columbia River to provide both public hydroelectric power and water to irrigate the fertile but arid Columbia Basin. By 1954, thanks in large part to Magnuson's work in the Senate, there were eight federally subsidized dams on the Columbia. Magnuson was instrumental in having the route of Interstate-82 shifted closer to the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, in getting interstate highway spurs built to the Tri-cities and to downtown Tacoma, and in obtaining federal highway funds for roads serving the submarine base that Henry Jackson convinced the Pentagon to locate at Bangor on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Washington's One-Two Punch: Maggie and Scoop

Magnuson and Jackson, who served together for 28 years from Jackson's election in 1952 to Magnuson's defeat in 1980, gave their state one of the most powerful Senate duos in history. Significant differences in personality and interests precluded a close friendship, but the colleagues shared a dedication to serving their constituents. "Scoop and Maggie," as they were known, brought a steady stream of contracts for leading state employers, especially Boeing. While Jackson was labeled, often derisively, the "Senator from Boeing," Magnuson also played a key role on the aircraft maker's behalf. Ironically, one of Scoop and Maggie's highest profile battles for Boeing ended in one of their few major defeats, when the Senate in 1971 narrowly defeated funding for the controversial supersonic transport (SST).

In the 1970s, when Magnuson was at the height of his influence on the Appropriations Committee, Vice President Walter Mondale (b. 1928) said:

"He is scrupulously fair with federal funds; one half for Washington state, one half for the rest of the country" (Scates, 324).

An exaggeration, but while Magnuson and Jackson were in office, Washington consistently got more than its share of federal funds. For years the University of Washington was one of the top recipients of federal research grants. Magnuson secured federal funds for two World's Fairs in Washington -- 1962 in Seattle and 1974 in Spokane. And he arranged for generous matching funds for Seattle's proposed Forward Thrust rail transit systems (although local bonds failed at the polls in 1968 and 1970), and for Metro Transit after its creation in 1972.

When Victor Steinbrueck won passage of the 1971 initiative preserving Seattle's Pike Place Market, Magnuson, who enjoyed the Market's eclectic mix of vendors and humanity, was able to direct some $20 million in Housing and Urban Development appropriations to renovating Market facilities. The 1978 accident in which a freighter rammed the West Seattle Bridge provided him an opportunity to fund a new bridge, which city officials had long wanted, from the federal bridge replacement fund. In his last year in office, Magnuson garnered nearly $1 billion in emergency disaster relief following the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Funding Health Care and Research

Magnuson's efforts were not limited to Washington state -- they affected the lives of all Americans. Following the National Cancer Institute bill he introduced in the House, Magnuson in 1948 sponsored Senate legislation creating a National Health Institute. This formed the core of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), now the world's largest medical research facilities, due in large part to the millions in federal appropriations Magnuson sponsored. At the urging of physician William Hutchinson, he launched "the war on cancer" in the mid-1960s and secured funding to establish the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, named for William's brother, a popular Seattle Rainiers baseball star who died of cancer in 1964.

Among other significant health care legislation Magnuson sponsored was the 1970 bill creating the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which provided funds for doctors to serve communities lacking medical care. Enactment of the NHSC bill is the subject of The Dance of Legislation, a revealing inside account by Eric Redman, who worked on the bill as a young Magnuson staffer.

Protecting Consumers

Along with health care, Magnuson is identified with consumer protection, a cause he embraced following his near-defeat in the 1962 election. Magnuson won his first re-election campaign in 1950 and in 1956 he crushed Governor Arthur Langlie, who denounced Magnuson's lifestyle. However, in 1962, without Irv Hoff, the politically astute aide who had masterminded the 1956 campaign, Magnuson barely outpolled Republican Dick Christensen, a right-wing minister and political newcomer.

The close call shook Magnuson; it also inspired his young staffer Gerald "Jerry" Grinstein to come up with an idea to revitalize Magnuson's image: legislation to protect consumers. At the time, Ralph Nader, who would soon become the leading consumer advocate, had not appeared on the national stage, and consumer protection barely registered as a political issue. According to Magnuson's biographer, Grinstein's idea came from a New Yorker article. Magnuson readily adopted the idea. He recruited a new generation of energetic young staffers to develop legislation, many of whom went on to prominent political careers of their own, including Congressman Norm Dicks and King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng (1938-2007). The lead role on consumer protection went to Mike Pertschuk, Grinstein's Yale classmate, who became chief counsel to the Commerce Committee. Pertschuk established an alliance between Magnuson and Nader and his crusading Nader's Raiders, who were actively exposing corporate abuses.

With the support of his staff and Nader's volunteers, along with Senate allies like Phil Hart and Frank Moss as well as Jackson, Magnuson and the Commerce Committee produced a dramatic tide of consumer protection and public interest legislation that included the Safe Drinking Water Act, Fair Credit Advertising Act, Door to Door Sales Act, and laws that required warnings on cigarettes, regulated automobile safety, required manufacturers to live up to the promises in their warranties, and set standards for children's toys. The Flammable Fabrics Act, conceived and promoted by Magnuson's Seattle constituent and unofficial health care adviser Dr. Abe Bergman, then director of outpatient services at Children's Hospital (who also conceived the NHSC), protected children by requiring that sleepwear be flame resistant. Most far-reaching and controversial of the bills that Magnuson guided through the Commerce Committee was Senator Hart's Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which originated the requirement that all food products be accurately labeled with their ingredients and quantity.

Opening China

The focus on consumer protection did not reduce Magnuson's efforts in other areas. He shepherded through a deeply divided Congress the most controversial section of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- Title II, which outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants, transportation facilities, and theaters. Magnuson played a major role in passage of many other laws, including those that established public television, gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, created Amtrak, and reorganized the Northwest's electric power structure.

Magnuson was particularly sensitive to the social and economic dimensions of the Pacific Rim, especially as they affected his home state. After years of effort, Magnuson was able in 1965 to eliminate the "Chinese exclusion" provisions of U.S. immigration laws that dated back to the anti-Chinese agitation in the 1880s. He was also the leading, and at times almost the only, Congressional advocate of normalized relations and trade with the Communist government that gained control of China in 1949. Although "Red China" was suspect in the eyes of most politicians and citizens, Magnuson never wavered. He argued that hundreds of millions of people could not be written off simply because of their form of government, and that trade and contact, not isolation, was the best means to influence China. Magnuson's views were vindicated when Republican President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) resumed contact with China in the 1970s.

Protecting the Sound

Magnuson may have derived the most personal satisfaction from his work to protect the marine environment. According to one aide, the senator was a "romantic" about the water (Scates, 179). Of the many bills for which he was responsible, the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act is one of two (the other is the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act) that bears his name. The Magnuson Act, which increased the government's ability to manage and control fisheries by extending U.S. territorial waters to a 200-mile limit, helped save the American fishing industry. Magnuson also sponsored laws that imposed safety standards for oil tankers and established the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Two of Magnuson's best-known and most dramatic successes arose from his love of Puget Sound and its creatures. Like many Washingtonians, he was angered when entrepreneurs captured Puget Sound orcas for sale to aquariums. To protect the whales from what he called their "only real enemies -- men who attack them for profit" (Scates, 294), Magnuson and his staff drafted and got Congress to pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The Act played a central role in preserving local seal, sea lion, sea otter, and whale populations.

The MMPA also provided Magnuson with a vehicle for single-handedly making Puget Sound off-limits to supertankers. Oil companies proposed to build new ports on Puget Sound where supertankers could unload oil from Alaska into a planned pipeline to the Midwest. While some Washington politicians, notably Governor Dixy Lee Ray, enthusiastically backed the oil port plan, Magnuson warned of the environmental catastrophe that would result if a supertanker lost its cargo in Puget Sound. When the MMPA came up for reauthorization in 1977, he attached an amendment to it that prohibited construction of new oil ports in state waters east of Port Angeles, effectively banning supertankers from those waters. Governor Ray denounced the senator as a "dictator," but the press and many citizens credited him with saving the Sound.

Magnuson won reelection easily in 1968 and 1974, both times defeating Jack Metcalf (1927-2007), a state legislator who years later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. By 1980, however, the 75-year-old senator was showing the effects of his age and worsening diabetes. Although some current and former aides advised against another campaign, Magnuson loved his job and his wife Jermaine encouraged him to run. He faced a strong challenger in Slade Gorton, the popular state attorney general, who emphasized his relative youth and vigor in contrast to Magnuson. And 1980 was a disastrous year for Democrats across the country, as Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) won a landslide victory over deeply unpopular Jimmy Carter and Republicans took control of the Senate. Magnuson lost decisively.

Enduring Legacy

He did not look back. Unlike many former lawmakers, Magnuson did not hang on in Washington, D.C. Instead, after spending some time in their Palm Springs home, Warren and Jermaine Magnuson moved into a house on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill with sweeping water views. There Magnuson led a productive retirement. Although slowed by his diabetes, which led to amputation of his foot and its replacement with an artificial one, he served on a United Nations committee studying nuclear proliferation, recommended that the state legislature adopt a flat rate income tax to fund schools, and spoke at Henry Jackson's funeral in 1983. Shortly before his death, Magnuson dictated testimony supporting a bill introduced by Senator Brock Adams (1927-2004), prompted by the Exxon Valdez disaster, to require that oil tankers be built with double hulls. He died at home on May 20, 1989, at the age of 84.

More than 20 years after he left office and more than a decade after his death, Magnuson's legacy endures throughout Washington and across the country. Among many honors, his achievements are commemorated in Warren G. Magnuson Park, located along Lake Washington on former Sand Point Naval Air Station property that the senator acquired for Seattle, and in the Warren G. Magnuson Health Sciences Center at the University of Washington Medical Center that he did so much to fund. His influence is visible in projects ranging from the Columbia River dams to the restored Pike Place Market. Most of all, Magnuson's legacy lives on in the laws that continue to promote health care, prohibit discrimination, make products safer, protect the marine environment, and much more.


Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Scates, "Magnuson, U.S. Sen. Warren G., and Relations with the People's Republic of China," Washington Cyberpedia Library (; Memorial Services Held in the Congress of the United States, Together With Tributes Presented in Eulogy of Warren G. Magnuson, Late a Senator From Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990); Eric Redman, The Dance of Legislation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973); Robert G. Kaufman, Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 206-07; Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years, Prohibition & Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 236-237; Frank Chesley, "Saul Haas," HistoryLink Cyperpedia Library (
Note: This essay was updated on March 16, 2007, and again on May 25, 2007.

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