Graham, Robert W. (1915-1990)

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 4/19/2006
  • Essay 7584
A lawyer noted primarily for his antitrust work, Robert W. Graham lent his talents to a variety of issues in and around Seattle, usually on matters pertaining to health care, education, and the arts. Powerful connections put him on the international stage late in his career, first as a political appointee of President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) and later as an arms negotiator during the Reagan administration. For his record of service at home and abroad, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Robert Graham First Citizen of 1986.

A Home-Grown Talent

Robert W. Graham was born in Payette, Idaho, on April 17, 1915.  The son of native Northwesterners (his mother and father were born in Tacoma and Port Angeles, respectively), Graham spent his early years in Ontario, Oregon, where he graduated high school in 1932.

In 1933 he enrolled in Whitman College in Walla Walla, where he was quickly recognized as a bright and popular student.  Graham was elected class vice-president during his junior year, and later was elected student body president of Whitman during the 1935-1936 academic year.  On top of this, Graham graduated magna cum laude and was named valedictorian of the graduating class. 

But where Robert W. Graham really made his mark at Whitman was in athletics, where he was a three-time letterman in track and field, specializing in short-distance sprinting.  In the mid-1930s he was the co-holder of the national Junior Athletic Union 200 meter record, and once broke the tape in the 100-yard dash at 9.6 -- a Whitman school record that was still standing half a century later. 

So talented was Graham that he was invited to compete for a spot on the 1936 Olympic team, which would head to Berlin later that year.  Unfortunately, Graham suffered a leg injury in the 200-meter finals and missed his chance to make the team.  That particular race was won by a young man named Jessie Owens (1913-1980), who would famously strike a blow to Adolph Hitler’s notions of Aryan supremacy with his performance at the 1936 Olympic games.  Many years later, when Graham was asked what it was like to compete against the great sprinter at the trials, he noted that Owens was "one of the most beautiful runners in the world ... from behind" (“Graham to Run Levy Campaign”).

Down, But Not Out

A leg injury may have kept him out of the Olympics, but it seemed that little else could slow Robert W. Graham.  Following his graduation from Whitman, the young man chose to study law at Columbia University, where he continued his academic success.  Although he began clerking in a New York firm in 1938, upon his graduation the following year Graham returned to the Northwest, settling on Seattle and an associate position with the local firm of Bogle, Bogle & Gates.

Shortly after Robert W. Graham’s arrival in Seattle, the personable young lawyer met Margaret Jane Trzcinski of Montana, at the time employed at the Seattle office of the FBI.  The two married in 1940.

A Legal Career on the Rise

Despite a new wife and, soon, a growing family, Graham set to work in the field of antitrust law.  In addition to client work, he was a frequent contributor to legal periodicals and a lecturer at the University of Washington School of Law.  Graham also served on committees for the local, state, and national bar associations, in addition to volunteerism throughout the community.

As a result of Robert W. Graham’s civic and professional success, he was named a partner at Bogle, Bogle & Gates in 1950.  He would go on to represent several large Northwest companies over the course of his career, including 20-plus years as legal counsel for the Port of Seattle.  He was also active on a variety of issues vital to the Northwest, including shipping, transportation, and fishing, and served on the finance committees of the King County and Washington State Republican parties.  (Graham later filled a similar position with the Republican National Committee.)

Over the years Graham built a solid foundation in local politics, but took that to a national level when, in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the National Administrative Conference, charged with reviewing the state of federal bureaucracies.  Later, in 1970, Graham was named to a U.S. State Department task force charged with reviewing embassy operations in the Far East (including Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines).  He also served as a member of the Regional Export Committee at the Department of Commerce.  Graham’s growing presence on the national scene did not see him abandoning local issues, however -- in 1977 he was tapped to run a special levy campaign for the Seattle School District.

A New Beginning

After a long and distinguished legal career, Robert W. Graham retired from the firm of Bogle & Gates in 1985.  Even so, an important new phase of his career was just beginning.  Shortly after leaving the firm, Graham was named by Caspar Weinberger (b. 1917), Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), to serve as his personal representative in the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction talks in Vienna.  The talks, which featured 19 NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, had been ongoing for 12 years, and sought to reduce the number of troops and conventional weapons maintained by the Soviet Union and the United States in Europe.  Although he had narrowly missed the 1936 Olympics, Robert W. Graham still found a way to represent the United States overseas.

Ironically, Graham had never heard of the talks before he was appointed to head the U.S. delegation in Vienna, nor did he have any experience in arms negotiations (" '1st Citizen' Would Rather Negotiate Than Shoot").  He was, however, a good friend of Secretary Weinberger.  Graham first met Weinberger in the early 1970s, when the Secretary was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.  Later the two worked together for Bechtel Corp. -- Weinberger as general counsel of the corporation and Graham as their legal representative in Washington and Alaska.

Although not an experienced arms negotiator, Graham gave Weinberger a three-year commitment and threw himself into the task.  There was much to learn, but, on the other hand, the talks hadn’t made much headway during the 12 years they had been held; Graham once described them as “tedious and at times a frustrating” (“Robert Graham Wins `First Citizen’ Award”).

Although he spent his first few months on a very steep learning curve, Graham quickly learned the three basic stumbling blocks that had kept the Vienna talks dragging along.  The first was geographical.  Americans argued that a “withdrawal” on their part required them to move troops and equipment back across the Atlantic, while the Soviets only had to cross a border or two.  It was the U.S. position, therefore, that they not be required to remove as many troops as the Soviets, allowing them to respond effectively to a future international crisis.  (The Soviet Union, of course, argued for man-for-man reductions.)  The second issue had to do with numbers -- American intelligence showed that the Soviets routinely under-reported their troop numbers.  Finally, there was the issue of how to verify the cuts, since neither side wanted other assessing their troop strength and capabilities (“`1st Citizen’ Would Rather Negotiate Than Shoot”).

These were considerable hurdles, and it was clear to all involved that any significant agreement would have to come from the respective governments, not the arms negotiators in Vienna.  As an East German diplomat once told Graham, "Bob, nothing’s going to happen down here until the big boys upstairs tell us what to do" (" '1st Citizen' Would Rather Negotiate Than Shoot").  It was a backwards situation in which success was measured in inches, with few at the negotiating table motivated to accomplish much of anything.  It wasn’t lost on many that the talks were held on the second floor of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, just above the stables where the famed Lipizzaner stallions were quartered.  One wondered "which ends of the horses [were] where," as Graham once remarked of the situation (" '1st Citizen' Would Rather Negotiate Than Shoot").

A Record of Achievement

After a lifetime of service in and around Seattle and a new role in international relations, Robert W. Graham was a natural choice as the Seattle-King County Board of Realtors’ “First Citizen” for 1986.  Although the award was announced in June of that year, the actual ceremony was held later in the fall, when Graham was scheduled to be back in Seattle.  He was the organization’s 48th annual recipient. 

But when the celebration took place on October 23, 1986, at Seattle’s Westin Hotel, Robert Graham was still in Austria.  Nonetheless, a distinguished group of community leaders gathered to celebrate his spirit of service, particularly in the areas of health care, education, arts, and culture.  This included stints as president of Seattle Rotary (and later a district governorship in Rotary International), board of directors of the Seattle YMCA, co-founder of the World Affairs Council of Seattle, president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Northwest Regional Chairman of the American Cancer Society, and chairman of the board of trustees of Whitman College.  In addition, Graham directed or served on the boards of United Good Neighbors, the Seattle Symphony, Swedish Hospital, Seattle/King County Safety Council, the Municipal League, and the Downtown Seattle Development Association. 

Speakers at the First Citizen gathering included Edward Carlsen, chairman emeritus of United Airlines & Westin Hotels and Dr. Robert Skotheim, president of Whitman College.  Congratulatory telegrams from Defense Secretary Weinberger and President Ronald Reagan were read at the gathering.

Although Washington Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) declared October 23rd Robert W. Graham Appreciation Day, it was not the first time that Graham had been recognized as a “first citizen.”  As a 29-year-old attorney the Seattle Junior and Senior Chambers of Commerce selected him as “Seattle’s Young Man of the Year” for 1944.  More honors were to follow -- in 1953 he was singled out by Time magazine as a “Newsmaker of Tomorrow,” and shortly before being named for the Realtor honor Graham won the National Jewish Fund Distinguished Service Award.

Duty to the End

Robert W. Graham continued to lead the arms negotiations in Vienna until late 1989, when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  He resigned his post and returned to Seattle for treatment, but died on January 5, 1990, at the age of 74.  Memorial services were held a week later, on January 12th, at University Congregational Church.  Graham was survived by wife of 49 years, Margaret, and his children Robert Jr., Douglas, Malcolm, Laura, and Priscilla.

Sources: Edgar Stewart, Washington: Northwest Frontier Vol. 4 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1957), pp. 681-683; C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest, 1843-1955 (Palo Alto, CA: C. W. Taylor Jr., 1954), p. 265; “Graham Chosen ‘Man of Year,’” The Seattle Times, February 23, 1945, p. 13; “Graham to Run Levy Campaign,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 1976, p. A-9; “Local Lawyer to Join Arms Talks,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 7, 1985, p. A-12; “Lawyer Given Role in Arms Negotiations,” The Seattle Times, December 7, 1985, p. A-20; George Foster, “Robert Graham Stands on the Front Line,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 2, 1986, p. F-4; “Attorney Graham Named First Citizen of 1986,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 19, 1986, p. A-13; “Realtors Name NATO Negotiator ‘First Citizen,’” Seattle Times, June 22, 1986, Page E4; Bill Dietrich, “‘1st Citizen’ Would Rather Negotiate Than Shoot,” The Seattle Times, August 7, 1986, pp. C-1, C-3; “First Citizen Banquet Slated Thursday,” Ibid., October 19, 1986, p. E-4; Darrell Glover, “Robert Graham Wins ‘First Citizen’ Award,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 24, 1986, p. A-8; “Robert Graham, National Leader, Dies at 74,” Ibid., January 6, 1990, pp. A-1, A-6; “Memorial Set for Civic Leader Robert Graham,” The Seattle Times, January 7, 1990, p. B-5.

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